March 04, 2004 | Peter

Post-Rational Politics

There are some strange things going on right now that suggest that we may be entering a new phase of post-rational politics. If this is true, then celebrity will replace intellectual competence as the main political asset.
First, let us consider the most controversial movie in years, and its impact on popular culture. It is emerging more and more that the movie “The Passion of Christ” is a conscious intervention in western popular thought by Mel Gibson. Gibson, who is an ultra-conservative Catholic, stimulated and maintained an international publicity campaign to promote his film, which has been a surprise hit (given its lack of stars and the fact that it has subtitles, traditionally the kiss of death). The fact that it initially alarmed Jews may be accidental, but its intention to promote the most reactionary interpretation of the whole story of Christ and his death is increasingly clear. Some people are trying to pass this movie off as the ‘true’ story, an impression heightened by the ‘realism’ of the violence.
Second, there is the growing role of various actors and other celebrities active in US politics. In regard to the Democrats in particular, the important role of people like Martin Sheen (the TV US President), Ted Danson, Madonna and Michael Moore in supporting their particular presidential candidates is striking. Certain other actors – notably recent Oscar winners Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, Robbins’ partner Susan Sarandon, and the New York show-biz liberals led by Barbara Streisand – have also been consistent political activists.
Although these people are lefties, the combination of Hollywood and politics was a trend originally pushed hardest by the right. It should be noted that right-wing actors like John Wayne were constant supporters of reactionary courses. One of them, Ronald Reagan, even became US president. And of course more recently Arnold Swarzenegger became Governor of California, following his colleague Jesse Ventura’s example, and is talking about trying to run for US President one day if the constitution is amended.
Next to actors in the popularity and recognition stakes are pop stars. And indeed, musicians are also becoming more active, usually on the left and generally mobilised against President Bush (who has undoubtedly reenergised US politics with his ultra-right wing policies). The Dixie Chicks, who were blacklisted from radio networks for bad-mouthing Bush, are perhaps the most notorious example. Some musicians are taking part in getting out the vote campaigns. The fact that many people, and especially the poor, do not vote in US elections is a Republican mainstay.
But Hollywood and the movies are most important because image is the most powerful sensual stimulus. The timing of Gibson’s film is of course interesting. Certainly some Christian interests have hailed this film as initiating a new period of Christian evangelicalism, the film itself being a kind of audio-visual battering ram. In an increasingly post-literate world, will this movie become the standard text on Christ’s life and death? Given the focus on Islam of late, it suggests that Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis – in which religious conflict is central – looks ever more credible.
I suspect there is something even more profound at work. National politics is still one of the most important expressions of public culture, and ultimately of the nature of basic social relations. Increasingly it is devoid of genuine content, focusing instead on dramatic imagery and sound bites. These things are intended to appeal to the irrational, or subconscious, and not to the logical, rational mind.
This growing irrelevance of formal politics is possible because the most important processes of modern life are run increasingly by systems managers – economists, corporate managers, political spin-doctors, PR people of all kinds, etc. Indeed, there is a growing perception that politics is basically a show, and increasingly irrelevant to the nitty gritty of modern life. The attack on lobbyists and Washington insiders by Democrat presidential candidates reflects the problem, but few actually think anything can or will be done about it. The lobbyists most basically represent the triumph of money over democracy, and a fundamental weakening of what politics is supposed to be about.
(Oz politics suffers from similar problems, but not nearly as badly as the US. Lobbyists abound in Canberra, constantly cosying up to pollies with fake smiles and freebies. Pollies, who are often lonely and insecure people, are oddly susceptible to this sort of thing.)
While celebrities more and more enter onto the political stage, they are greatly assisted by the fact that politics is becoming both more boring and more like show biz. Very few pollies will concern themselves with the really important issues, exactly because they are so politically tricky. Much safer to stay behind the lines and let the mass media and if necessary the courts sort things out.
At the top politics is certainly more and more like show biz. Leaders and aspiring leaders have to sell a carefully thought out persona. In actuality, they are more and more like actors playing a part. Even Mark Latham, who seemed as much like and old-fashioned polly as anyone, has remade himself to suit media expectations. In the US this selling of the candidate as being ‘presidential’ has become the most salient aspect of the whole exercise.
It is as if the rational process of politics – finding the best compromise between competing claims on social resources – is being replaced by a contest between archetypes, which is what actors and pop stars are. In such a situation, people will vote on how much the candidates appeal to their sub-conscious, irrational selves, not according to policy or political principle.
Perhaps the sort of grass roots – or at least optic fibre – mass politics developed by Howard Dean will show the way to a new form of popular, participatory and genuinely representative politics, otherwise it really will become more and more like Oscar night in Hollywood.

Posted by Peter at 10:45 am | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Why do Commercial air liners have pilots?
    Simple, to keep the passengers happy, The technology is advanced enough that the planes can and do take off, fly and land themselves. without pilot intervention. Why do we have political parties? Simple, to keep the public happy. Multinational businesses, The World Bank, The International monetary Fund, run countries. not governments! The US Fed reserve is a private CO\c, and has been since the early 1900’s. I read recently that the Oz fed reserve was also taken over by a private co (US owned). Companies dictate to governments, not the other way around.
    Don’t believe me? watch the stock market, who sets interest rates? tell me, who’s on the board at the IMF or the World bank? Because I didn’t vote for ’em. Watch what they do when a third world country (OZ) does’nt do as told. So it really doesn’t matter who or what the prez/pm is. The ONLY reason they fight (Or in GW’s case) buy their way into office is for what they can rip off, off the system and the public.
    Look at that little blood sucking gnome in the australian government, Howard. He has just sold out what’s left of the country with the AUST/US free? trade agreement. Bearing in mind he’s had eight years of selling so there wasn’t much left.
    I’m just waiting for the little **** to proclaim that Aust is now an official state of the US, and he is no longer PM but govenor.

    Comment by Slati — March 7, 2004 @ 12:58 am

  2. Agree absolutely. Two additional points: judging by gold value, compared to 1966 when the A$ was first circulated, it has lost 95% of its value, The same 5% remains, as of the forests that have not been felled yet, and have not yet been sold off. The Conservatives are the problem, being led by – as GWBush called him – a US Deputy Sherriff- ie our “leader” J W Howard

    Comment by Adrian White — September 21, 2004 @ 7:39 pm

  3. Agree absolutely. Two additional points: judging by gold value, compared to 1966 when the A$ was first circulated, it has lost 95% of its value, The same 5% remains, as of the forests that have not been felled yet, and have not yet been sold off. The Conservatives are the problem, being led by – as GWBush called him – a US Deputy Sherriff- ie our “leader” J W Howard

    Comment by Adrian White — September 21, 2004 @ 7:39 pm

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