Earlier this year, I headed to the library with my boss to do some research on the politics column our team is starting. I picked up some books by and about famous (and infamous) world leaders. I also chose some journals and periodicals to take a look at; so we could figure out what we wanted to write and how we were going to write it.
By the time we were done making our selection, we had stacks and stacks of books in our arms that were too heavy for any normal human being to carry. We assorted them into bundles, brought them to a comfortable couch and sat down.
I was extremely curious to see my boss’ method and criteria for selecting which books would make the cut for us to bring back to the office.
“Does anyone believe anything that is written in here?” she asks as she puts yet another book into a pile of ‘not interested’. Many of the books in what was starting to look like a slush pile were books that had sold well. So where did her indifference comes from?
“How inauthentic and uninspiring,” she said as she yawned. “And what a chore and bore to read.”
“It can’t be that bad…” I said. “I mean, the people who wrote these books left their mark in history. They’re the pioneers, leaders and change makers of society.”
“You think you’ll find the truth in here?” she says as she flips through a book and shakes her head. “This is the official story and the official version of events. There is, without a doubt, many chapters that have been excluded from this version of history.”
There’s no denying the fact. We all know that managing and maintaining impressions is the cornerstone of any politician’s career.
“So why do these books sell so well?” I ask.
“They are read by people who want to sound and seem intelligent. Some of them might actually be… but they are the ones who read between the lines; not what is actually written on them.”
I laughed. It was true.
With each book my boss picked up and read, the ennui in her eyes exacerbated. I was beginning to grow concerned that we wouldn’t find anything she would approve of.
And then finally, her eyes sparkled. It was a book, no doubt. But it was not one written by an academic or a world leader and their team of ghostwriters. It was a book of political cartoons.
She finally sat back and started reading. Her expert eye inspected all the tiny details and nuances that were expertly interwoven into a comic that no one in their right mind would take seriously. It is not the stuff that world leaders discuss or make policy decisions over. So why did it grab her attention?
And that’s when it hit me.
Politicians wear their nice suits, practise their speeches to perfection and use any and all instruments of the state to either create order or chaos. And all the while, the vast majority of the population only understands or cares to pay attention when they see a comic.
The whole political arena looks so serious, but it is a ludicrous farce. No matter how carefully politicians manufacture their public persona, the public is neither fooled nor even cares. They are ‘a public figure’ and not ‘a person’ in the eyes of their fellow man or woman. When they speak of this person–whether out loud or in secret whispers–they are only seeing the popular narrative that has been carefully crafted.
Or alternatively, they see them through the artists’ eye. The artist, the comic, the illustrator and the writer that had all come together to create this book my boss was deeply engrossed in, were only speaking the truth as they saw it.
But how could they–the artists–actually see or speak the truth when so much of a politician’s life was a product of public persona?
We don’t know the truth about their intimate relationships. We’ve probably never met them in our lives. And even when scandalous stories do come out, most of it is hearsay or carefully crafted rumours for those who are looking to benefit from the power play of the political arena.
In democratic societies, as far as ‘the common man’ is concerned, they are the one who pay taxes and politicians work for them–not the other way around. Yes, they are the leaders who get to write these fantastic books and claim that a particular period of history was crafted by their hand–but really, who knows what really happened?
Why does the public take such pleasure in reducing the life of the leader they elect to a caricature? Comical caricatures, no less, meant as a jest. It’s theatre and the public is simply watching the show wondering when the next episode will come on or when the curtain will finally come down on that leader who simply doesn’t care about his people.
And then it hit me. People don’t pick politicians based on their resumes. They pick them based on a bond that they feel with them. While the leader may not personally know all of his or her followers; (i.e. the people of a said nation), everyone living in that country has a personal relationship with their leader.
It’s mind-boggling when you stop to think about it. That’s why they all have an opinion that is longing to be heard and expressed. Will it have an impact on public policy or the direction an administration chooses? Your guess is as good as mine. But this is why free speech has been a cornerstone of good governance in democratic societies.
The people–the common man and woman–are saying, I see you, I know you. I want you to hear and see me, too.
A politician is never universally loved or hated. Even the leaders who have been condemned by historians continue to have their followers; and the reverse is also true. The leaders who are celebrated and respected also have their fair share of critics and detractors.
Someone who’s very solid and checks all the right boxes ought to be the leader of the nation. After all, they have the experience and therefore they will probably know what to do when we are faced with challenging times. But what most followers actually want is a leader who they share a connection with. Yes, there is a danger that style can win over substance–but, the heart just wants what it wants.
What people really want is a leader they love and a leader who loves them back.
I learnt this very simple lesson as my boss tossed into the slush pile all the ‘clever’ books I had picked out for her.
Policy decision making, pragmatism, ideals, and God knows what else–all these things undoubtedly have their place. But for daily wage earners and for people who are struggling to earn a living, these things are completely inconsequential. This is the main reason why highly qualified candidates with perfect CVs are historically less likely to win an election.
Yes, the paperwork is all in order, but since when, and in which era, has a man or woman who is just trying to make ends meet looked at a CV to make a decision as to who is qualified to lead?
All that person wants to know is that his or her leader cares about him. Cares enough to know that their woes are his woes. And while no politician will ever be perfect, they would much rather he quite simply be human. Once this connection is lost or severed, the politician becomes a caricature.
If the leader doesn’t care, neither will the public. All we’re left with is a sense that we must watch the show… till the curtain comes down.