The Political Circus - Mara Naile-Akim

One of my favourite political sketchwriters is John Crace. His ability keep taking politicians to the cleaners, day after day, and stay original is truly impressive. Unfortunately, John is part of the problem. And so am I. We both contribute to the political circus, he by writing, I by reading.

Political coverage is itself a product. We read about it in the newspapers (some of us maybe paying extra for, say, the Times or the New Statesman for that ‘in-depth political analysis’ online). We watch TV, we provide internet traffic for websites, we go to follow the people we like and the people we love to hate on social media. We are watching a show: the actors are the political figures, the setting is the real world, the human element always over-emphasised. We even have a choice of comedy, horror, tragedy, soap opera. The circus caters for all tastes.

We like it that way. We laugh at Boris Johnson, we are slightly perturbed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, we are horrified by Donald Trump. (If you happen to think highly of them, substitute their names with prominent figures on the Left to get the picture). We laugh at things so that reality does not seem so depressing: we get outraged when reality finally hits home. We love nothing better than conflicts, rivalries, wars of words. It is all very theatrical, very much like a never-ending soap opera. We consume the product with great relish. But issues of real importance, of real impact, all too often get lost behind the great political spectacle, drowned out by the narrative of conflict between the main characters. How can, say, the outsourcing at Barnet Council ever compete for outrage value with a juicy quote by Boris?

The Trump circus is a political show of the Jerry Springer/Jeremy Kyle variety, intended to cause maximum outrage to opponents and decent human beings alike. However, it is the sustained and systematic destruction of government functions and regulations throughout the US that is the real story of his administration. One could be excused for thinking that an adviser somewhere whispers ‘hey Donald… you know what, we have another controversial piece of legislation to push through… you go tweet something totally outrageous so no one pays attention’. The main reason Kavanaugh’s appointment is problematic is that nominations to the Supreme Court have now become totally partisan, with the administration fixing numbers in its favour as a matter of standard practice. But none of that is at the forefront of the public consciousness: we rage at Trump’s latest insult but there are far more concrete things to be alarmed about. Here, Elliot Weinberger highlights the full extent of Trump’s legislative drive over the course of two ten-day periods.

With newspaper circulation dropping, the print media is struggling to stay afloat financially. It ends up having to compromise its standards, slash budgets, try to appeal to more readers. This means less investigative journalism and more ‘low-hanging fruit’: less Carole Cadwalladr and more ‘he said she said’ on Twitter. Serious reporting takes time and resources and attracts far less attention than an episode from the political circus or its new bastard child, the social media circus. It is yet another situation in which the market pressures are working to the advantage of those who want to keep the public endlessly focused on the trivial and the incidental. Sure, it is possible to make serious issues exciting and their coverage saleable and some valiant attempts are being made, for instance over environmental issues or over inequality. However, people have a tendency, whether genetic or cultural, to be more readily roused by narratives of conflict between well-known individuals. It will always be far easier to make the interactions between various public figures into an exciting story than it would be do so whilst writing about serious issues. Certain people will even try to turn serious investigations into a ‘people story’ of a ‘spat’ between those being investigated and those doing the investigation: Cadwalladr herself made that very point recently.

Fake news often presents a double distraction. The lie itself is the first part, the furore over the attempts to prove it a lie the second. Nothing delights a propagandist more than a furious, no-holds barred debate over issues that are secondary, over trivial detail, over who might have offended who. To Chomsky’s famous quote about strictly limiting the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allowing very lively debate within that spectrum one can add that such debates can also serve as a good cover for instituting genuinely damaging change.

Humour works in a different way. It can be a devastating weapon — exposing the opposition’s weaknesses in a single line, a single image. But, more commonly, it is only a way of uniting the already converted, a way of escape, a way of defusing tension, brightening up a grim reality. It is a placebo: you laugh at the powerful thinking you are sticking it to the Man — but really you aren’t. It is worth noting here that the fundamental changes that are happening at the moment probably will not affect us, the middle class readers of leftwing newspapers who get to laugh — and the people they will affect will most likely not see the funny side in the first place. Ian Hislop’s Private Eye is a welcome exception to this, skillfully combining humour and quality investigative journalism.

It hurts me to say this, but we contribute to the political circus by repeatedly taking the bait, by being outraged, by contributing to the ‘human narrative of conflict between political factions’. By doing so, we are ready to consume the product being sold to us, create the market pressures that allow most of the serious, systemic issues to be secondary. Moreover, in this new age of technology, social media enables us, the ordinary people, to provide new material, become the human story, help obscure what is real and important. Not always, but often enough. We, ourselves, are part of the problem and it is difficult to see how things can improve. But I guess one can dream of a day when Donald Trump’s trolling tweets attract less attention than his ‘small state’ legislative drive.