Tim Sung argues that mocking the establishment may once have bolstered accountability, but political satire has contributed to the unstable populist realities of today
From Have I Got News For You to Spitting Image and The Daily Show, political satire has become a weekly and, for some, a daily institution on both sides of the Atlantic. Countless politicians have become the butt of jokes throughout the years, with certain satirical impressions becoming iconic in popular culture: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Kate McKinnon as Hilary Clinton and Tracey Ullman as Theresa May. But do we truly understand the effect (or lack thereof) of this mockery?
Of the millions who tune in to beloved TV shows or scour the internet for political satire regularly, many are inclined to believe that this breed of comedy helps to keep politicians accountable, pointing out their flaws and demeaning them in the optimistic hope they will correct these flaws and thus ‘improve’. Believe it or not, politicians are humans after all, and are sensitive to such material. What’s more, with leaders in the mould of Trump in the ascendency, many argue that satire plays a more important role than ever before. What many don’t consider, however, is the role that satire may have played in getting us into the Trump situation in the first place.
It’s politicians that run our countries and make the decisions which affect our lives. With a responsibility this big, surely good politicians should be held in high esteem for the difficult job they do in the interests of society. Through its history, satire has instilled greater scepticism over politicians’ ability to represent people. While it can arguably be used to maintain the accountability of politicians, embarrassing them into doing things we voters want them to, a little too much mockery can result in demeaning the status of politicians as a whole. That has contributed to the situation where we are now, where politicians are held in contempt. Not only is the establishment under threat, but the whole institution of politics is under threat.
With politics in general being in a state of disrepute, and satire contributing to its undermining, it is harder for people to differentiate between a ‘good and competent’ politician and one that plays to the lowest common denominator. This trivialisation of all politics has resulted in politicians attaining a lower status than they once had and resulting in them being automatically held in contempt by the public. The traditional, so-called competent politician is now just relegated to the status of the fake-news-pedalling populist.
The role of fake news has played a large role in the rise of populists like Trump and Le Pen, and in the US satirists played a part in its proliferation. Making a mockery of the mainstream media, like when Jon Stewart lambasted CNN and Fox News throughout his tenure at the Daily Show, can result in a deterioration in trust of the traditional media outlets. This means people are more likely to rely on sources of information that are, not fake per se, but less reliable than the traditional media outlets, especially with the advent of social media and the increasing use of the internet for political means which allows almost anyone to post ‘news’ unchecked available to all. The increasing salience of fake news has only been enhanced with the style of satire employed over the past few years, especially in the US.
The traditional, so-called competent politician is now just relegated to the status of the fake-news-pedalling populist.
But then some people treat reactionary political satire shows as sources of information as well. Despite the presence of such shows making politics more accessible and information more readily available, they may have the opposite effect in engaging the public in concrete political activity. It increases voter apathy and apprehension in the political system because most shows consist of castigating and blistering the establishment and the political system. While most satire is directed at audiences who are sympathetic to the satirists’ points of view, the effect remains, challenging the conventional idea of the political sphere.
Due to the undermining of politics, of which satire has contributed to, the overall affect of satire is now reduced as the establishment has been undermined with the rise of populism and the ‘outsider’ candidate. This new wave of nativist politician doesn’t recognise humour. Trump and Farage will not and do not react in a constructive way to satire and that brings us back to our initial notion that satire helps hold politicians accountable by pointing out their flaws.
With statesmen from decades past this satire may have been effective, with those politicians paying close attention to satire, as demonstrated by the desire from some, like Edwina Currie, to be included in Spitting Image. The generation of populists we see today may be ruffled by the odd act of mockery from political satire but they will just continue on in their important business as if nothing had happened. Orwell once said that every joke is a tiny revolution, but with some of those in the political world no longer recognising such jokes, the powerful symbolic and accountability role that satire once played is now severely diminished.
Maybe there are better ways to affect the political landscape in this climate, and to regain the more austere and revered status politicians should have as the people responsible for the running of our country. Now, it is more daring to elevate the status and role of politicians, than to demean it, and that is the one thing that can return politics to a healthy state where it becomes easier to distinguish between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ politician. It still may get laughs out of the people and the viewers, but the actual effect of this form of satire looks to be on its way down, and new methods must be found to replace its role in keeping our politicians accountable.