“The times they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan half a century ago. Only a few weeks ago, it might have seemed that a sobering era awaited us. Amid the turmoil and fear caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, media around the globe were filled with materials about the potential economic effects of a pandemic, the characteristics of the new virus, and possible treatment methods. References to great literary works written by Daniel Defoe and Albert Camus abounded. Hopes were expressed for a politics of seriousness, the return of expert governments, and even, why not?, for the end of the populist era.
As the pandemic began to normalize in the collective imagination, however, mass media turned again to the characteristic mixture of entertainment and politics. The well-known phenomenon of infotainment is back, including one of its most striking kinds, produced by populist politicians on the Internet and television. Populist politicians differ greatly, in ways ranging from their political style to more substantive issues, like their geopolitical agendas. But there is at least one thing they unquestionably have in common: an understanding that politics in the post-1945 world has became a kind of entertainment to an extent not known before, and especially in the era of the new mass media.
It is often overlooked that today`s populists win not only by using radical statements, but also by providing them in an attractive form, adequate to the nature of mass media in our time. They are entertaining, not always in the sense of evoking laughter, but because they are able to gain and keep the audience’s interest and attention. This everyday populistainment is as global as the Covid-19 pandemic. It often leads its protagonists to electoral victories, and in those places where they succeed, they usually continue the media spectacle while at the same time deconstructing the basic elements of liberal democracy: the rule of law, the separation of powers, and free media. In our country, Poland, an example of this might be the spectacle of dismantling the independent judiciary that has been under way since 2015, with the national media and billboards across the country accusing judges of corruption, theft, and connections to the former communist system.
This everyday populistainment is as global as the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the era of Covid-19, this can be seen in several other countries, as well. Recently on the BBC, the Hungarian State Secretary for International Communication, Zoltan Kovacs, ridiculed questions about his leader Victor Orban ruling by decree, calling any kind of criticism of Hungary “political lynching”. Inevitably, this devoted much of the time in the interview to discussing this expression, instead of the actual character of the Hungarian regime. In Poland, the hard time experienced by patients and medical staff during the pandemic has been partly caused by the PiS government’s failure to reform the health care system. But this did not prevent the country’s president Andrzej Duda from taking part in an online challenge, performing rap about how difficult the work of medical staff is. The media discussed the lyrics he used for a good two weeks. He, not the doctors, won our attention. So, unfortunately, the times they are not “a-changin’”.
The slogan “panem et circenses” dates back to Antiquity.
What does entertainment in politics come from? The slogan “panem et circenses” dates back to Antiquity. People have demanded material goods and entertainment for centuries. Even the most tyrannical authorities usually remembered to meet these expectations – also in their own interest. Entertainment was a subject of philosophical reflection. In the seventeenth century, for example, Blaise Pascal stated that it is the only thing allowing the people of high condition not to think constantly about their miserable lives. In the twentieth century, totalitarian Germany and Russia tried to capture the attention of citizens through constant mobilization. Also in democratic societies after 1945, various attempts were made to describe the impact of entertainment on citizens. In 1960s, Guy Debord’s notion of a “society of the spectacle” became fashionable, and two decades later, Neil Postman warned that with the current trends we could “amuse ourselves to death”. In the 1990s, a new term was coined to describe this phenomenon: infotainment, entertainment-based news. After a while, when the term infotainment ceased to be sufficient for political analysts to describe new relationships between politics and the mass media, politainment surfaced.
Populistainment is a new phase in the chain of these developments. Some would say that there is no huge difference between Bill Clinton playing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992 and Donald Trump bringing the style of communication of his television show “The Apprentice” directly to the presidential campaign.
The difference, however, is there and it is a matter of proportion. Amount turns into quality. Democratic politicians in past decades used entertainment to warm up their image, to appear more human. Entertainment was a supplement to ideology and traditionally understood party politics. Populists turned it all upside down, they made politics a supplement to entertainment and show business. Precisely this makes populistainment a new political phenomenon. It is as if they take politics as imagined by the fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli one step further. Machiavelli particularly unnerved his contemporaries by claiming that political action is justified only by its result and that its aim should be to preserve the wellbeing of the state. Populists’ political actions are justified only by their success in seizing power by means of an amusing spectacle, no matter what the actual effect on the state is.
Machiavelli particularly unnerved his contemporaries by claiming that political action is justified only by its result.
All this would not be possible without the emergence of the new media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and newer versions like Instagram. As the recent tension between the White House and Twitter over the Minneapolis protests proves, the heart of politics invariably beats there. According to statistics, there are 330 million monthly active users of Twitter, and 40 percent of them, 145 million, use Twitter on a daily basis. The ability to gain attention in the e-Agora has become a major twenty-first-century political weapon for destroying liberal democracy.
Although all politicians know they must be present in these media today, populists are clearly in the lead. They have more followers (just to compare, Donald Trump is followed on Twitter by 80 m, Joe Biden – only 5.4 m!). Their profile content is more emotional, scandalous, often insulting, and they cross lines that have rarely been crossed before. Many people are appalled when, for example, Donald Trump refers to women by mocking their bodily functions, demeaning their looks, or comparing them to animals. Or when politicians like Marine Le Pen in France and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland utter abusive words about refugees, calling them “bacterial immigration” or speaking about “bacteria and protozoa” in the bodies of Syrians. But the truth is, such statements bring them days and weeks of media interest. When challenged about such statements, populists often claim they were mere jokes.
When challenged about such statements, populists often claim they were mere jokes.
Current research in neuroscience shows why their strategy may have proven so effective. The human brain habituates to stimuli that are common and frequent. As a consequence, as recipients of the media, which are constantly coming up with new information, our brains are usually bored. Indeed, it is difficult to present political news as entertainingly as celebrity news. As a result, ever less attention is paid to the former. A good example of this is the research published in early 2020 in France on behalf of Kantar/La Croix. It shows that even in this highly educated society, people cease to follow political news. Fewer than 6 out of 10 French adults declare any interest in political news. The “entertainization” of politics has thus its rationality. If serving dopamine is the only way to catch the attention of a bored brain, it is no surprise that many politicians practice it. Just as in markets, where there is demand, supply follows.
But unless the liberals learn from their populist rivals, they will never be able to beat the populists.
Having said all that, we need to ask what liberal democrats should do about it. For some time, many of them seemed to be immobilized by populistainment. Some of them still do. All of a sudden, a whole class of liberal politicians became passé, as if they belonged to la belle époque of post-Cold War liberalism. It is a paradox that liberal democrats, who present a certain seriousness about minority rights, political correctness, the division of powers, and so many other fundamental elements of the democratic system, are frequently perceived as inauthentic. Even more, populist politicians often accuse them of imposing political censorship, just because they tend to be more cautious in their rhetoric and deeds.
Our main argument is that liberal democrats cannot remain the same as before the current wave of populism and that this concerns also the way they communicate. Sure, there are many reasons to detest populistainment. But unless the liberals learn from their populist rivals, they will never be able to beat the populists.
One way to do it is to come up with a positive, issues-based campaign strategy, focused on positive ideas for the future. Some examples from our region, Central and Eastern Europe, might be helpful. Local liberal politicians in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava have recently used some effective communication strategies. The initiative called the “Pact of Free Cities” signed by four mayors, Rafał Trzaskowski, Gergely Karácscony, Zdeněk Hřib, and Matúš Vallo, has became a platform not only for creating smarter and friendlier cities and supporting each other in applying for European Union funding, but also for reinventing liberal ideas for the 21st century.
Another way is to have the courage to speak of things that cause citizens’ discontent. Populists often win because they are not afraid to speak of people’s emotions: their frustrations, anger, and resentment. That liberals have been wrong to ignore these emotions is proven by their bitter defeats at the ballot box. It is time for liberals to take the lead in speaking about people’s emotions and to have the courage to translate their anger into creativity and their uncertainty into hope. Learning from populists does not have to mean forgetting about the core of liberal identity. Classic liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill argued that the freedom of an individual ends where the freedom of another person begins. This rule remains unchanged, but it is not enough anymore to call populists names. Calling them fascists ceased to make any impression on many of the voters. In order to win, liberals have to adopt entertaining tools and at the same time bring back and protect the ideological core of liberal politics: pluralism, tolerance, community, and the rule of law.