New Internationalist

Signs of infantilization

Issue 405

Simple over complex

The issues are reduced to sound bites. It is a question of stark choices between right and wrong, good and evil. The world presented is one of dualistic oppositions: either we do X (cut taxes, drop bombs, curtail civil liberties) or Y will happen (economic stagnation, rogue state aggressions or widespread terrorism). It is assumed by the infantilizing politician that the citizenry cannot understand the complicated or the nuanced and must be spoon-fed a simple diet of right and wrong. Other options get crowded out. As the crusty old US journalist HL Mencken put it: ‘For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.’ It is not clear who is the main victim: the citizenry, who cease to believe and listen; or the politicians themselves, who convince themselves they are describing something real.

Fast over slow

Quick images triumph over creative ideas – the quick emotive ‘sign’, often built around a TV ad (the sinister criminal, the sleazy opponent, the ‘illegal’ migrant), at the expense of ideas that get at the root causes of crime, corruption and joblessness. This avalanche of images overwhelms any discussion of new thinking that could break out of the old political dead ends. Where is there room in the quick cut and thrust of a political campaign to discuss an annual guaranteed income, or the miserable conditions that propel people to crime, or new ways to engage an apathetic citizenry in democratic decisions? How will that register in the polls the next day? What will the focus group think of it? As they say in the Blue Mountains, ‘this dog doesn’t hunt’.

Decisiveness over thoughtfulness

The pollsters tell us that what we crave most in our politicians is a strong, decisive leader. Bill Clinton famously scolded the Democrats in 2002: ‘People would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right.’ The idea of infantilization hinges on the human reluctance to leave the womb, the family home, the care of the parent, and enter into the adult world to do (and think) for oneself. The politician can play on this feeling by trying to replace the parent as someone who continues to decide for you. This tendency is quite clear in dictatorships. It takes different forms, sometimes with a sexual frisson of identification, as in charisma or machismo. In more democratic politics the politician tends to assert their parenthood over the citizenry by being ‘decisive’. Here lies a major danger to democracy: politicians who feel they have to be decisive and show leadership even when they have no idea what they are doing. Politicians who can never admit they were wrong or have made a mistake. Such an ethos of ‘decisive’ leadership crowds out thoughtfulness and public consultation, cutting off the oxygen of democracy.

Immediate over long term

Most politicians have difficulty thinking beyond their own term in office, or even past the following morning’s headlines. This creates severe problems for issues with long gestation periods, particularly environmental issues like climate change or species extinction. The culture of immediacy demands ‘results’ with at least the threadbare garment of statistical proof. Both employment and Gross Domestic Product are expected to grow. Inflation must be kept in check. Crime has to be down. But such immediate indicators often mask long-term problems – employment may grow, but only in low-paid, part-time work. Economic growth as a whole could be at the expense of environmental sustainability. Underneath it all, inequality could be growing and creating a long-term crime problem, temporarily masked by expensive policing. As Bob Dylan sings: ‘She knows there’s no success like failure. And that failure’s no success at all.’

Celebrity over substance

The packaging of politicians has become a staple of political life. It’s a question of ‘make-over’. Every nuance of style – hair, facial expression, skin lines, height – gets attention. Employment opportunities for the make-over artists abound. Then there is the tricky question of ‘positioning’. One must stand above the crowd, but lack any attitude of élitism or privilege: someone the voter can identify with, but at the same time look up to as leadership material. The US electorate (or that part of it that bothers to vote) was fooled twice by George W Bush in this way. An ordinary guy (who can barely string two sentences together) but also combined with righteous leadership qualities (the unforgettable landing on the aircraft carrier in military garb to declare ‘victory’ in Iraq). So the political insider makes it their business to construct a celebrity that is then sold to the voter, who is supposed to make up their minds based on intangibles like ‘trust’ and ‘strength’, rather than thinking about the issues.

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