28 June 2024

Grown-up politics is over – here come the infantocrats


It used to be the case, not so long ago, that when election season rolled around, British voters would be spoken to like adults by serious politicians wearing sensible shoes. Today, however, as this pitiful election has shown, those days are gone. Instead of making a virtue out of statecraft, experience, and erudition, our irredeemable political class are more interested in miming to rap videos or behaving like attention-seeking adolescents on TikTok. Even sensible shoes are out, as evidenced by the fact Rishi Sunak thought there were votes to be had by blathering on about his Adidas Samba training shoe fixation.

For some commentators, the juvenile feel of the current election can be explained, at least in part, by society’s current fixation with so-called ‘cringe culture’. But to my mind, this explanation doesn’t go far enough. Rather, as I make clear in my new book Infantilised: How Our Culture Killed Adulthood, what this election has shown is that we have fully entered a distinct new phase of juvenilised politics that we might term the twilight of judicious adult oversight.

In one of the ironies of the age, the more elected officials of all stripes talk about the importance of ‘grown-up politics’, the more the political class act like teenagers at a demented high school. Whether it’s politicians playing Pokémon Go and watching porn in parliament, or endlessly parroting meaningless, childish soundbites in place of actual policies, it’s clear that a deep infantocratic impulse exists at the heart of contemporary politics.

To make matters worse, this impulse is not limited to politicians. Bereft of any positive moral leadership, too many members of the public also exude an emotive, anti-adult form of political expression that helps explain everything from the toxic fallout over Brexit to ‘Trump-derangement syndrome’. Viewed through this lens, then, infantilisation represents something far more serious than just the elongation of youthful pursuits. It suggests a new way of viewing the world that’s already shaping our history by damaging democracy and pitting citizens and communities against one another. 

For all the talk about the decaying state of politics, surprisingly little has been written about the role infantilisation has played in this process. One exception is a short but insightful article by Samuel Earle, in which he deploys the term ‘infantocrat’ to describe a new breed of contemporary politician who, not content with treating us like children, now behave themselves in disturbingly infantile ways. Earle sees Donald Trump as ‘the biggest child politician of them all’, but unlike most observers he also recognises that the problem of childishness in politics runs much deeper than the forty-fifth president of the United States, who in many ways is simply the inevitable end-product of politico-cultural tendencies that have been under way since at least the mid-1990s. (Remember William Hague’s ill-fated promotional strategy that involved plunging down a theme park waterslide wearing a baseball cap with his own name on it and bragging about downing fourteen pints of beer a day as a teenager?)

When these daft political PR stunts first appeared they naturally stood out against the backdrop of more sober forms of political self-promotion, but a decade and a half later and they are now a commonplace feature of the mediascape – so much so that several contemporary leaders essentially base their entire image on juvenile characterological traits. The obvious example here is Boris Johnson, whose persona is essentially a composite of the-scruffy-kid-who-never-grew-up and a mischievous-public-school-prefect. Yet Rishi Sunak, too, for all his earnest desire to play the grown-up in the room, dresses in urchin suits and cultivates a nerdy demeanour, making himself appear more like a wide-eyed sixth-form prefect than an adult statesman. This type of infantocracy not only degrades the status of high office, but it brings down everything else around it.

In the 1980s, the media theorist Joshua Meyrowitz wrote about what he termed the ‘de-imperialising’ nature of modern political media coverage. He argued that the declining standards of American politicians had less to do with the individuals themselves, and more with ‘a [changing] communication environment that undermines the politician’s ability to behave like, and therefore be perceived as, the traditional “great leader”’. In other words, what is deemed acceptable or ‘symbolically appropriate’ behaviour for politicians is determined not by their statesmanlike qualities, but by the prevailing ‘means of communication and the forums of interaction’. In our current times, the political communication environment is shaped by, and increasingly tailored to, social media feeds, soundbites, screen crawls and short-term news cycles, and thus our politicians have inevitably adapted to the ‘staging contingencies’ associated with this mode of information dissemination. In a mediascape contoured by uncurbed rapidity, what matters most today is action rather than adult deliberation, ‘delivery’ instead of considered enquiry, and image management and ‘brand’ recognition more than traditional values like integrity, character, and experience. Such tendencies are highly symptomatic of our infantilised world, and so it’s hardly surprising that many of our political leaders now engage in symbolic behaviour that is itself infantilised. 

Given the darkening geo-political climate that confronts us, what we desperately need is a committed political class capable of forging practical policies of substance and vision. Instead, we have an emergent infantocracy in which governments, regulatory bodies and elite celebrity influencers, exhausted of any meaningful ideology, now act more like a trendy, youthful friend than a guiding and knowledgeable patrician. This situation, caused in large part by the ideological black hole that is Third Way centrism, has created a crisis of confidence in the political class themselves, but more importantly in the public’s faith in how they are being governed. Concerned primarily with popularity, today’s political elites appear bereft of both confidence and experience and, as a result, half-baked, short-term decision making is now the norm – just what you’d expect from a bunch of wannabe teenagers. 

In his famous 1919 essay, ‘Politics as a vocation’, the great German sociologist Max Weber stated that politicians and political parties must always exude a sense of ‘traditional authority’ based on ‘an eternal past’, and that without a certain bearing – or ‘grace’ – legitimate political rule is threatened. It’s hard to know what level of grace was being displayed by Dawn Butler when rapping along to ‘21 Seconds’, or indeed by former government ministers Matt Hancock and Nadine Dorries when eating witchetty grubs and camel testicles on ‘I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!’, but perhaps that’s the price our grifter-politicians are prepared to pay these days ‘for connecting with the people’.

In the same essay, Weber also warned about the danger of ‘vanity’ and the problems that ensue when political figures make decisions based on the emotional attachments of ‘followers and sycophants’ and not on rational reasoning or objective facts. It’s an observation that could have been written for the social media age, and one that our media-and-celebrity-obsessed politicians would do well to remember the next time they feel compelled to perform on TikTok.

Keith Hayward’s new book Infantilised: How Our Culture Killed Adulthood is out now (£25, Constable).

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Keith Hayward is Professor of Criminology at Copenhagen University and the author of 'Infantilised: How our Culture Killed Adulthood'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.