Sociology Index

Populistainment

In the 1990s, a new term was coined to describe this phenomenon of populistainment: infotainment, entertainment-based news. When the term infotainment ceased to be sufficient for political analysts to describe new relationships between politics and the mass media, politainment surfaced. The slogan “panem et circenses” or populistainment dates back to Antiquity. The “entertainization” of politics has its rationality. If serving dopamine is the only way to catch the attention of a bored brain, it is no surprise that many politicians practice it. Just as in markets, where there is demand, supply follows. There are many reasons to detest populistainment. But unless the liberals learn from their populist rivals, they will never be able to beat the populists.

On the BBC, the Hungarian State Secretary for International Communication, Zoltan Kovacs, ridiculed questions about his leader Victor Orban ruling by decree, calling any kind of criticism of Hungary “political lynching”. This devoted much of the time in the interview to discussing this expression, instead of the actual character of the Hungarian regime. In Poland, the hard time experienced by patients and medical staff during the pandemic has been partly caused by the PiS government’s failure to reform the health care system. But this did not prevent the country’s president Andrzej Duda from taking part in an online challenge, performing rap about how difficult the work of medical staff is. The media discussed the lyrics he used for a good two weeks. He, not the doctors, won our attention. So, unfortunately, the times they are not “a-changin’”.

Where does populistainment come from? People have demanded material goods and entertainment for centuries. Even the most tyrannical authorities usually remembered to meet these expectations. In the seventeenth century, for example, Blaise Pascal stated that it is the only thing allowing the people of high condition not to think constantly about their miserable lives. In the twentieth century, totalitarian Germany and Russia tried to capture the attention of citizens through constant mobilization. In democratic societies after 1945, various attempts were made to describe the impact of entertainment on citizens. In 1960s, Guy Debord’s notion of a “society of the spectacle” became fashionable, and two decades later, Neil Postman warned that with the current trends we could “amuse ourselves to death”.

Populistainment is a new phase in the chain of these developments. Some would say that there is no huge difference between Bill Clinton playing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992 and Donald Trump bringing the style of communication of his television show “The Apprentice” directly to the presidential campaign.

Populistainment is a supplement to ideology and traditionally understood party politics. Populists turned it all upside down, they made politics a supplement to entertainment and show business. Precisely this makes populistainment a new political phenomenon. It is as if they take politics as imagined by the fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli one step further. Machiavelli particularly unnerved his contemporaries by claiming that political action is justified only by its result and that its aim should be to preserve the wellbeing of the state. Populists’ political actions are justified only by their success in seizing power by means of an amusing spectacle, no matter what the actual effect on the state is.