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The play’s the thing

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It seemed to him that these men, who wrote the words and proclaimed the truths which had turned his life and reformed his soul, were themselves but playing with what they taught. Were they only actors — or amusing themselves?

Anthony Hope – A Change Of Air (1893)

Suppose we divide people politically into actors, audiences, managers and critics. It’s crude and we all have aspects of these characteristics, but the notion is worth exploring.

It has become unavoidably clear that our political class is mostly a class of actors. As actors on a political stage, they stick to their role while scheming for a better one because even on their stage the play’s the thing. Boris Johnson knows it well. He also knows that a limited amount of ad-libbing amuses the audience, enhances the actor’s reputation and even adds a touch of realism to the play. Yet a natural question arises – why do we vote for actors?

It works because audience members are not critics in the sense that criticism is not their main role in political life. Likes and dislikes are not the same as criticism where a degree of objective analysis tends to dilute both likes and dislikes. Liking certain actors and plays while disliking other actors and plays does not turn an audience member into a critic.

The pressure to like and dislike is very powerful, but critics do at least make some effort to resist the pressure even when their criticism is presented in terms of liking and disliking. It is a boundary with many holes, but exerting analytical effort is a core aspect of what makes people into critics. Not the only aspect, but an important one.

An obvious advantage of this general approach to political discourse is how it highlights the difficulties of political reform and a core weakness of democracy. It also highlights something more sinister. The digital age seems to have steered the political arena towards entertainment and away from democratic debate.

Imagine a situation where the entire political arena is managed as entertainment, especially at the national level. It would be something like a soap opera, with tragedy, scandal, crime, comedy, tears, tantrums, high drama, heroes, villains, victims and charlatans.

The point to be made is not to emphasise the resemblance between the political arena and theatre, but to emphasise that this is how the political arena is managed. It is intended to resemble a soap opera because politicians are actors and voters behave as an audience which has paid money to be entertained. The resemblance is not accidental, it has become the managerial approach to politics.

A second point is that this general approach highlights the entertainment aspect of mainstream news. Here again, the idea is not to emphasise the resemblance between mainstream news and theatre, but to note that this is how the news is now managed. Tragedy, scandal, crime, comedy, drama, heroes, villains, victims and charlatans all larded with a daily dose of horror stories.

In other words, the political arena and the mainstream news are managed as entertainment. Even the most wooden and uninspiring political actor is expected to at least learn their lines, deliver their scripted asides, tell a few jokes and generally play to the audience. Even ideologues soon discover that this is how it works.


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