Do all political careers inevitably end in failure, as Enoch Powell famously quipped? Looking (aghast) at some of the recent developments in the UK, we might want to update this observation. These days they seem to descend into ignominy, humiliation — a lot of it self-generated — and a weird, almost immediate desire to find a way back. In the words of Paul Simon, they want “a shot at redemption”.
Turmoil in the Conservative government has produced a parade of characters whose careers and reputations are hitting the buffers at speed. For months now, the Westminster soap opera has been barely distinguishable from politically themed entertainment.
In the US, meanwhile, the failure of some of the Donald Trump-endorsed celebrity candidates to break through in last week’s midterm elections raises the hope that the very crudest manifestations of celebrity democracy may be running out of road. The TV medic Dr Oz, promoter of quack cures, springs to mind: he missed out on a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
In Britain the trend has reached a surreal apex with the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, eating a camel’s penis in the Australian jungle as part of a reality TV show. The MP thinks this culinary self-flagellation might redeem him in the eyes of the public, who disapproved of his extramarital office clinch that breached Covid social distancing guidelines.
On air, Hancock explained his motivations to fellow inhabitants of the camp in the I’m A Celebrity jungle: “What I’m really looking for is a bit of forgiveness . . . We all make mistakes.”
His case throws up a question: does the process of modern, media-saturated democracy inevitably reward the terminally self-involved? Barton Swaim explores this in his superb memoir The Speechwriter, about working for the then governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford. Sanford produced perhaps the world’s most exquisite euphemism for an affair when in 2009 he claimed he was “hiking on the Appalachian trail” while lying about a tryst with his mistress.
When busted, his emotional apologies exhibited the same infantile egotism as the original behaviour. Reading Swaim’s book a few years ago, I found overblown his conclusion that democracy has a “deadly flaw” in that it rewards the vain and self-regarding. Now I’m not so sure.
Professor Pete Hatemi, a political scientist at Penn State university, sees parallels in an increasing tendency on both sides of the Atlantic for politics to attract narcissists, and for television and social media to encourage their antics by delivering them a fan base. “The levels of seriousness have evaporated,” he tells me.
Hatemi tuned in to this summer’s Conservative party election debates and noted the game show format. The winner, Liz Truss, lasted only a few weeks as prime minister after her fantasy economic policy spooked the markets. “The elites . . . are increasingly narcissistic and of course that doesn’t actually come with skills,” he says. The outcome? “It all comes crashing down.”
An earlier study Hatemi co-authored using data from the US and Denmark, indicated that the public who are engaged in politics (outside of major national election time) also tend to “believe that they are better than others”. Anyone buttonholed by a zealous activist will recognise this description.
It would be nice to imagine that a course correction is at hand. But Hatemi doubts that a pendulum swing away from all this rampant egomania is likely. In the UK, new prime minister Rishi Sunak had no sooner promised “integrity” than his administration became mired in controversies over ministers displaying what Hatemi calls “false bravado”. Suella Braverman has managed to hang on as home secretary — colleagues backed her instant “redemption” after only six days in the Whitehall doghouse. Sir Gavin Williamson protested that his behaviour had been “mischaracterised” as bullying even as he had to resign from the government. Both ministers stressed that they had apologised, as if that alone should absolve them.
Williamson was described as a “cartoon bully” by the opposition. But he won’t want to, in Simon’s words, “end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard” — he’ll need his own shot at redemption if he’s to avoid the same fate as all those other failed politicians. Sanford stood for Congress a few years after his public shame and won. Even at their lowest moment these characters plot the next step.
As for the rest of us, the lyrics say it best: “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.”