The problem with America’s politico-entertainment complex

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If we designed a candidate to win the US presidential election in November, he or she would be . . . what? More conservative than Joe Biden. Less frightening than Donald Trump. Young enough to represent a fresh start in American public life without being a total greenhorn. Fifty-two seems the right age. 

What else? Someone who has run a state instead of prattling in Washington. Someone from the fast-growing sunbelt. (Four of the last eight presidents have been governors in the southern half of the contiguous US.) Throw in some foreign affairs credentials and a personal background that chimes with an immigrant nation.

If she came from a swing state rather than South Carolina, I’d suspect Nikki Haley, who meets all these criteria, of being assembled in a lab to become president. Sure enough, she polls better against Biden than Trump does. Given her lower name-recognition than either man, the data might understate her potential. And Republicans want little to do with her. 

Why? Perhaps because, while the Republicans would rather win than not, defeat isn’t a disaster. For the grassroots, there is still the feeling of tribal belonging that Trump confers on his flock. It isn’t results-dependent. In fact, as the Alamo showed, and Dunkirk too, group identities can grow stronger in defeat.

For Republican professionals, meanwhile — the candidates, the apparatchiks, the commentators, the wonks — there are opportunities galore in the wider politico-entertainment complex. 

In most western democracies, the defeated can go on to make a living in business. America is almost unique in being able to keep election-losers in handsome employment within politics. There is always a television slot, a think-tank sinecure, a tax-exempt political action committee, a speaking gig, a book deal. Sarah Palin, whose electoral career peaked as governor of one of America’s least populous states, sold a reported 2mn copies of her memoirs in hardback. There are European heads of government who can’t do that.

So lucrative and ego-feeding is America’s political industry that even non-Americans strive to crack it. Last week, Liz Truss gave a speech of virtuoso dottiness to a rightwing conference in Maryland. Don’t knock it as a career move. There is more income, less stress and often larger audiences to be had as a touring windbag than as a minister. Steve Hilton, who lasted two years in government as a (liberal) adviser to David Cameron, managed six as a Fox News host. Nigel Farage, that seven-time failure as a candidate for parliament, is a regular on the US circuit.

Think of the incentive structure here. Why moderate to win office if you can have the same trappings out of it? Fear of unelectability is what keeps political parties from embracing wild ideas. If that fear goes, if life in opposition is about as agreeable as life in government, an important check on extremism falls away. It becomes rational to cultivate activists over swing voters. In fact, a stint in Congress or the West Wing might be more desirable as a way of topping up one’s subsequent value on the circuit than as an end in itself. Palin-level opportunities are scarce, of course, but that just sharpens the incentive to be ever more vivid and strident to get them.

No other democracy faces quite this problem. Britain has tried to build a politico-entertainment sector (see GB News, or rather don’t) but a medium-sized nation will never have the depth of market. Even in the US, it took the deregulation of television news in the 1980s to set things alight. Barring a re-regulation — fanciful under this conservative Supreme Court — America is in a unique fix. For democracy to work, life in opposition has to be something of a drag. In the US, it is, or can be, a delight.

“The first party to retire its 80-year-old candidate,” said Haley, “is going to be the one who wins this election.” A resonant and true line, but one that takes for granted that winning is everything to everyone. She is in good company. Niccolò Machiavelli, the father of political science, assumed the point of politics was the acquisition, holding and use of power. This is more or less analogous to the premise of self-interest in classical economics. Well, in time, homo economicus had to give ground to a more rounded view of what makes human beings tick. There is no understanding US politics in 2024, which for some is a source of income and status, or even of belonging in an atomised world, without a similar mental shift. How odd that a candidate who plays the youth card makes such an old-fashioned fuss of elected office.

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