The current crop of Western leaders is failing to inspire the electorates much beyond their base. Is it just a coincidence, or do we live during particularly polarised and unsettled times when the voters are getting increasingly difficult to appeal to (or bamboozle) – or are all the prime ministers and presidents at the moment just shit?
Firstly, the numbers.
Donald Trump gets overwhelmingly negative media, both at home and abroad. You would think that therefore his approval ratings would be in the Nixon-during-Watergate or Bush-Sr-after-breaking-Read-My-Lips-promise territory of mid to high 20s. But according to the Rasmussen tracking poll, Trump is sitting on 48 per cent – quite high for him, quite low compared to his predecessors at this stage of the term.
If not the “Leader of the Free World”, who is to inspire us then? Who do we look up to as an example of a popular alternative style and substance in today’s political leadership?
If Trump the clown, the reality TV star, the racist, Putin’s puppet, the joke, the worst of the worst gets almost half of his people to like him, you would think that other leaders, those much cooler, more sophisticated, more intelligent, more respectable and more respected would be rated much higher by their voters. But this is not the case. In fact, it’s often the opposite (I’m not arguing whether that’s right or wrong, merely stating facts about popularity as measured by opinion polls).
In Canada, the hunky New Age PM Justin Trudeau’s approval rating stood at 50 per cent back in June, up from 44 per cent in May, with the apparent boost from his trade dispute with Trump. His party, the Liberals, is sitting on 32 per cent.
In the United Kingdom, the Tory PM Teresa May enjoys (thought that’s a wrong word in the context) a 25 per cent approval – and a 62 per cent disapproval – no doubt in a large part because of her (mis)handling of the Brexit issue. Another recent poll has May at 30 per cent and Labor’s old-style leftie leader Jeremy Corbyn at 28 per cent.
In Germany, the long-standing Chancellor Angela Merkel gets the thumbs up from 46 per cent of voters. Her Christian Democrats are the first preference of 29 per cent of Germans, while Social Democrats of only 18. The anti-establishment Alternative for Germany is only one point behind Social Democrats, at 17 per cent.
In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity sits at 42 per cent (with 48 per cent unpopularity). The numbers are 32 and 57 respectively for the Labor leader Bill Shorten. While Turnbull remains the preferred Prime Minister, Liberals have been trailing Labor in the polls for over a year.
In France, another Trudeaueseque young and supposedly charismatic leader, President Emmanuel Macron enjoys a 36.3 per cent approval.
There are many other Western countries, of course, but the above selection are the ones where people usually expect to see politicians of substance, whose appeal extends beyond their borders and who can help provide an example and direction to the rest of the club. Nothing against Finland, Japan or Spain, but even the best educated citizens of Australia or the United States would have problems saying who their leaders are (if you are curious, they are Juha Sipila, Shinzo Abe (still!) and Mariano Rajoy (until June) and the most recent figures I could find for their public approval were 31 per cent, 52 per cent and 27 per cent respectively) – much less expecting the Nordics or the Mediterraneans to provide the “next best hope” for the developed world.
So what’s going on? Perhaps it would be unfair to compare the current crop to the 1980s all-star line up of Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand, but you would expect today’s leaders to be doing better than they are. Sure, public popularity of course is not everything, but I can’t wait two decades for history to judge their achievements while in office before I write this post. So vox populi has to be vox Dei for now.
The times are definitely unsettled. Gone are the certainties of the Cold War and the sunny and carefree 1990s. Since the turn of the Millennium, voters in the West have been battered by the controversies of Afghanistan/Iraq/War on Terror abroad and the debates over terrorism, immigration and multiculturalism at home. From 2008 onwards, a major economic upheaval and dislocation has added to the mix. People are restless and understandably so.
Connected with the above point is the observation that “business as usual” in government no longer works. On the other hand, no new policy consensus has yet emerged to replace it, though populism/nationalism are certainly trying, if not successfully just yet. So while people have largely stopped listening and tune out the old, no one has yet hit on a magic new policy and rhetoric formula that would unite the base and the swinging middle.
Both the unsettling (which I have elsewhere called the Great Malaise) as well as the disenchantment with traditional politics are reflected not just in the popularity and unpopularity of particular leaders but in the concerns and dissatisfaction with the political system in general. It is not just the oft-discussed Millennial flirtation with socialism – it’s also the fact that centrists seem to be the most disenchanted with democracy or the historically low levels of trust in government.
With all that in mind, it seems to me that we’re in for an extended period of volatility. Even the best will find it difficult to woo large majorities.
And I don’t think we’ve got the best at the moment. It’s difficult to measure it in any scientific way so I’m relying just on my gut feeling but I don’t think we’re blessed with a lot of talent internationally. So to answer the question from the start of this post – are the times particularly difficult for politicians or are they all shit? – it’s a little bit from the column A and a little bit from the column B.