Today, Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as America’s greatest-ever president – and casts a political shadow to match. It was on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial that Martin Luther King uttered the words “I have a dream”. More recently, Barack Obama insisted on using the Lincoln Bible for both inauguration ceremonies. The Gettysburg Address, meanwhile, is considered by many to be the most eloquent speech in the history of the English language.
And yet, as Neil Postman would lament, a figure such as Lincoln would never have succeeded in an era of television, where politics and news are rendered forms of entertainment. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other”, Postman would write in Amusing Ourselves to Death. “They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” Reading these words, it’s hard not to think that Postman’s critique of television would have paled into insignificance besides social media.
While progressives generally consider themselves immune to the worst excesses of such a culture, particularly its veneration of images and soundbites over deliberation, they can be equally susceptible. “If politics is like show business,” Postman would write, “then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.” It’s hard not to think of Keir Starmer, a Janus-faced figure of cartoonish dimensions, while reading that. And yet his defenders include many an enlightened liberal.
We are now so immersed in the performative nature of politics that it can be hard to grasp the extent of what has happened. Honesty and integrity, rather than being qualities others judge you to have, are increasingly attributes politicians confer upon themselves. Within seconds of announcing yet another policy u-turn, Starmer will talk about trust. It’s as if the content of ethical behaviour resides in what you say rather than how you behave.
Another increasingly notable feature of elite politics is how politicians present their upbringing, and path to personal success, within the context of social mobility – no matter how absurd it sounds. Too often, a rising MP or candidate sounds like an Instagram self-help guru.
One recent example of this came from Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary. “Growing up I was judged not for who I was or what I did, but the background I had” she recently tweeted. “That has to change and I am determined that under Labour it will change: we will shatter the class ceiling.” I don’t presume to know Phillipson’s background, and I’m sure she’s suffered privations, but those words were written by someone who became an MP at 26. Phillipson may achieve impressive things in office, but it’s not unfair to say her experience is unusual. Outstanding academic achievement was followed by almost immediate professional success. Her only job between studying at Oxford and entering the House of Commons was working for her mum. This isn’t said so as to mock, rather to highlight that she’s playing a game in order to get ahead. It’s a game played by many others, including her leader.
60 years ago, Starmer’s appeal would have resided in the fact he heralds from a stolid, middle-class family and entered a stolid middle-class profession – the law. The fact that his dad was looked down on by others, or that his family couldn’t afford to pay certain bills, would have been viewed as a private matter. Today, however, it is viewed by political consultants and pundits as hard currency. If Phillipson’s personal journey is like Eminem in 8 Mile, then Starmer makes his father, Rodney, sound like Tommy – the protagonist of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. The intention is clear: to convey political authenticity by recounting the mean streets of his youth. Only there’s a problem with that: those mean streets were in Oxted, Surrey – home to an annual pram race and a Peter Rabbit trail.
Of course, Starmer is already relatable for much of the professional-managerial class. Voters tend to like politicians who remind them of themselves. There is a reason an army of 50 and 60-something corporate types are captivated by Starmer. Narcissism and hero worship aren’t always opposites – sometimes they are siblings.
But in post-Brexit Britain, that’s not enough. So the Labour leader also needs to shine a light on his blue-collar credentials. Hence the near-constant reminders that, yes, his father was a toolmaker. Hadn’t you heard?
What is happening here is far from new. Any aspiring politician is told by communications consultants to ‘tell their story’, and to make it align with their audience. The impulse to do this goes back centuries, and is at the heart of persuasion. Yet in recent years this has been put on steroids. Simply put, if you don’t have a hard luck story you don’t get a hearing from a centre and centre-left audience.
This started with John Major and Bill Clinton, as the dazzle of the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan years gave way to something yet more pernicious. With the destruction of the labour movement, and in an era when massive fortunes were made overnight, there were now two reservoirs of political capital for aspiring politicians.
The first was complete submission to the market. This meant constant, effusive praise for business, including from those politicians – like Tony Blair, Barack Obama and now Starmer – who had no background in it. Rather than anything substantial this simply meant they wouldn’t challenge elite interests and would defer to whatever common sense ‘pragmatism’ emanated from the financial services industry. Failure to do this meant you weren’t ‘serious’ – regardless of what the electorate thinks.
The second resided in one’s personal story of triumph over adversity. This not only allowed voters to believe they live in a meritocracy, but also gave ideological ballast to the new orthodoxy of the age: social mobility. Whereas the great political forces of previous decades had been obsessed with the progress of the nation – whether in economic development, the building of infrastructure or the improvement of social provision – this was something new. Attlee was trying to sell the story of national solidarity. For Thatcher, it was for grafters to get rich. Meanwhile for Clinton, Blair and Obama, it was… themselves. The story of the people, was now subordinate to the atomised stories of individuals – with occasional success stories generating consent despite wider economic and social malaise. Indeed Obama’s supreme gift was being able to fuse his own story with that of America, becoming the republic incarnate.
One suspects Starmer – in a very haphazard, British way – is trying something similar. But as we know from the last decade, this strategy reaps few rewards for working people, and in its aftermath rightwing populism finds extraordinary opportunities. If ‘progressive’ centrist politicians really want to strike a chord, they need a compelling story for the country, not just more hard luck stories about themselves. Most people don’t care, nor should they.