Recent history has given us the remarkable rise of the unexpected politician.
A seventy-one-year-old, cantankerous reality star sits in the White House. One of the few politicians who looked capable of challenging him on the Democratic side was an equally geriatric socialist from rural America with bad hair.
In Britain, a pint-guzzling, chain-smoking red-faced Englishman created enough anti-EU momentum to trigger an historic political disruption, whilst across the channel in France the straight-shooting National Front anti-establishment candidate won 40% of the vote in 2017’s presidential election.
Trump. Bernie. Farage. Marine Le Pen. Together, they represent a new era in what the public wants from their politicians: welcome to the age of authenticity.
The 1990s saw the rise of the ‘professional politician’: led by Bill Clinton in the USA and Tony Blair in Britain, that generation of politicians worshiped the false-god of ‘spin.’ They were media-trained, publicity-savvy and listened to their PR advisers as much as their policy ones. In the 2000s, their prodigies continued in the mould: in Britain, David Cameron and George Osborne referred to Blair as ‘The Master’.
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Now, voters are responding. Tired of sound bites, media management and robotic politicians pushing ‘the line,’ electorates are willing to trade professionalism for a sense of being told what their leaders really think.
This explains why gaffes that once might have marked the end of a political career can now be weathered. Indeed, sometimes they even help: consider Boris Johnson hanging like a sack of spuds on a zip line waving the union jack, or Farage openly boasting in interviews of the bottle(s) of wine he has already consumed that day.
It also partly explains where some establishment politicians are going wrong. In the USA, Hillary Clinton – possibly the most qualified candidate to have ever run for president – became obsessed with hammering Trump’s bad behaviour at a time when, for better or worse, many Americans simply didn’t care.
In Britain, Theresa May managed to squander a twenty-point lead in the polls by becoming the ‘Maybot’ (a mechanical automaton sputtering the slogan ‘strong and stable’) whilst Jeremy Corbyn enthused rallies of thousands with long, often unstructured, but always authentic speeches. One former Cabinet member texted me on the day that the term ‘Maybot’ was coined, following her disastrous interview with Andrew Neil, saying “this [election] is wide open now.”
It also explains why the third generation of professional politicians are experiencing failure to launch. In America, Marco Rubio, who is handsome, charming, and camera-friendly came quickly unstuck once Chris Christie (then a fellow Republican candidate for the presidency) pointed out his lack of depth. In Britain, Chuka Umunna is a man of remarkable talent and yet seems not to have realised that the public (especially Labour members) have tired of long words and sharp suits.
Merkel and Macron seem to buck the trend, but on closer inspection they do not. Angela Merkel, newly elected to an historic fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor, was one of the early forbearers in this age of authenticity: she does not give soaring speeches or do flashy photo-ops or push slogans, she just gets on with the job. This is partly why the German people have decided they would like her – the woman they call ‘Mutti,’ meaning mummy – to carry on with it.
Macron, on the other hand, perhaps won despite not being very authentic. In style, he certainly resembles the professional politician. One of his campaign managers told me last week that “Emmanuel needs to work on becoming more real if he’s going to keep the presidency next time.” It is worth remembering, after all, that only 24% of the French electorate chose him in the first round of voting.
Who knows how long this era will last. These things tend to move in cycles and, in America at least, the public seems to wish that President Trump would be a little more presidential and a little less Trumpy. For now, though, we are in the age of authenticity. Strap in.
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff for the British Government’s National Infrastructure Commission.