When we think about 'fashion' we mostly think about clothes, like what the pace-setters in Milan and Paris tell the susceptible is currently fashionable, or what is, to use the lingo. 'so last season'. (I tend to think that , in the words of the old Hugo Boss slogan: True Style is Never Out of Fashion.) But what is increasingly clear is that political leaders, given one of the peculiar dynamics of public opinion, can be in and out of fashion too. So, as you read this, wherever you are in the world, think about your political leader. Is your leader still in fashion?
When a new leader comes in, particularly via an election victory, even those who did not vote for her will claim to be supporters or to have voted for the new leader. Everybody wants to associate with the new leader; therefore, newspapers and magazines use her name or pictures to drive circulation. Critically, the punditry is mostly respectful of the new leader. Opinion writers are loathe to blast her. Equally critically, when citizens gather, those who oppose the new leader are careful not to voice criticism of her - especially harsh criticism - for fear that those around them might pounce on the errant opinion. For a while, opponents will only abuse her in the safety and security of people they already know share their opposition to the new leader. Above all, for a while cartoonists and comedians treat the new leader carefully, sparing her their deadliest barbs.
But fashions change. It is crucial to note that there is a difference between the substantive reasons groups in society might begin to oppose and attack a leader they once supported, and the whole question of leaders being out of fashion. As they say, to govern is to choose. As the new leader begins to make tough decisions, it is inevitable that some groups will be happy and others will not be. The coalition that brought her to power begins to break up...ever so gradually. But what you might call the 'fashion effect' is clearest when you notice what begins to happen to those who have no substantive reason to be unhappy with the new leader, those who in fact support the policies she has been pursuing.
What happens is that it gets to a point that all the indicators I listed earlier begin to change. Pundits begin to pound the new leader left, right and center. Comedians now find her fair game, and they pull no punches. At social gatherings, people feel much freer to mock and attack the new leader, even if it is unfair. She gets ridiculed. The critical moment arrives when those who still admirer her, and broadly agree with her policies, find it more difficult to defend her in public. Before you know it, it is no longer the done thing. You can still defend her in public, of course, but you have to be willing to pay a price, that is, get into arguments, even shouting matches. Fewer and fewer supporters are willing to do that. Discouraged supporters begin to whisper to one another: History will vindicate our leader.
History? What about here and now?
It is in such an environment that the blatant lies and distortions of the opponents of the new leader gradually dominate the public sphere. If the process is not challenged, it will have serious political consequences, not just for the new leader, but for the reforms and policy platforms she is associated with.
What to do? Supporters of the new leader have to be mobilized to speak up, to sound off, to stand their ground, to insist on the soundness of the reforms and policy platform. Lies have to be challenged, and distortions corrected. The strong must create space for the weak to speak up, make it all right to do so. Otherwise, ordinary supporters lose heart, shut up, and the blockers of reform will win.
So, is your political leader still in fashion? Do you care?
Photo Credit: Flickr user an untrained eye