Academic journal article Policy Review

When Politics Is A Laughing Matter

Academic journal article Policy Review

When Politics Is A Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

WHEN IT IS NOT at war, democracy is a comical political system. To many of history's greatest minds, the very idea of allowing the rabble to choose its leaders, who then pander to its wishes, was inherently ridiculous. Compared to the simple elegance of despotism, the stability of baronial rule, or the divinely ordained reign of a monarch, democracy is a messy, muddled method of government.

We, the people, know this. Because our leaders emerge from within our own ranks, we feel entitled to insult them mercilessly, especially when they get too big for their boots. And the worst insult any elected politician may suffer is being voted out of office. No matter how much dread he instills or respect he may inspire, his people do not love him.

In times of peace, we recognize that our leaders are not only no better than we, but in many cases, worse. We, at least, mind our own business and get on with making an honest living; they, on the other hand, willingly thrust themselves into the maelstrom of politics for what purpose? Power? Glory? Money? Fame? We suspect, perhaps wrongly, that whatever the reason, it must be nefarious. Some politicians may be motivated by a Great Vision, others by Moral Fervor, and still others by Fierce Ambition, but one verity remains: They want to clamber to the top of the greasy pole in order to run things and boss other people around.

Given that the system is so endearingly ludicrous, the antics of our elected representatives make entertaining viewing. Some commentators rue the disrespect with which politicians are sometimes treated. In turn, they can be accused of not only taking politicians altogether too seriously, but thinking ahistorically.

THE INVENTORS OF modern democratic politics, the British, occupied a great deal of their time mocking its practitioners. The more rambustious and vibrant the politics, the more malicious the mockery. Whereas parliamentarians had once been lumped together as "the Commons," the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of Tory and Whig political parties possessing distinct platforms. This was a development, coinciding with the explosion in political pamphleteering and newspapers, that bitterly divided the London coffee houses (Jonathan Swift, misanthropic author of the political satire Gulliver's Travels, was a particularly vicious Tory hack) and unleashed an extraordinary partisan rancor.

Turn to a typical eighteenth-century caricature and, even in our crass age, one is horrified by the sheer delight artists took in portraying the great politicians defecating, urinating, fornicating, being disemboweled, and suffering from flatulence. Take, for instance, the famous print of the Whiggish Sir Robert Walpole -- who served for more than 20 years as Britain's first prime minister and to whom the phrase "every man has his price" has been, no doubt inaccurately yet justifiably, attributed -- straddling the gate of government. The cartoon is entitled "Idol-Worship, or The Way to Preferment" and depicts a servile place-seeker kissing Walpole's enormous, naked buttocks. By comparison, Doonesbury's "waffle" and "feather" jibes seem thin gruel indeed.

Later artists and writers would downplay the scatology and instead focus on grotesquely exaggerating the personal appearance and besmirching the characters of politicians. By the late nineteenth century, when suffrage had bestowed the vote on most of the male population and parliamentary government was upheld as the epitome of Progress, middle-class publications such as Punch drew their claws. Disraeli, Salisbury, and Gladstone were portrayed rather harmlessly as (respectively) greasily unctuous, self-satisfied, and eye-glazingly boring.

But the British were always fond of their idiosyncratic little democracy, even as they poked fun at its ridiculousness. As Sir Joseph recounts in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore:

I grew so rich that I was sent

By a pocket borough into Parliament. …

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