Formally stated, the law amounts to something like this: At any given time, the ineptitude of our political leaders will leave us wishing they could be replaced by previous political leaders, who, at the time, we felt to be as inept as any political leader could be.
Of course, the term ‘ineptitude’ doesn’t quite capture the anguish we feel when confronted with the poor quality of our political leaders and the political culture they help to create. Perhaps it is best viewed as a placeholder for some combination of its various synonyms, along with other terms such as foolishness, ignorance and stupidity.
Thus, Trump makes Bush look like a great statesman, just as Bush made his father look like an intellectual colossus; May made Major look like an ace negotiator, just as Major made Thatcher look like a far greater negotiator. And so on. The pattern works both within and across party lines, although the British instances appear to be paler, more anaemic versions of the American ones. This latter tendency is a broader, more cultural one. It was ever thus. America gets Elvis and his political analogue Bill Clinton; Britain gets Cliff Richard and his political analogue Tony Blair. The Trump/Johnson comparison is fully congruent with this unfortunate phenomenon.
My Law of Political Nostalgia points to a distressing, and very serious, underlying trend: the long term decline in the quality of our politicians. They get worse and worse. How to account for it? My only explanation (and I really would welcome others) is based on the evolution of media, entertainment media, and media as entertainment. There was a time when media merely reported, whether poorly or well, on politics. The two were separate. Over time there has been a gradual, though accelerating, convergence. Ronald Reagan was something of a turning point, demonstrating that superficial recognition based on an undistinguished B-movie career could be traded into Governorship of California and then POTUS. Failed politicians get an instant alternative media career, maintaining their recognition factor to the point where they sometimes get a re-entry into politics when media opportunities dry up. Ann Widdecombe’s re-emergence as an MEP threatens to be as catastrophic as her Strictly Come Dancing fiasco – but who cares? It’s all just entertainment isn’t it?
This process is at its most dangerous when the public tires of politics as show business for ugly people, and finds the entertainment factor heading for zero. At that point consideration of policies or balanced weighing of complex issues becomes irrelevant, just boring. So we get significant numbers of voters wanting Brexit ‘over and done with’, whatever the outcome. This impoverishment of discussion marks the point where politics and current affairs have become indistinguishable from any other soap opera or fictional drama, subsumed into a Marcusian ‘spectacle’of transitory ephemera.
And, needless to say, the turbocharged, unregulated growth of social media has compounded this process almost beyond comprehension. Facts, alternative facts, truths, falsehoods, rumours and innuendo are all blurred into the same background hum of the spectacle. According to my Law, if it continues to hold, we are merely on the threshold of a very dark dystopia.