The humorist Will Rogers campaigned in the 1928 U.S. presidential election with a simple pledge: to resign if he won. (He lost.) Jokers these days make no such promises. Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken has held a seat in the U.S. Senate since 2009. And across the Atlantic, politics has taken a funnier turn still.
In Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian Beppe Grillo got more votes than any other single party in the 2013 national elections, and came second in European elections earlier this year. Refusing to cooperate with traditional parties, its representatives have filibustered in the Italian Parliament to disrupt debates.
Over in France, the news organization Mediapart reported that the controversial comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, convicted several times for anti-Semitism and inciting racial hatred, is founding his own political party with a former member of the far-right National Front—whose leader, Marine Le Pen, topped a recent opinion poll for the country’s next President.
The British political scene looks increasingly uproarious too. Eddie Izzard, a surrealist funnyman who often performs in a dress, is eyeing a 2020 run at the London mayoralty for the Labour Party. Russell Brand, another English stand-up, whose latest book, Revolution, calls for just that—political revolution—is reputed to be weighing the 2016 London mayoral contest as an independent candidate.
That would indeed be droll. Brand not only harbors daft views (the U.S. government conceivably staged 9/11, for one), but also used his book, media appearances and appeals to his 8 million-plus Twitter followers to argue that voting is a waste of time. Nevertheless, London’s current mayor, Boris Johnson, has hailed Brand’s political ambitions. Brand’s manifesto could lead to “total global chaos and destruction,” he wrote in an Oct. 26 newspaper column, but added, “Who cares what he really means or what he really thinks? The crucial thing about Russell Brand is that he seems to be popular.”
Critics would say that sentiment neatly encapsulates not only Brand but also Johnson himself. Johnson—better known, like other famous performers such as Madonna and Prince, by his first name alone—is a hilarious speechmaker and game-show regular, able to transcend voters’ political-party loyalties by getting people laughing. Some of his Conservative colleagues worry whether he’s a serious politician, but he’s currently rated as the most likely challenger for the party leadership if Prime Minister David Cameron loses the May 2015 U.K. general elections.
Such a scenario looks increasingly likely as the right-wing, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) surges, buoyed by the popularity of its leader, Nigel Farage, and his bluff barroom witticisms. Farage is “a rather engaging geezer … with his pint and cigar and sense of humor,” Johnson observed in a newspaper column. The men share more than a gift for gags—they also harbor a deep mistrust of the E.U. and of big government. In that respect they’re not much different from Brand or Grillo, whose M5S sits with UKIP in the European Parliament.
In other words, something funny is going on in politics. Uncompromising populist messages are sheathed in jokes: this formula is catnip to Europe’s voters. Manifestos differ but the core appeal is the same. Outspokenness reads like authenticity. Calls to reassert borders and repatriate powers to local authorities or to the streets resonate in countries wrestling with global economic forces, which also accounts for the strength of nationalist movements in Scotland, Spain and Belgium.
These strains aren’t unfamiliar, any more than protest parties are a new phenomenon. Since World War II, successive populist movements have bloomed. Britain has had more than its share, with a dizzying succession of far-right parties and the absurdist Official Monster Raving Loony Party, which held a few seats on municipal councils by the early 1990s.
But such phenomena could also be relied on to fade, contained by strong centrist parties. These days many mainstream parties are in disarray, taking on the colors of populism to stanch their hemorrhaging support. Such weakness threatens to do more than leave space for comedians to test out material on fresh audiences. Funny people with funny ideas are aiming to win power and use it. The results may not be funny at all.
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