The Dangers of Idolisation

Log onto twitter, badmouth Justin Bieber, see what happens to your mentions. Try the same with Beyonce, a Kardashian, or One Direction. Social media unites a previously diverse fan base, giving celebrities a cult following that will defend their idol as one.

This idea of the perfect individual, someone who can do no wrong is now well and truly established in politics. A cult of personality is entwined with modern politics be it Corbyn, Trump, Erdogan, Putin or Clegg. It’s an emerging problem for Merkel as title and weight of the leader of the free world is laid at her feet, while a new personality with dramatic backstory in Schulz is causing her problems ahead of September’s elections. Personality is also disrupting the french election as two not so outside, outsiders, race for the Elyseé. But investing in individuals, rather than ideas is bad for politics and bad for policy.

With a perfect leader there is no desire to improve. Idols can be shoddy and ineffective, lie and lack conviction but with the same personality, the same rhetoric, and the same image they will always have an army of defenders.

Personality cults block democracy. With the perfect individual there are no other answers, no one has better ideas – any criticism or alternative policies are wrong simply as they aren’t theirs. By assuming one person or group of people has all the answers there is no need to consult experts, or the public. This prevents you from building coalitions, reaching out to other groups, or consulting on policy.

It makes politics into black and white. There can be no shades of grey because those shades are all as wrong as black, for the sole reason they aren’t white. This polarisation of politics is bad for policy, it doesn’t allow those in charge to experiment, to test ideas or to be flexible.

There are ideas that look great on paper but may not work in practice. Policy always needs research, trialling on small groups, assessing impacts and opportunities to scale up. But cults of personality demand a singular answer and demands it immediately.

These unrealistic expectations of one individual erodes faith in politicians. It doesn’t allow politicians to admit mistakes, to show a humility. Civil servants and elected politicians are, mostly, still human and should be allowed to err. Instead they are forced to spin their way out of problems, obfuscate and outright lie for fear of losing support. The more mainstream politicians spin, the less the public trust them, and the easier it is for an individual to capture their awe by claiming to ‘drain the Washington swamp’ or ‘burst the Westminster bubble’.

This is how demagogues appear. By investing in the one with all the answers, they have a ‘mandate’ to do as they please. A mandate to go against experts, to go against those who aren’t supporters. They are the divine and they will act thus., increasing executive power actions or labelling institutions as ‘enemies of the people’. Anyone who stands in their way is preventing the birth of a nostalgic and intangible new nation. Trump’s language about the independent judiciary following his executive order on immigration couldn’t be a clearer example.

It’s happening with Brexit. A binary referendum was never going to deliver a manifesto for the future, but anything that isn’t UKIP’s vision for Europe sees Nigel Farage on Sky News slamming the affront to democracy. With a cult of personality, with populism, there is no credible opposition. Opposition is no longer about the ideas or policies but about the person and personality. A movement built on one man will never be able to play the ball.

Idolisation kills party loyalty. In 2010 a host of young people invested in Nick Clegg as the perfect politician. He was unable to keep a promise to them, and it eradicated the entire Lib Dem base. Perfection meant he wasn’t able to compromise, he wasn’t able to make a mistake. It killed his political career at a time when a man with deep experience of Europe and pragmatism is sorely needed. Many of these voters initially moved to the Greens, but are now wholeheartedly behind Jeremy Corbyn. With his current efforts on Brexit its possible loyalties could go in reverse.

For policy wonks the cult of personality is a disaster. Policy is no longer thought through. It’s a scribbled campaign promise that has to become an immediate reality. It’s not reducing push factors for illegal immigration, it’s building a wall. It’s not thinking of new ways to support people as working patterns change, it’s reheating 60s socialism. It’s not reforming the NHS but banning foreigners for HIV treatment.

The cult of personality kills diversity. Modern problems need more voices from more backgrounds to solve. For too long politics was done by one group of people, who thought in the same way. This allows somebody not from this group, but by no means one of the people — say a businessman, or city trader — to claim they have the answers. But ideas need sense checking, they need people with experience and expertise to explore innovative ways of doing things. Successful politics should be about diverse coalitions not individuals.

But politics is in a dangerous place. Exposing the cult of personality only fuels their core base. It provides ammunition to the ‘remoaner’, ‘snowflake’, ‘virtue signalling’ arguments. You could wait for the individual to fail, but then you have a huge group of voters with no interest in politics and a vacuum for another personality. You could not beat them and join them, get behind a Trudeau or a Macron — a personality that fits your ideology. But that isn’t going to lead to better policies and politics.

Celebrities and Twitter has fundamentally changed the way politicians act. The road back means smarter ways of engaging the public, either through social media or in person. Involving the public in process and decision making, being more transparent about how those decisions were made and why. This means a whole new way or working that won’t be fast but will be necessary.