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Saturday 13 May 2017

A Brief Thought Experiement

Consider, if you will, two men each running for office in two modern Western democracies. Let's follow their paths to leadership and see what they have in common and what sets them apart. Just for fun, you understand.

Don and Jim start off being very different even to a keen observer. Don is fat, loud and brash, extremely rich and somewhat influential with the upper political echelons. He doesn't care a jot if what he says is offensive or stupid and no-one would call him a great orator. "Intellectual" is probably the last thing you'd call him, although "boring" would be another very strong contender.

Jim, on the other hand, is somewhat more slender, generally quiet, reserved and very serious. He's no pauper, but neither is he anywhere near the financial elite.  His style of speechmaking is calm and measured, perhaps a tad on the dull side. "Intellectual" might be a bit of a stretch, but he seems infinitely more well-informed and rational than Don.

They are not quite entirely dissimilar though. Like Don, Jim too doesn't care very much if his statements are offensive. Both are either extremely thick skinned or literally don't care what their opponents think of their policies. Both appeal to their supporters by virtue of their apparent honesty, and both are derided by their detractors as being morons. Both make statements which their supporters defend in the name of free speech. Both throw the odd tantrum, though while Don genuinely doesn't care what people think of his policies, he can't tolerate any personal criticism whatsoever. Both could be described as inveterately smug.

Now Don and Jim are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Don is far right, pro-business and anti-government. Jim is far left, pro-regulation and pro government. Don begins outside the political mainstream whereas Jim is a career politician. Don's policies are often accused of being both stupid and cruel, whereas although Jim's are often touted as stupid they are seldom if ever accused of being cruel. Both, however, are very much at the ends of the political spectrum.

Both men languish in political obscurity, and both have remarkably unsuccessful careers. Jim's biggest success is being elected for 30-odd years, but he's never given a single speech anyone can remember, held office, or even been recognised as the instigator of a single major policy. In fact he's been an activist in a political group for 50 years which has utterly failed to accomplish its objective because no-one cares about it very much. He is moral, perhaps, but not effective. He does, though, often like to point out how consistent he is, forgetting that this constancy hasn't actually achieved much of anything.

Don is unsuccessful for the opposite reason - he is effective but not moral. That is, his business empire is effective enough at making him lots of money (though exactly how much is disputed), but he has a longer than usual record of bankruptcies and a reputation for screwing people over. He pays millions of dollars out of court in order to avoid lawsuits. Making money for Don is what matters to Don; whether his businesses can be trusted to deliver quality goods and services doesn't much enter into the equation for him. So he too is unsuccessful, though he often likes to loudly proclaim what a good businessman he is, just as Jim likes to proclaim what a good campaigner he is even though he clearly isn't.

After decades of remarkably unsuccessful careers, these two old men (both, incidentally, also have a string of failed marriages) suddenly find themselves contesting the leadership of major political parties. Both are regarded by the establishment as no-hopers that no-one in their right mind would vote for. And yet, using their very unconventional, unorthodox and very much anti-establishment styles (albeit styles which are totally different to each other), both go on to stunning, rapid election victories.

Both men are hounded by their detractors throughout their campaigns - and importantly, both greatly exacerbate the usual level of hyperbole. It's something like, "not only do I think this man will ruin the country, but this time I really mean it !". Don is derided as a misogynist, a racist, a sexual predator, a neo-Nazi who hates anyone different from him, accused of colluding with the enemy, an idiot whose policies were tried and failed. Jim is portrayed as a Communist, an unpatriotic terrorist-sympathiser who hates his own country, an idiot whose policies were tried and failed. The accusations toward both men are not entirely the same, but they are extremely similar - especially in their extreme nature. They are both viewed as conservatives, in the sense of going back to a largely mythical better age when things were better for those of their respective (though diametrically opposed) ideologies.

To their supporters, both men are portrayed as suffering from incredible media bias. "You wouldn't be reacting to them like this if the other side had said it," they say, ignoring that both Don and Jim represent a radical departure from the norm. Don's apparent racism is ludicrously deemed to be "crying wolf", which makes absolutely no sense to anyone else, and his frequent changes of policy are excused because "you obviously weren't meant to take it literally" or other nonsense.

Jim's purported antisemitism is a charge which never really takes hold but never entirely goes away either. In contrast to Don, Jim's stubborn refusal to ever change his mind about anything (except under extreme necessity) is seen as a laudable moral conviction rather pig-headed idiocy. He apparently worked out all the best policies 40 years ago and more, so there's obviously no need for him to alter them now.

And to their really extreme supporters, allegations of Don and Jim's worst attributes are not excused or brushed away at all - they are defended as virtuous. Don's a racist ? Well then maybe racism is just true. Heil Don ! Jim's a Communist ? Good, because capitalist pigs will be first up against the wall come the revolution. "You just can't tolerate anyone whose views are different from your own", they say, as though that automatically validates their position. Neither Jim nor Don really do very much to distance themselves from these extremists.

The wider perception (beyond their power base) of both men follows a similar though not identical trajectory both during and beyond their leadership campaigns. Both start out as outsiders, virtually joke candidates. As the leadership campaign progresses and Don begins to look like a real contender, he becomes more and more vilified. He says things so disgusting that even his own party start to turn against him - but too late. They have no better candidate, all of their others were simply less charismatic lunatics. Not once does the man ever seem to have the wider support of the country. Breaking with convention, after winning party leadership he doesn't tone himself down the slightest in his campaign to win over the nation. Although he wins the premiership position, he loses the popular vote and begins with pathetic approval ratings that only get worse. He only ever appeals and tries to appeal to his core base.

Jim's path is a bit harder to gauge since his country has a different system. But he too is always immensely popular with his core supporters but never really wins the approval of the wider populace, though he's not as hated as Don and perhaps more widely respected initially. He too suffers attacks from within his own party - more severe than Don, being almost ousted by direct action on two occasions. He too seeks the approval of his core supporters far more than the rest of the country, using that to make his position unassailable despite being hugely unpopular outside his own cult. He too doesn't really care about persuading people, only achieving power - despite, just like Don, having never made any previous attempt though he's not a young man. And when he wins party leadership, he more or less entirely and instantly shuts up. A major political crisis develops - he says next to nothing. Why should he ? He's already leader of his party. And he continues saying nothing until a chance of the premiership itself appears, in which case he goes back on the offensive.

Both men do not respect evidence, though this is manifested in very different ways : Don says whatever happens to pop into his head without regard for the facts; Jim says the same thing he's always been saying as though nothing has changed in the world in decades. Don actively dismisses and attacks experts, selectively choosing which ones are wonderful and which ones are satanic monsters. Jim is more subtle. During the crisis entire legions of political, economic and academic experts loudly and clearly explain why there's only one sensible choice. Jim doesn't attack them - he simply ignores them. Evidence matters no more to him that it does to Don, he's just better as disguising it.

Both of them bullshit, at least on occasion, in remarkably similar ways. When two separate crises turn violent, both of them comment that there is "violence on both sides", despite the fact that the rest of the world places the blame firmly on one side. Don denies collusion with the Russians on the grounds that they weren't able to provide useful information; Jim's supporters say it doesn't matter that he cooperated with the Soviets because he wasn't able to provide them with any useful information. The point that both of them were actively trying to work with foreign enemies is apparently irrelevant and mere attempted treason is somehow nothing to be concerned about. Both of them strenuously deny collusion with the Russians only to make remarkably sympathetic overtures to a nation everyone else views with justifiable disgust.

We should pause, though, to note that it's not all Don and Jim's fault. The environment in which they operate does not favour those who favour evidence - it favours those who have enemies. The system is predicated on weighing opinion, not facts, of creatively interpreting facts to fit existing views rather than altering views to fit the facts. It isn't Don or Jim's fault the system is this way - and the system does also have some powerful advantages, but that is another story. It's very, very hard in this system to change your stance without being viciously attacked by your enemies.

Don and Jim might be victims of the system, but they don't even try and fight it. Both are unpopular populists. Both say what they need to say to their electorate to win the vote, regardless of whether this appeals to the wider community or not. They care about power, not persuasion, and if (as happens often for both men) they fail to implement a policy, they blame this on the establishment. Both say the system is rigged against them but vow to win anyway. They are only ever interested in appealing to their existing supporters, with little or no interest in persuading others to follow them. Both of them have no scruples around removing those around them from office if they disagree; in Don's case with uttermost impunity to an unprecedented degree, though Jim is more cautious only when his position is less secure.

It's very easy to see the loud, obnoxious, hate-filled Don as a villain and a tyrant. It's less obvious that Jim may well be cut from the same cloth. "What, Jim ?" say even many of his opponents. "Nice fluffy quiet Jim ? He might not be very good at his job, but surely he's no despot." Yet beneath the trappings of their various styles, are these two men really so different ? Nice fluffy Jim who hasn't changed his mind in 40 years. Nice fluffy Jim who doesn't care about anyone except his core supporters. Nice fluffy Jim who does nothing in the biggest political crisis in living memory but goes on the warpath come any chance to win power. Nice fluffy Jim who doesn't care about evidence. Nice fluffy Jim who's incapable of compromise. Nice fluffy Jim who vows to win a rigged election. Nice fluffy Jim who refuses to quit after massively losing a vote of no confidence. Nice fluffy Jim who vows to remain as leader even if he loses the election and sends his party into the abyss. And nice, "principled" Jim who puts his own leadership and "morals" ahead of the good of the party and the chance of ever actually implementing any of his apparently beloved-policies. What in the world would nice fluffy Jim do if he ever did achieve real power ?!?

Consider Jim carefully. Stripped of his (admittedly massive) differences in personal style and professed ideologies to Don, is his path to power really so different ? His words are certainly different, but are his actions ? And which is the greater danger : the candidate you trust or the one you don't ?

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