A lot has been theorised and analysed in the last decade about the rise of populism across the world. Political scientists and sociologists have put forward various theses by exploring and specifying certain economic, political and social factors that have triggered the global rise of populism, especially from 2010 onwards.

I, too, have been a keen student of these theses and have often applied them in this column to explore the populist zeitgeist in South Asia.

Most scholars have perceived populism as an idea that has invaded democracy to dismantle it. But there are also those who believe that populism is very much part of democracy or of a democracy that has lost its bearings. Either way, the stated reasons for populism’s rise are quite similar: the failure/fatigue/complacency of mainstream politics and economics. 

Some scholars have even compared the conditions that have created a fertile ground for contemporary populism to emerge with the conditions that gave birth to totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

A blend of politics and entertainment, ‘politainment’ might appear innocuous, but one of its consequences is the dumbing down of complex political issues

Indeed, there is now enough evidence to suggest that present-day populism does pose certain existential threats to state and government institutions and to democracy. But the conditions and triggers behind the emergence of populism in the 2010s may not be as drastic or alarming as the ones which produced brutal authoritarian mutations, such as Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism or Maoism.

Instead, one major source of modern-day populism may, at least on the surface, seem rather harmless. It is often referred to as ‘politainment’. According to the German sociologist Jörg-Uwe Nieland, “politainment is the blending of politics and entertainment and the entangling of political actors, topics and processes with entertainment culture.”

Politainment can simply be about the entertainment industry adapting and dramatising ‘interesting’ political stories and events for films, TV series, etc, or musicians poetising these in pop/rock songs. But, politicians too have been using aspects of the industry to shape their image in an ‘entertaining’ manner, to reach a much larger audience. 

Former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) used the radio to deliver daily ‘fireside chats’, to come across as an empathetic father-like figure who talked about issues in a highly accessible manner. The German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1933-45) used the entertainment industry, especially cinema, to shape an image of himself as the fearless defender of German nationalism and values, and the nemesis of the ‘enemies of Germany.’ 

The production quality of the films made by the Hitler regime was high. It was able to deliver Nazi messages in an entertaining manner because the heroes and villains in them — though cast as ‘pure Germans’ on the one hand, and Jews, communists and liberals on the other — were scripted like the stereotypical heroes and villains in mainstream films of the time. 

US president Jimmy Carter (1977-81) often surrounded himself with certain famous rock stars to change the perception of him being ‘dull’ and not cool. This tactic eventually led to him being dubbed as the “rock and roll president.” One has seen the Indian PM and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi do the same by hobnobbing with glitzy Bollywood stars to glamorise his appeal. 

The recent criticism of politainment, though, has to do with the manner in which it has contributed in actually creating populists. To the scholar of political communication Dan D. Nimmo, presenting politics through pop culture mechanisms may create a fake picture of political reality, a ‘political fairyland.’ This impedes citizens’ understanding of politics.

According to the research organisation iResearch, politainment can (and often has) led to intense personalisation and ‘celebritisation’ of politics and to the shaping of populists. TV news channels and YouTube vloggers, for example, frame actual political players, events and issues like scriptwriters and directors plot films and TV series. There are twists and turns, dramatically communicated, as if one were telling the story of an unfolding movie or a TV show. 

It’s a four-act mechanism:

2 The entertainment industry produces programmes (such as morning shows), in which politicians are invited as a way to exhibit their more ‘human side.’ Such programming is often punctuated with jokes and trivial talk, and actual issues are discussed in a light manner. The objective is to keep the viewers entertained. 

2 Then there are ‘talk shows.’ These often go the other way, by consciously compounding existing tensions between political guests to simulate ‘heated’ exchanges, which can even lead to physical brawls. Whereas the brawling politicians believe that they have made an emotional connection on a primordial level with the audience, the host believes that they will be celebrated as the keeper of free speech and other democratic values. 

In all of this, the audience are thoroughly entertained. It’s no wonder then, between 2003 and 2018, political talk-shows in Pakistan were enjoying higher ratings than actual entertainment programming. 

3 Political players enthusiastically participate in the ritual. Those who become good at it, become celebrities of sorts and are repeatedly invited back. Before Imran Khan suddenly exploded on the mainstream political scene in 2011, he was the leader of a tiny party. But he had already become a regular guest on talk-shows, lambasting the ‘corruption’ of mainstream politicians and the ‘imperialist West’, and passionately defending ‘Eastern values.’ 

Indeed, Mr Khan was a carefully crafted ‘project’ of the military establishment, but one can also claim that he was perhaps the first political leader in the country to have been entirely shaped by the popular electronic media. As was the American populist Donald Trump, mainly by Fox News.

The politicians go along, manipulating an already willing media. This is when politainment starts to truly proliferate populist sentiments — especially when [4] audience participation increases. 

Thanks to social media platforms, the audience of politics-framed-as-an-entertaining-storyline — with protagonists and antagonists and sensational twists and turns — get to have their say as well. They passionately post their comments on social media, but they do so like fans of certain polarising TV shows or movies do. 

This four-way mechanism of politainment has greatly facilitated the rise of populism and the consequent dumbing down of complex political issues. This is disconcerting because the consequences of populism can be extremely damaging. 

It is not like the case of a film that is disturbing but entertaining because, in the end, it’s just a film. Politainment is entertaining and involves a lot of hyperbolic simulations, but its impacts are a lot more real than that of a film.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2024

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