Kevin O’Leary’s recent musing that he might enter the Conservative Party leadership race has given the chattering classes what we have so desperately been lacking the past few months – something entertaining to talk about.
The bid, of course, would be a non-starter, since O’Leary doesn’t speak French. He claims that would be no problem, since he “understands Quebec” on a visceral level, having been born in Montreal. Of course, people who actually understand Quebec know that there is nothing francophone Quebecers hate more than people who are from Quebec, and yet can’t speak French. People from Saskatchewan at least have an excuse. People from Montreal do not.
In any case, the episode reminded me of a very good question that Tyler Cowen asked a while back (actually, now that I look it up, he was repeating a question asked by Robin Hanson), which is why the upper tiers of the political system in democratic societies (i.e the areas where television is the most important medium) are not simply taken over actors.
The question struck me because, on the one hand, it is the sort of question that people who work in democratic theory almost never pose. This is particularly true among those who are committed to some type of “deliberative” conception of democracy. The whole question of how such a political system should deal with people who are faking, or trolling, does not arise. Political theorists spend their evenings lamenting the sad spectacle of democratic politics as it is practiced, then go back to work in the morning and write sentence like the following: “The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject.” The question “what if they don’t?” very seldom arises (or to the extent that it does, seldom generates an answer more helpful than “well they should…”).
I would be really interested to know how one could even begin to design a deliberative political system that would be “demagogue-proof.” Suppose you set up a deliberative exercise on a particular topic, and you go out and recruit 100 citizens from all walks of life to participate. And yet suppose that, instead of getting 100 earnest participants, you get just a few that are not committed to the exercise, and come in with the specific intention of disrupting it. Or suppose you get a few who are not really “average citizens,” but are actually on the payroll of a political party, and are being fed talking points and “false facts,” with strict instructions not to deviate from the party line. Or suppose you just get a very charismatic person, who knows how to push people’s buttons, and who wants the exercise to fail. I have great difficulty imagining a deliberative procedure that could function with such individuals involved. Probably the only way to get anything done would be to throw them out. And yet, in a democratic political system, this is precisely what you cannot do.
So back to the question about actors. I think there’s probably a good answer to the question why, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger), they do not succeed so well in politics. Being a celebrity of course provides an enormous advantage in democratic politics, since so much of voting is driven by a combination of name-recognition and emotional resonance. But the problem with actors is that they are often not very good at many other aspects of the political “game” – there’s a lot more to it than just giving speeches, debating, being on television. You have to be able to network, to generate intense loyalty within an inner group, etc. Many actors are only good at one thing, which is simulating natural human reactions to a wide range of circumstances. Fans, for instance, often report a certain measure of disappointment upon meeting their idols, when they discover how dull, ordinary, or obnoxious they can be. We forget that actors are reciting lines written by professional writers, which naturally makes them seem much more interesting, thoughtful, feeling, and expressive than almost any of us actually are. (Think how much more scintillating your own conversation would be, if you could consult a team of professional conversationalists before uttering any line…) So when it comes to actors, television and movies almost always generate the illusion that there is more to them than there actually is.
A more interesting question, it seems to me, is whether the rise of reality television is likely to change this. The striking thing about both Donald Trump and Kevin O’Leary is that they are not actors, but rather (inter alia) reality television stars. They are of course celebrities, and both are clearly trying to leverage their celebrity into mass political support. The thing about reality television stars, as opposed to actors, is that they often have other qualities that have made them successful in life, beyond merely the way they show up on screen. (I generalize – this is of course not true of Big Brother contestants. It totally depends upon the genre. What is true of both Trump and O’Leary is that they’re not on television just because they’re good at being on television. They were both successful in some other area, and then turned out to be good on television as well.) As a result, there is less reason to expect them to have all the same handicaps that conventional actors have. (Notice as well that many journalists have succeeded in making the jump to politics. Again, entering a contest with name-recognition provides an enormous advantage.)
So is democracy likely to evolve into “rule by celebrity”? Should we make up a new word for it? Celebocracy? That’s not very good. Republicans used to accuse Barack Obama of being a “celebrity President,” but the accusation didn’t really fit, because Obama was not famous before entering politics. He was just a politician who acquired something of the aura of celebrity while in office. Justin Trudeau, by contrast, could much more justifably be thought of as a celebrity Prime Minister, in the sense that he was famous – most Canadians knew his name – before he entered politics. If the Conservatives decide that only way to fight celebrity is to put forward a celebrity of their own, that will not bode well for old-fashioned popular democracy.