When running for the Senate in 1950, the ever-spotless Richard Nixon was branded by his opponents ‘Tricky Dick’ for his campaign tactics. In 2012, the dulcet tones of Ed Miliband, then Leader of the Opposition, pronounced the letters ‘L-O-L’ in Parliament for the first time, in reference to David Cameron’s texts to Rebekah Brooks. And on June 3rd2018, the Israeli embassy in the US tweeted a Mean Girls GIF in response to the Iranian Supreme Leader’s threat of annihilation. Facetious jokes in politics are nothing new. What’s new is the way social media allows them to dominate the issues. The more seriously we take the form of the debate, the more seriously politicians will take their jobs.
‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’ On the surface, the quote used by @IsraelinUSA is the superficial mode of a perennial discourse about sovereignty and relations in the region. Unsurprisingly, comments have been made about whether this is the right way to conduct diplomacy or for politicians to behave. It is not, however, out of character for politicians of a certain breed. If populism in regards to policy is about promising simple solutions to complex problems, then this is no more than the social media equivalent. To use a meme, a GIF, a pop culture joke, in order to attract attention and avoid engaging properly with the issue is a perfect way to win sympathy. The art of the modern populist is to engage voters by speaking a language that they like hearing spoken. It could be, in the case of Trump, the much-ignored white anger in America, expressed in the form of rabid tweets. It could be the nostalgia evoked by Nigel Farage, embodied by drinking in a pub. And of course it can also be the more unexpected Mean Girls reference by an Israeli diplomat running an official Twitter account. They are all linked by the low level of actual discourse, trying to appeal to people’s instincts over rationality.
Liberal democracy can undoubtedly benefit when interest in it is encouraged. To address issues in a creative way can help to mobilise sections of the electorate that would not normally get worked up about the more tedious sides of politics. But one can’t help but think that it’s possible without resorting to playground insults, or teen movie references. If leaders like Thatcher, Blair, Mandela, Clinton, FDR, Helen Lewis or Mary Robinson (for better or for worse) revitalised the roles they stepped into at the time without these tactics, others should strive to do the same. Populism does not have to be a substitute for popularity.
That being said, politics and diplomacy can and should have a certain level of fun involved. The House of Commons’ PMQs, if done well, can allow MPs to spar on issues in a more entertaining way than we see in other parliaments around the world, without resorting to either extreme of barely relevant jokes, or the physical brawling that happens in certain assemblies. Furthermore, making people laugh can be an effective tool. One can imagine that while the Israeli Embassy’s tweet may seem incendiary towards Iran now, some light bantering in a negotiation room, we can imagine, might ease tensions and promote companionship over hostility. Oswald Mosley’s attempts to make the British Union of Fascists a serious political force were defeated (if one can use so grandiose a term) by him essentially being laughed out of town. But Trump was not. Despite the valiant efforts of the SNL screenwriters, he remains standing fast in a nauseating meme war over what is more laughable: everything about him, or the globalist elite not getting their way.
I could happily proffer more Mean Girls quotes for diplomats to use in their messages to foreign sovereigns, ranging from somewhat appropriate to inexcusably dismissive.
“There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.”
“Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”
“Oh my God, Danny DeVito! I love your work!” I know who I would say that to.
We shouldn’t take the excitement out of politics, but we should aim to put the serious back in. Try not to laugh too long at a Mean Girls GIF; ask why they’re not doing their job.