Berlusconi, Rick Perry and the end of the Post-Political Politician
Silvio Berlusconi has gone. Rick Perry appears to be out of the running for the Republican nomination for president. And with them we may be seeing the end of the ‘ordinary guy’ politician. For much of the long boom from the mid-90s onwards the politicians that succeeded most were those who were least constrained by any of the traditional characteristics of a politician. Blair, George W. Bush and Berlusconi succeeded not because of their ability to make decisions, but because they were ‘every-man politicians’.
The 2004 US Presidential election marked the high-point for post-political politicians. George W. Bush had presided over the most significant attack on American soil since the Declaration of Independence. He had taken the US into an illegal war in Iraq, and was presiding over a failing economy. But yet he won an election against a genuine, bona fide, war hero by playing on his ‘toughness’.
In an age where ideology was in what seemed like terminal decline politicians were seen as surplus to requirements. In their view the free market alone could deliver a better world – politicians could at best stop government interfering with the justice of the market. Politics was there to entertain, to make us feel good about ourselves, not to create a better world.
But now that the seeds of destruction that the free market contained within it have sprouted we are being urged to put ‘technocratic’ politicians in place. If our decade most resembles the 1930s, then the ‘technocratic’ politician most closely resembles the military leaders that were brought in to sort out failing European economies 80 years ago. There’s a certain irony that those ‘technocrats’ are often ‘technocratically’ qualified in the banking system that has caused the massive crisis that we’re in. But then it was military men that had sowed the seeds of many of the crises of the 1930s.
The post-political politicians were not free of ideology. They were all neo-liberal (or neo-conservative) fundamentalists. This was rarely declared. Unlike cold-war politicians like Thatcher they hid their politics behind ‘common sense’ or ‘reform’. They licked up and kicked down, supporting the powerful and eroding the position of the poorest. They functioned by perpetuating hegemony. At the heart of the everyman approach was the mobilisation of common sense to justify highly ideological decisions. George W. Bush could push through the massive tax cuts for the fabulously wealthy by characterising the decision as one a normal person would make. In fact it was a heavily ideological decision.
The end of Berlusconi shows the terminal decline of the post-political politician. Protecting the interests of the rich now requires politicians of more substance. Having a buffoon in charge is fine while the market is stable enough to provide goodies to distribute to everyone. Having a buffoon in charge while your economy is flat lining isn’t likely to go down so well. That’s why Rick Perry’s failure to remember which bit of government he wanted to abolish was fatal to his Presidential bid, while George W. Bush won precisely because of his apparent lack of political competence. Instead our new leaders will be getting the functionaries who used to be in the backroom.
It’s a huge opportunity for radicals. Now that the right is unable to hide behind post-political figures it will be easier to expose just how ideological their proposals are. Instead of privatisation and redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich being the things that any ordinary person would do, they can be revealed to be an attack on the 99%. We must take this opportunity to set out a truly democratic vision of the economy.
We are entering an ideological age. We must make sure it is an ideology of equality and social justice that emerges victorious from this age.