Think back on the politics of yesteryear, and you probably think of the great figures who commanded respect, and the pomp and circumstance which enveloped their power. They had uniforms and costumes, governed from palaces. You can probably think of a few images, but your conception of them is somewhat misty. However, that misty quality of the politics of the past, where power has an aura of magic to it, has been lost. Look at contemporary group photos of international summits, and you can find no magic, it’s just a group of men dressed in ill-fitting navy suits, and shockingly few women, also wearing navy suits: though they wield power, they have no magic.
What explains this shift? One could see this as a simple result of bias: our vision of the past is romanticised and shaped by a certain narrative, whereas our present is just the sterile present. Following that argument, those living in the 1940s would have had the same relationship with Churchill as we do now with Sunak — and I just don’t think this claim holds up.
The fact is that politicians have profoundly changed their relationship with people. They now want to be the everyman — which, just as in the past, they objectively still aren’t — and strive for nothing more than to seem ‘in touch’.
Politicians have perhaps always been vain, but social media and increased press attention has allowed for every one of their moves to be used in a career-long ad campaign for themselves. Politicians nowadays have the wish and the means to make politics entirely personal. They want to establish connections with individual people by trying to seem like an average Joe who just happens to live on Pennsylvania Avenue or in Number 10.
The rise of populists shows this better than anything else: their entire political careers centre around themselves and less around their political agendas or results. For the politicians of today, the wish to maintain the dignity of the office they occupy is overtaken by the wish to promote a simple idea: ‘me’.
The effects of the loss of the political glitter are far-reaching and detrimental to democracies. Leaders being like everyone else means that there is no longer as much respect for them irrespective of politics — the position they occupy is not the driving factor of respect, but rather their personalities. Legitimacy is therefore considered much more personal than in a system where the function commands respect, leading to officials feeling empowered to do as they please. This, perversely, makes the everyman increasingly able to do as he wishes than what he should do — in short, the loss of magic in politics leads down a dangerous road ending in personal power.
Avid watchers of The Crown, or the more historically geared political fiends out there, will see that a lot of power rests in maintaining a certain distance between governors and governed. This does not mean less democracy or less contact with the people, but rather creating and maintaining respect for a position. Nowadays, this would mean asking the political class to understand that their political power rests not with them, but with the position that they occupy during their tenure. In their exercise of power, they need to protect the dignity of their position: they can’t be like everyone, because they aren’t, and I don’t think that the people want them to be like everyone. No one is expecting a new Churchill, but slightly more distance and respect for political office might be just the thing to protect our democracies from tipping over into populism.
So I say bring back into politics the ability to not react to everything all the time, the limited photo-ops, a bit of distance between electors and politicians. Having magic in politics means there will be respect for democracy, and that could just save it.
Illustration by Sarah Knight