Politics in the 21st century and the art of doing nothing by talking a lot – from leadership to amateur theatre

With every minute politics get more and more theatrical: what started with huge election campaigns in the US some years back, has reached a stage in which political leaders around the world pose themselves like movie stars instead of focusing on urgent matters. Why is it that while political challenges constantly get bigger, politician seem to get dumber?

I guess I don’t have to explain what I mean with “getting more and more theatrical”. What I refer to has so many faces: the stupid election campaigns in the US, where two (or a few more) candidates tour the country like film stars in order to win supporters was only the beginning. The same thing can now be observed in many other countries. The whole discussion around the leadership in the ALP is another good example of how political leaders in this country here prefer to focus on themselves rather than on the political agenda and the many issues that would have to be addressed and solved. Many politicians are modern divas.

The whole thing gets a bit easier to digest, if one looks at the ones that follow this whole theatre: less and less people seem to have a deep understanding of politics as such. For them it’s easy to vote a “woman with red hair” that might represent progress and gender equity. For others it’s better to follow the one that lobbies with “stopping the boats” – a clear statement, who would want them anyway?
The truth, however, is that politics is more than just a show for some opinionated individuals that pretend to represent a highly diversified society based on a few bad-chosen paradigms.

This might be best explained when looking at the root of the word politics. “Politics” stems from the Greek word “polis”. On administrative level polis was the name for the Greek city-states that evolved around 800 BC. On political and intellectual level, polis stood for a system of political leadership made up by a few privileged, that were liberated from the burden of generating an existence and that, instead, were supported by society and given the privilege to think, talk and debate openly about issues of everyone’s concern. It is self-explaining that these people were the most remarkable and intelligent thinker the ancient Greeks could make out among themselves. They selected the ones they thought would likely be able to provide the best leadership and come up with the best solutions for their society and the cities they lived in.

That was more than two-thousand years ago. If we look at politics in the 21st century and ask ourselves what makes a politician today, then the answer is slightly different. Today, a politician must first of all fit into a well-defined scheme that is driven by visual appearance rather than by intellectual capacity (Hollywood made the first step, now everyone has to follow. What is not hip, doesn’t count). Second, politicians usually need a big group of supporters – a reason why entrepreneurs, directors of big companies and financial heavyweights have it significantly easier to be elected. Another helpful characteristic is loudly talking around hot topics and saying what the majority likes (e.g. “I stand for tax reduction, better health and age care…”).

Another feature that is quite different compared to the Greek polis are the issues politicians have to deal with nowadays. They are comparatively more complex than those two-thousand years ago. For example, while it is already difficult for climate experts to estimate the exact consequences of climate change , it gets extremely tricky to judge what consequences for the local labour market a certain climate change adaptation plan will have. The same might be true for a subsidy on fruits with the aim to reduce health costs, or some economic experiments to boost a suffering world economy.

Considering the complexity of such political decisions, wouldn’t it be logical, that similar to the ancient Greeks we only chose the best among us – those we believe might most likely be able to deal with the duties assigned and come up with good solutions to all the challenges confronted with?
To be a bit more bold: since hair color doesn’t really help, wouldn’t it make sense (or even be elemental) that political leaders need to prove their abilities before entering the political arena?

To me it seems strange that we all need to make tests and get a licence to drive a car, when at the same time no requirement is necessary to govern a country. We chose our leaders according to skin colour, hair colour, gender, age, religious and ethnic background etc., but never ask for proof of their abilities. We trust their words and the more they talk the more we believe.
Particularly the religious aspect deserves some additional thoughts: isn’t it a contradiction that while most modern states pretend to be secular, a big number of political parties still have a clear religious identity? Isn’t it scary when a political party is influenced by ideals that come out of books that were written thousands of years ago in a time and place that had absolutely nothing in common with our today’s lives?

An answer to the political dilemma is found in what Hannah Arendt, a remarkable political theorist, described as “thinking without a banister”. Once we free ourselves from our socio-cultural, ethnic and religious background, once we think freely and without bias, we will be able to see clear and to vote for the best option. It is then that we will find a leadership that seeks to find the best outcome for society instead of posing for their personal supporters.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Politics in the 21st century and the art of doing nothing by talking a lot – from leadership to amateur theatre

  1. Patrick S says:

    This is an interesting post, but a few counter-points if I may:
    1) Radical-Democratic Athenian vs Plato’s Republic
    Your sketch of classical Athenian political culture sounds a lot like the ideal Plato put forward in his book The Republic – but in fact, Athens at least had a more radically-democratic system than us today, that included things like direct votes on legislation by all the citizenry (admittedly this excluded slaves, women, migrants, …), and rotating selection by lot for a lot of key administrative posts.

    Indeed, today a lot of people keen on participatory & deliberative democracy argue that opening up / requiring everyday citizens to take on more democratic responsibility, not less, would be good for our society as a whole. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_budgeting for example. Or in the words of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willy_Brandt, we need to “dare more democracy” 😉

    Of course, for this to happen we almost certainly need a more equitable spread of income, work time, and education resources so more citizens have the time to properly engage on issues …

    2) Re the idea of Theatre being bad for democracy: I recently read the memoirs of the first post-communist president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who became president by virtue of playing a leading role in the anti-totalitarian struggle for liberation – and was a former playwright.

    And in the book he said he actually had regard for the importance of ‘politics as theatre’, at least in terms of symbols and rituals and the role of the president :- to build up, as he saw it, a sense of people engaging with the ideal of democracy, in a formerly totalitarian/technocratic state.

    I know what you mean in your post, that if politics is all playing to media soundbites and no substance, then this is bad. I’ve heard the argument for example, and I think there’s something to it, that Gillard was just unfortunately ‘worse on TV’ compared to Rudd, even if in person and behind the scenes she was an effective negotiator and PM. Maybe she should have taken elocution lessons like Maggie Thatcher apparently did to sound better on radio and TV 😉

    • blaubear says:

      Thanks a lot for all this informative comments, Patrick!!!

      • Patrick S says:

        No worries Urs.

        I think you’re really onto something with this ‘Politics as Theatre’ analogy actually. The questions is, what type of Theatre?

        IE to me it seems the best theatre, including some of the classical greek tragedies etc, tries to get us to reflect on what being human is all about, both our strengths and our weaknesses, and our roles/responsibilities in society. But it presents this in an engaging way that maybe more people can connect to than long philosophical treatises 😉

        On the other hand, I’d agree Rudd’s type of “Political Theatre” since resuming leadership often plays to our baser instincts and wants to reduce complex issues like global asylum seeker problems with some simplistic melodrama of “us & them”.

        BTW, I came across the ideas about Athenian Democracy in my post when in the first year of my PhD, my supervisor got me to read David Held’s book “Models of Democracy”. Its an academic book written for when he used to teach a course in political science at the Open University UK – but is also quite clearly written and accessible and worth the time investment to read. http://www.polity.co.uk/modelsofdemocracy/

  2. Pingback: Tony Abbott and the truth | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  3. Pingback: Checkmate. Australia after the elections | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s