Populism, anti-politics and the media: Critiquing ‘The Waldo Moment’

In ‘The Waldo Moment’, an episode from the ‘Black Mirror’ television series, writer Charlie Brooker joins in critique of the democratic system, particularly regarding ‘professional politicians’ and their tightly-managed media presence. As citizens have become aware of these phenomena, cynicism of political processes has become widespread, but while Brooker certainly understands the failings that have led to this distrust, at the heart of the episode is a clear warning that anti-politics and populism could lead to dystopia.

Through the crude and snarky cartoon character, Waldo, who is controlled by a disenfranchised, apolitical comedian, it is shown how tapping into populist anti-political sentiment can ultimately be used to control the politically uneducated masses.

The mass media has certainly played a key role not only in the rise of populism, but also in growing voter disenchantment. As Bernard Crick points out, “newspaper editors as well as populist leaders can articulate, stir, sometimes create, but most certainly shape widespread anxieties over immigration, race relations, crime, poverty or simply taxation. Populists always simplify such issues, and usually have a single magic solution” (2005, p. 627). Furthermore, the traditional media is increasingly focusing on personality over policy, style over substance. Former Labor Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, argues in his book ‘Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy’, that politicians are becoming ever-more media-managed because of the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of ‘gotcha’ journalism, but concedes that everyone has played a part. In an interview with 7.30’s Leigh Sales, Tanner said:

Responsibility for these problems is ultimately shared between politicians, media and the people who vote for them and who watch and read and listen to the media, the whole community. It is possible that a big political dividend will come to somebody who decides to try to break out of these shackles, but there are endless examples of where distortion, trivialising, misrepresenting by the media sends signals to politicians about what they’ll get punished for and what they’ll get rewarded for (7.30, 2011).

Politicians are receiving these media messages, then dumbing down their own messages for easy consumption, and this in turn perpetuates the media’s tendency to focus away from policy.Yet if a populist leader refuses to publicly state hard but necessary truths, they also risk exacerbating political cynicism (Crick, 2005, p. 632), and in this regard, the media and the politicians appear to be getting themselves into an endless cycle of populism. Indeed, people are hungry for more coverage on real policy issues, with research commissioned by the Electoral Commission after the 2001 British general election campaign suggesting that people felt the coverage “focused too much on the leaders and their personalities” (Wayne & Murray, 2009, p. 420).

While traditional media outlets are still a primary source of political coverage, alternative forms of media, particularly comedy and light entertainment shows, have a growing audience. Yet rather than being the antithesis to the mass media regarding populism, these shows take it to the extreme, and politicians are taking advantage. Nicolas Carah notes that a politician’s willingness to tell the public who they ‘really’ are and be ridiculed is “a way of exercising power – protecting artifice by exposing it” (2014). Anti-politics comedy news, like The Chaser Decides or The Daily Show, can be viewed as sources of deliberative democracy (Baym, 2005), and in a way educate voters to be ‘rational’, but in truth they offer only a rejection of the current political status quo without offering anything positive or productive in its place. Indeed, it can also be argued that many of these forms of anti-political media are simply pandering to the pre-existing political persuasion of their niche audiences, similar to Erik Lowe’s notion that “global network capitalism has found a way to commodify identity” (2001, p. 149). It’s not that these shows aren’t entertaining, funny, and perhaps educational for some, but they offer no real way forward.

Beyond simply blaming the media and politicians, what Brooker is really arguing in ‘The Waldo Moment’ is that cynicism, and in turn populist anti-political movements, are formed out of fundamental misunderstandings of political systems. Like another Brooker-created series, ‘Nathan Barley’, which directly tackles hipster culture and niche markets, ‘The Waldo Moment’ largely portrays the average citizen as an idiot who prefers simple messages in a complex world. Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey explain that populism feeds off a “general distrust of the complex machinery of modern governance and the complicated nature of policy solutions, which in contemporary settings often require consultations, reviews, reports, lengthy iterative design and implementation” (2014, p. 392). They also point out that populists can make claims against the ‘political correctness’ of the system to demonstrate that they ‘really know’ what people are thinking, and furthermore can deny expert knowledge in championing ‘commons sense’ against the bureaucrats, technocrats, representatives or ‘guardians of our interests’ (2014, p. 391). Those who are disenfranchised also often appear to be the ones unwilling or unable to understand complex political processes, and the ones also unwilling to put up with the workload and stress associated with being a so-called ‘professional politician’. We forget they’re human, too.

Brooker’s message has a striking resemblance to a debate that swept across the world late in 2013. Russell Brand’s call for revolution in The New Statesman essentially proclaimed that that democracy is a sham, and encouraged people not to vote. His message resonated with many, but he was also widely criticised for being naïve, simplistic and unqualified, and for not offering an alternative to the system that created society was we know it. Criticisms of Brand, like the critique Brooker is making in ‘The Waldo Moment’, focus on the idea that, while cynicisms is certainly understandable, in the context of history we are incredibly lucky. These criticisms are also true of other anti-politic movements (‘March in March’ and ‘Occupy’ for example), which fail to recognise that it’s only through the power of political and media institutions, built up over hundreds of years, that lasting societal change can truly occur, as well as how difficult it can be to sell political messages for mass consumption. As Saul Newman argues, “there must be some way of politically measuring the anti-political imaginary, through victories, defeats, and strategic gains and reversals. So while anti-politics points to a transcendence of the current order, it cannot be an escape from it; it must involve an encounter with its limits” (2011, p. 324).

Peep Show actor, Robert Webb, wrote an open letter to Brand, saying “we tried (revolution) again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell” (The New Statesman, 2013). Indeed, Webb’s argument that the abandonment of political systems would bring about an Orwellian future can be directly compared to the world as seen at the end of ‘The Waldo Moment’.

But perhaps the best critique of Brand’s call for revolution comes from the Huffington Post’s Toula Foscolos:

It’s easy to shrug our collective shoulders and abstain from voting because it’s not the perfect process we wish it were. It’s easy to be lazy and simply check the box we’ve always checked. It’s easy to rely on the rhetoric, the fear-mongering, and the sound bites on the 6 o’clock news, the allegations, the scandals, and the Twitter faux pas, to make up our minds. It’s much harder to take on the tedious – and arguably, more boring task – of educating ourselves on each party’s platform, in order to choose the one that best represents us and our values. Do your homework. Make your choice. Cast your vote. Don’t be an idiot (Huffington Post, 2014).

Maybe then we can break the cycle of populism.