So, a comedian walks into a parliament...
Comedians turned politicans are not proving to be very amusing when it comes to governing — and are a sign of stagnant times that need a mix-up
This is the age of comedians in politics. Even in Germany, with its largely humourless political tradition, one of them is trying to bring a floundering major party back to life.
In recent years, satirists have reached remarkable political heights. The Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, has been part of the past two Italian governments. Volodymyr Zelensky used the popularity of his comedy show to become president of Ukraine and to consolidate the most political power of anyone who ever held the office. Jimmy Morales joked and blustered his way to the presidency of Guatemala in 2015.
Last year, Marjan Šarec, who used to mock Slovenian politicians for a living, became his country’s prime minister. Jón Gnarr, who turned his 2010 election campaign for mayor of Reykjavik into a punk humour show, is no longer in office, but last year, the residents of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, elected comedian Hayk Marutyan as their mayor.
In Brazil in 2010, an actual clown, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, received the most votes of any candidate to the parliament; in 2014, he won re-election. Last year, Silva declined to run again, saying he was “ashamed” of the professional politicians he’d had to work with.
Even though US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage aren’t professional comedians, their rise in the US and the UK probably can be written down to the same reasons that are behind satirists’ victories elsewhere.
As Keir Milburn from the University of Leicester wrote in a 2018 paper: “Both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have, at least partially, adopted caricatured personas by presenting a comically limited range of characteristics. This strategy of self-caricature is risky as it invites social punishment in the form of laughter. It can, however, also be useful to politicians on a number of counts. Firstly, you get to choose the structure of your own caricature and so ensure that the satire takes place on your own terms. Secondly, the ironic distance that comes with self-caricature aids the evasion of critique.”
Germany, though, is a country where politics is a serious business. A parody political force called Die Partei, or simply the Party, has enjoyed a small measure of success running on various absurd platforms (such as banning air travel and offering retirees virtual reality trips instead) — but only in European parliament elections, which some German voters treat as a joke. (The Party won 900,000 votes and two European parliament seats this year, its best result ever.) Generally, politicians are expected to be earnest and knowledgeable about the issues.
In late August, Böhmermann went on the air to mock the SPD leadership candidates ... and announce his bid. He had to start the announcement over because the first time, the audience laughed
And yet Jan Böhmermann, a well-known TV satirist, is attempting a political insurrection in Germany by making a run for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in the current governing coalition. The venerable party, the nation’s oldest, has lost direction and is floundering in the polls where it is currently third or fourth behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Greens and sometimes the nationalist Alternative for Germany. The SPD is going through a painful process of choosing a new leader who could stop its decline.
Böhmermann, who anchors a satirical TV show on Germany’s public ZDF channel, is known beyond German borders for his clash with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, when a profane poem about the Turkish leader landed the comedian in legal trouble (the case prompted Germany to abolish a statute that banned insulting foreign leaders).
In late August, Böhmermann went on the air to mock the SPD leadership candidates, including finance minister Olaf Scholz, and announce his bid. He had to start the announcement over because the first time, the audience laughed.
It seemed initially that the candidacy was doomed on formal grounds: Böhmermann wasn’t even a party member. On Tuesday, though, his membership application was finally approved, with the leader of the local party organisation that took him in making a point of explaining that “we are a party and not a satirical event”. Böhmermann is hoping for the support of four local organisations needed to get into the leadership race, which will end at a party conference in early December.
It’s difficult to imagine Böhmermann winning over the aging, staid party base and pulling the SPD out of its doldrums. And it’s probably just as well. Comedians turned politicians, or politicians turned comedians, are hardly infallible fixers in government. Five Star has contributed to Italy’s helpless budgetary planning; Morales in Guatemala, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, has been embroiled in scandals; the Šarec government in Slovenia has proved scandal-prone, too; and Zelensky’s motley team has had a chaotic start.
It’s useful, though, to see the interest of comedians, both professional and amateur, in political office as an important, troubling symptom. They show up when a country, a city or a party needs such radical renewal that known remedies won’t help. As Tanja Petrović of the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia, wrote last year, jokes are a potent answer to a political discourse that has become too dry, formulaic and non-committal; they provide a way to “imagine a different moral order”.
That moral order won’t necessarily be any better than the one it replaces, and a comedian’s political quest can fail — as, for example, that of Luka Maksimović, a satirist who finished third in Serbia’s 2017 presidential election. But every time a political deck of cards includes a joker, it’s a sign that the establishment malaise has gone too far and re-invention from the ground up is needed. It’s just that serious people aren’t always around to do this unorthodox job.
• Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.