Why our politics is Brechtian

I’m never quite prepared for how much I dislike the dominant mode of commentary on Canadian elections.

Just one day into the campaign and we’ve already been served the full menu of facile idioms familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on, reported on, or run in a Canadian election in the past two decades: the obsessive focus on horserace polling; the hyperbolic extrapolation of grand narrative from trivial detail; the absurd characterization of every speech as a “performance”; the excessive, almost hourly, hot takes on how the various leaders and campaigns are being perceived.

The common thread here? Because (in the social media age especially) everything about an election campaign is so heavily scripted, tabulated, and regimented – the leaders’ tours, the messaging, the reporting, and the punditry which is supposed to keep all of it in check – the whole affair takes on a peculiar performative quality, as if the Real Election never quite happens because we’re all too busy debating what it might mean.

Consider a few of the most common words/phrases we’re going to be hearing and reading for the next 11 weeks: “Brand”, “performance”, “perception”, “leader’s image”…you catch my drift. What all of these idioms have in common is a kind of meta quality: a fundamental abstractness from reality and existence on a plane that is all about how things may be perceived.

Thus, instead of talking about or seriously evaluating what each leader said at the various campaign launches yesterday, we get a deluge of commentary on how comfortable they “looked” at the podium or how “convincing” they “sounded” – as if the truth or falsehood of what was said is somehow a minor detail next to how it might be perceived or interpreted by an audience. We get polls that tell us the public ranks X or Y as more important than Z, but little analysis as to whether X, Y, or Z is actually the most important issue at hand. And you can bet we’ll have plenty of voters who will forego their first preference because a poll says other people are supporting someone else.

Waiting for a truly authentic moment in the context of a postmodern election campaign is like Waiting for Godot. The best you’ll ever get is an Authentic Moment™ because authenticity, like virtually everything else, has become just another brand component, and brands are fundamentally about perception rather than reality.

But Samuel Beckett doesn’t exemplify the sheer weirdness of our condition. For that we have to turn to another playwright: Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht’s favoured technique of breaking the “fourth wall” (i.e. the imaginary wall separating the theatrical diagesis from its audience) was about demonstrating the artificial nature of every dramatic performance. (Jean-Luc Godard later adapted this technique for his film Tout Va Bien, which deliberately reveals its own set to be an artifice).

That is, precisely, what most of our political commentary achieves: the fourth wall of politics is now permanently broken, and the whole thing is rendered a performance. Staffers and strategists have this in mind when they write speeches or stage events (“stage”), as do the journalists and reporters who comment on them, along with much of the voting public.

We’ve become so used to doing politics like this that the occasional arrival of an authentic moment (in which, say, a politician goes off “script”) somehow feels less real than the carefully orchestrated ethos we usually dwell inside.

Consider, for example, a 2010 incident surrounding then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in which he unknowingly called a voter who had made bigoted statements a bigot into a microphone. The story was partly news because Brown had violated the spirit of democratic deference politicians are supposed to have when speaking to, or about, ordinary voters. But the real issue was that the human Gordon Brown has briefly appeared in place of Gordon Brown™. The momentary reminder that a politician was actually a human being arguably made people more uncomfortable than the fact that he had been privately truculent towards a voter.

In other words, the truth is now stranger than fiction.

It would be wrong to blame the press for this predicament. No one is exactly to blame, because the whole process feeds into and replicates itself: political parties carefully orchestrate things, because the modern media environment demands it; the modern media environment speaks about campaigns in abstract terms because that’s the terrain upon which they’re ultimately fought; we, the voting public, witness this whole spectacle and consume polls and commentary that tell us what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling before we’ve thought or felt ourselves.

But if there was one thing the press might do to alleviate this condition, it would be to focus less attention on some abstract narrative of the campaign and more on the actual issues at stake. Parties are not “brands”: They’re groups of likeminded citizens competing for political power; politicians are not characters, and voters are not commodities or markets to be encroached upon, purchased, or harvested. Campaigns are actually occurring events, not stories.

It’s true we can’t escape the panoptic gaze of social media or the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle.

But more emphasis on policies – i.e. the basic reason we have elections in the first place – would definitely soften the madness.

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