Take all your messiahs and give us back politicians


Remember when politicians were just politicians and not semi-divine beings? Ah, the good old days. Roughly pre-2008. So technically not all that long ago, yet today, in June 2016, they seem like an eternity ago.

Don’t take me wrong; I don’t think that the only good politician is a boring politician. A bit of charisma and personality goes a long way, but it should not overshadow, or be at the expense of, the far more important basics: decency, character, integrity, intelligence, capability. And while you want to be represented by somebody better than the average, you also understand that politicians are, just like you, only human; neither perfect nor infallible; worthy of support, to be sure, but not of worship. Most importantly, you understand they are neither, and shouldn’t be expected to be, holy miracle-workers nor celebrity entertainers.

But do you really, anymore?

It seems to me that Obama broke the mould eight years ago, and now, however different in their politics, Trump presents merely more of the same – in substance, or the lack thereof.  We are seeing the progressive replacement of the idea of an elected representative as the first amongst equals with one of an elected representative as a political messiah, with their supporters behaving less like a traditional base and more like a cult. This is not a new phenomenon in politics in general, and indeed in history, but is relatively recent – and relatively worrying – in democratic politics.

Some – most? – of the lustre is gone now, but try to cast your mind back eight years, to the original excitement. Hope. And Change. We were all going to be the change we wanted to see. Obama would end America’s wars – maybe all wars.  The Nobel Committee in Stockholm awarded him the Peace Prize before he even had a chance to start earning it, for being rather than doing. And of course, this was going to be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

There has always been enthusiasm in presidential elections – and it’s a good thing, because politics matters – but Obama was different. Yes, he was the first African-American to get this far, but it was almost like he was a different, better, species of intelligent life, a quasi-mythical being, a redeemer. No wonder the ironically used title “the messiah” stuck. We’re talking about a man whose image got turned into an icon, a man who inspired flowery peons and worship songs. Wrote “SF Gate” columnist Mark Morford in 2008:

Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

Seems so cringe-worthy now, in 2016, and it was cringe-worthy then too, but so much more common. But lest you feel a relief that it’s all finally over, that we have returned to normalcy in politics, since Hillary is congenitally incapable of exciting anyone, least of all Bill, and Sanders, for all the “Feel the Bern” stuff, is just a crazy old uncle, Donald Trump is the evidence that eight years of Obama have merely created an opposite and almost equal reaction.

So far the Trump worship has not been as inane and insane as that of Obama – except perhaps for the Hindu nationalists in India – but the vehement passion he arouses in his supporters, both for himself and against those who oppose him from within and without, has few recent parallels, certainly on the political right. While only a few have so far descended into an outright quasi-religious worship, too many already think him a saviour, the only one, with solutions for all problems.

The thing with political messiahs is that they all eventually disappoint, because as flawed human beings they can never live up to the grandiose expectations they themselves and their supporters have created. But in the meantime they end up doing hell of a lot of damage to their countries and polities. So tone it down, people.