Personality has been a factor of increasing significance in 21st Century politics: the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum and the succession of Boris Johnson show this to be true. This factor is being manipulated and abused by politicians to usurp the significance of public policy, leaving a space for poor relationships and a threatening rhetoric to emerge. Ultimately, public policy itself is being steered by the personality of a country’s leader. However, arguably this has been emerging gradually over the past 50 years.
Margaret Thatcher is an iconic example of personality politics. Philip Stephens, writing in the Financial Times, explains how she was known for her ‘guts and grit’, which was most evident when regaining British control over the Falklands. In her memoir, Thatcher states her ‘iron will’ was crucial in determining British success over Argentina, contributing to the moniker of ‘The Iron Lady’. Her stubborn, but determined personality led to the offensive strategy towards Argentina, reflected in the sinking of the Belgrano. Margaret Thatcher was certainly ‘not for turning’, but claimed to be ‘extraordinarily patient’, provided she got her own way in the end.
When considering personality politics over the pond, Barack Obama may not be the first person you would consider. However, his favourable traits of integrity, respect and fairness all shaped his public policy. Malcom Friedberg describes him as a man who has ‘the courage to do what’s best for all of us’ and ‘not to compromise because it provides him with some short-term gain’. This no doubt led to the re-ignition of diplomatic relations with Iran, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (2010) which led to 95% of the American population able to benefit from health insurance as of 2014.
Thatcher and Obama were clearly charismatic leaders, however whilst their personality clearly steered public policy, it did not lead to the rhetoric and poor relations we see today.
Many attribute Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election with his outgoing, boisterous and confident personality. One way he captured his supporters’ hearts was by promising to ‘build a wall’ on the USA’s border with Mexico and tightening immigration laws. Arguably, this has fuelled hatred towards immigrants who are largely members of the Hispanic community, leading to the El Paso shooting this August - the gunman favoured derogatory rhetoric towards the community claiming the attack was a ‘response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas’ and he was against a ‘cultural and ethnic replacement brought by invasion’.
In the UK, Boris Johnson is also a leader who uses his personality to his advantage. In 2008, the population were enthralled by the somewhat ‘buffoon-like’ personality of the new Mayor of London; an image which he has sought to distance himself from since entering the Cabinet, and now as Tory leader. Since becoming Prime Minister, he is seeking to distance himself from this perception, towards becoming a strong, determined leader. However, this is still eclipsing the importance of public policy as arguably we are more focused on Johnson’s ‘go hard or go home attitude’. The personality of the PM may lead to his downfall as it causes discontent with EU nations, who refuse to renegotiate a new Brexit deal.
It is evident that personality dominates policy; it doesn’t just steer its direction, but it allows dangerous rhetoric and poor relations domestically and globally to dominate 21st Century politics.
Image - Flickr (The White House)