A handy way of spotting stupid people is that they say things like, “Politicians! They’re all as bad as each other.” I’ve heard versions of this phrase all my sentient life. But since 2008 the sentiment has become almost universal. “Our political class is entirely mediocre,” as a faux-intellectual Parisian told me the other day. The standing of elected politicians is at its lowest since the 1930s. You can see why: after the Iraq war and the global financial crisis, it now turns out that the euro (brainchild of Europe’s political class) was a ghastly idea.
However, the bashing of today’s politicians is unfair. They deserve a break.
Modern western politicians divide neatly into three generations. The first lasted from 1940 until Charles de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969. Politicians of this era – Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Konrad Adenauer and De Gaulle – either won the war, or helped rebuild their countries afterwards, or both. Even their contemporaries took them seriously: when Churchill stood against Clement Attlee in Britain’s elections of 1945, about half the population heard one or both of their campaign broadcasts. Today these politicians are revered. In the early 2000s Churchill, Adenauer and De Gaulle were voted greatest Briton, German and Frenchman.
But that generation had it easy. Fighting the war took great courage, yet winning it was quite simple, once the US and USSR had joined against Germany. Postwar reconstruction was even simpler. In 1945 German and British income per capita was about as low as in 1913, and precious little of it went on consumption. With new technology, western economies were bound to gallop ahead. Almost everyone agreed that the new wealth be shared widely.
It was an excellent time to run a country. In 1972, just after that era ended, the inflated self-image of postwar leaders was hilariously captured in a quote that Henry Kissinger claimed he never gave Oriana Fallaci: “Americans like the cowboy … who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else … This amazing, romantic character suits me …”
When Kissinger said that, or didn’t, politicians were about to stumble. In 1973 economies seized up, and Watergate revealed the shocking truth that politicians could lie.
But economic growth resumed in 1982, and then the west won the cold war. My two happiest political memories are from one single winter: a friend waking me one night to announce the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Nelson Mandela walking free three months later. Soon afterwards I went to study public policy at an American school where everyone planned to change the world through politics. I remember a professor using the phrase, “23-year-old White House aide”, and a collective sigh rising from the room. That was who we wanted to be.
From 1982 through 2003, politicians managed success and took the credit. Margaret Thatcher won three straight elections and drew minutes-long, apparently sincere standing ovations at Conservative party conferences. Ronald Reagan was eventually voted greatest American. Tony Blair won three elections too, and Bill Clinton left office with approval ratings of 68 per cent, the same as Reagan’s. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, no elected prime minister was voted out from 1973 until 2010. Eventually voters decided that any old fool could run a country, and began backing amusing candidates. Italians elected Silvio Berlusconi; the US supreme court elected George W. Bush.
With hindsight, this middle generation of politicians created today’s mess. In part, the problem was that by the 1980s politicians had done the obvious things. The misguided projects that followed came from a mix of boredom and utopianism. Right and left erred together. Both sides let bankers do as they liked. Almost all continental European politicians backed the euro. And in the US and UK, both main parties wanted to invade Iraq. (Barack Obama emerged precisely because he had been a rare dissenter.) Politicians made all these mistakes with almost no help from voters. Meanwhile they virtually neglected climate change.
The last drops of hope went on Obama’s presidential bid. He entered the great American tradition of “Mr Smith goes to Washington”: an outsider who would clean out the stables. But then the financial crisis vaporised hope. Now not even wannabe Mr Smiths like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry can seduce voters. The new popular movements – the Tea Party, Arab spring, Spanish protests, British riots and Occupy Wall Street – are almost leaderless. The sociologist Richard Sennett says that even when people support a politician’s platform, they don’t believe he can carry it out. Western politicians have lost agency to bond markets, big corporations, carbon dioxide, multinational institutions and non-western countries.
Today’s leaders are shrunken figures. Yet they are due a rebound. They have given up on utopian projects, because voters don’t want any more funny stuff. Instead politicians now have a simple task: get economies growing again. That will eventually happen. The next set of elections could be worth winning.
Simon Kuper has been voted Cultural Commentator of the Year in the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards