BERLIN — The man is the message.
Of the many lessons about contemporary European politics one can draw from Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory, the most important might also the most obvious: personality rules.
Even though the election campaign left little doubt that the Brexit divide in the U.K. still runs deep, the one thing most Brits do appear to agree on is that for all his antics (or maybe because of them), they generally like Johnson.
Polls in the run-up to the election consistently showed that the prime minister was better liked across almost all demographics than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Of course, likeability has always been a factor in voter choices. Yet in the past, Europe’s charismatic politicians (at least the democratic ones) were first and foremost representatives of an ideal, a political program and, above all, a party of the like-minded.
In other words, they stood for more than a single issue, be it Brexit or opposition to migration. Think Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl or Willy Brandt.
Johnson’s manoeuvring and culling of the Conservative Party has been every bit as dramatic.
In today’s political landscape, where ideology and principle have been supplanted by pragmatism and raw opportunism, parties often serve as little more than wrapping for the larger-than-life personalities who lead them.
Consider Johnson, who famously penned two versions of his Telegraph column in 2016 announcing his position on Brexit — one pro, one contra — as he plotted his path to power. Or take Emmanuel Macron’s hard-to-peg “movement,” originally called En Marche — with initials to match the leader’s.
The primacy of personality over ideology today is even reflected in language.
These political mavericks share another quality as well — ruthlessness.
Long gone are the days of the “Iron Lady,” a term of reverence for what many perceived as Thatcher’s rectitude and clarity of purpose. Europe’s new political stars sound more like members of the latest boy band, with breezy nicknames like “BoJo” (Johnson), “Basti” (Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz), “Manu” (Macron) or “Il Capitano” (Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right League).
What’s given rise to such figures is the institutional decline of Europe’s old political parties, says Josef Janning, a veteran German political analyst.
The failure of mainstream parties to effectively address voter concerns about such intractable issues as globalization, technology and migration created an opening. Europe’s upstart politicians were quick to exploit it by presenting themselves as iconoclasts willing to upend the status quo, whether from within establishment structures, as with Johnson and Kurz; or from the outside, like Macron, who abandoned France’s Socialist Party to start his movement, and Salvini, who has refashioned Italy’s Lega into a national force.
Fearing political oblivion, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi fled the stalwart center-left Democratic Party this fall to start a movement with the catchy name “Italia Viva.” Freed of the constraints of a traditional party structure, Renzi has tried to put himself back in the limelight.
“They all have the quality of the maverick about them,” Janning said.
Instead of values, their politics are driven by focus groups, polls and social media. In most cases, they cling to their signature issue, as Kurz and Salvini have done with migration, for example, and Johnson with Brexit.
Johnson, channeling U.S. President Donald Trump’s successful formula, eschews specifics in favor of mythology, selling Brexit as a way to return to the U.K.’s supposed glory days and casting himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill.
Not so long ago, questions about the private lives and morals of Johnson and Trump would have ruled them out as leaders of their parties. Now the grass-roots are not only willing to ignore such questions, they embrace their leaders with rare fervor.
Today’s political mavericks share another quality as well — ruthlessness.
For decades, Europe’s establishment parties functioned like successful blue-chip companies, recruiting the best and brightest early and then promoting them gradually into senior positions.
In most cases, becoming the head of government was the culmination of a decades-long political career. No more.
Recognizing the institutional decay that had taken hold of Austria’s center-right People’s Party, Kurz plotted behind the scenes for years, planning the takeover that vaulted him into the party’s top seat in 2017 at the ripe age of 30. Once there, he forced out the old guard, rebranded the staid party as “Sebastian Kurz List — The New People’s Party,” and even changed its signature color from black to turquoise. A few months later, he was chancellor, by far the youngest in the country’s postwar history.
Johnson’s maneuvering and culling of the Conservative Party has been every bit as dramatic. As he transforms the establishment bastion of old into the party of the disgruntled working class, many party faithful say the Tories have become unrecognizable.
“This government is not simply un-conservative,” former Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne wrote in a scathing commentary last week. “It is an explicit repudiation of everything that it means to be a Conservative.”
The big question is where Europe’s personality-driven politics will lead. What happens when voters discover there really isn’t any there there?
“They may be like fireworks that burn very bright and then burn out,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, the London-based think tank.
Though postwar Europe has seen politicians rise to power with a mix of bombast and charisma before (Silvio Berlusconi comes to mind), there has never been such a concentration of them, especially in the mature democracies of western Europe.
Some observers fear that if the crumbling political establishment isn’t replaced with something new, Europe’s political landscape could end up looking more like Latin America’s — plagued by populist, corrupt politicians, whose commitment to democracy is fleeting at best.
That scourge has already taken hold in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, with its “illiberal democracy,” to the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania.
Germany, under Angela Merkel’s watchful eye, might appear to be immune to the superficiality of personality politics. Indeed, Merkel is often lauded abroad as the antidote to the vacuousness that has taken hold of Europe’s politics.
Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that the German leader doesn’t just personify Europe’s age of personality, she pioneered it. No European country is more in the thrall of their leader than Germany after 14 years of Merkel’s leadership.
Merkel has carefully cultivated her public persona from the beginning. Unlike in Italy or the U.K., however, where voters appreciate a bit of playfulness in their politicians, Germans expect sobriety and humility — qualities Merkel has delivered in spades.
Just don’t ask what she stands for.
Like her male counterparts, Merkel has never been weighed down by ideological ballast. In 2003, while still in opposition and Germany was seen as the “sick man of Europe,” she called for a series of radical market-driven “neoliberal” economic reforms. When the ideas didn’t poll well, she abandoned them in short order.
In 2009, she campaigned on a platform to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear power plants. Fearing a public backlash after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, she immediately reversed course and accelerated Germany’s withdrawal from atomic energy.
Despite a string of electoral setbacks for her Christian Democrats, Merkel remains the country’s most popular politician and the only one most trust to be chancellor. As the rest of Europe and the world becomes increasingly untethered, Germans take comfort in knowing that “Mutti,” or Mum, as they call her, is still in charge.
The irony is that Merkel’s universal appeal, which she has achieved by blurring the traditional political boundaries in German politics, has contributed to the decline of the country’s traditional parties, including her own. The parties of Merkel’s “grand coalition” — her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — are interchangeable in many voters’ eyes.
Both the far-right, beating the anti-immigration drum, and the Greens, capitalizing on climate change fears, have stepped into the void. Many political observers see the secret to the Greens’ success — they’ve replaced the Social Democrats in the polls as Germany’s second-largest party — in Robert Habeck, their telegenic co-leader.
Before Habeck and his co-leader Annalena Baerbock hit the scene, the Greens were stuck below 10 percent. They’re now at 23 percent, a turnaround that occurred with much the same political program.
What changed is the marketing. While no one can accuse the Greens of lacking a detailed agenda, there is little question they are now emphasizing image over substance.
With his rugged good looks and feel-good demeanor, Habeck, 50, has become a media darling. In Berlin, posters have gone up for tickets for a Habeck reading — in April. Habeck will read from “Who We Could Be,” his new book about Germany’s political culture.
Habeck, who has become so popular that some even see him as dark horse for chancellor, a notion that would have been dismissed as absurd as recently as a year ago.
Whatever happens with Europe’s latest political stars, the personality fixation is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Though the shift may seem sudden, it’s the culmination of a deeper transformation in the political climate.
“This has been a long time coming, so it’s going to take a long time to get out,” Niblett said.