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Jennifer O’Connell: Liz Truss lettuce livecam might be the moment political debate reached a nadir

If we insist on treating politics as entertainment, you are liable to get what you asked for: clowns, iconoclasts and charlatans

Lettuce costumes have emerged as the leading amusingly zeitgeisty choice for Halloween. This is a tribute, explains iNews, to the humble vegetable which “outlasted Liz Truss as prime minister”.

The news that a British tabloid was live-streaming the slow deterioration of a 70c Tesco lettuce was greeted as a droll jape amid the chaos and gloom. A “quintessentially British joke”, chuckled the Washington Post. The general view was that the great behemoth of British democracy might be disintegrating, but as long as the Brits could still laugh at themselves, all will be well.

It is time they stopped sniggering. There’s nothing funny about the state of British politics. As should be painfully apparent, if you insist on treating politics as entertainment, you are liable to get what you asked for — clowns, iconoclasts and charlatans starring in a long-running comic docudrama, with every season bringing increasingly farcical plot lines.

That big, important question about the lettuce answered, other matters of national urgency followed. Does billionaire Rishi Sunak really not know how to use a debit card reader? Did Boris fly premium economy back from the Dominican Republic? What did Piers Morgan say about what Trevor Noah said about Sunak? No one gave voice to the biggest question of all. When was political discourse hijacked by triviality and gossip? When we look back, the Liz Truss lettuce livecam could be the moment political debate reached a nadir, but it’s more likely to prove just another interlude in its inexorable decline.


It is in all our interests to resist the crude trivialisation of politics, the demand that our leaders should above all be charismatic and entertaining

This isn’t actually a “quintessentially British” phenomenon. Trump was an early symptom, a queasy spasm deep in the gut of democracy that foreshadowed a rapidly spreading virus of glib cynicism and crude sloganeering. He was patient zero for a global outbreak of amusing chancers, washed into office on a tide of vituperative rhetoric and politics as a punchline.

Ireland has so far resisted the lure of his brand of populism; not so much elements of his populist rhetoric. Politicians here sometimes criticise the media for what they see as a disproportionate focus on personality over matters of substance and policy. But when it suits, they’re happy enough to feed it. Take Leo Varadkar — this week giving out about Sinn Féin’s “populist promises” in one breath; in the next insisting that “Kwasi Doherty” would wreck our economy. He’s just one example.

Similarly, politicians claim to be dismayed by young people’s disengagement with mainstream politics. But that didn’t emerge in a vacuum either. The digital revolution accelerated its spread, but the malaise has real and legitimate roots. Simply, the young no longer trust a system which can’t guarantee things previous generations took for granted — somewhere to live, safety, the ability to pay their bills, a habitable planet and, in some countries, even the reproductive rights their mothers enjoyed. Faced with all of this, cynicism is not an unreasonable response. Arguably, watching a lettuce slowly atrophy is as good a form of protest as any.

‘Nihilistic forces’

But it is in all our interests to resist the crude trivialisation of politics, the demand that our leaders should above all be charismatic and entertaining. Mark Thompson, former chief executive of the New York Times, warned six years ago in his book, Enough Said, where this would lead. “Ignorance, intolerance and unreasonable rage are abroad in our societies... a process of legitimisation is under way that seeks to portray them as the justified responses of injured parties, rather than the barbaric and nihilistic forces that they actually are.”

Some of the things that gave him hope include the resilience of democratic institutions and the “practical wisdom” of individuals.

Unusually, it was in the US last week that a spark of that practical wisdom flickered to life. The Pennsylvania Senate race is offering a fascinating test case for what happens when voters are given a straightforward choice between substance and style. Democrat John Fetterman, who had a stroke earlier this year which left him with auditory processing issues, is running against reality TV star and Republican candidate, Dr Mehmet Oz.

Fetterman’s challenge going into last week’s televised debate was not slight. His doctors have declared him fit for office, and his cognition is unaffected, but he relies on closed captioning to help him process what is being said. His own team warned that “this is not John’s format”. Sure enough, it was not a fluent performance. There were pauses, moments when he used the wrong word, times he struggled to elucidate a point.

The response from pundits was overwhelmingly negative. Instead of focusing on his courage or historic achievement, they complained that watching was “uncomfortable” or “painful”. “There is no amount of empathy for and understanding about Fetterman’s health and recovery that changes the fact that this is absolutely painful to watch,” said New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi.

Oz, an election denier endorsed by Trump, argued that abortion decisions should be made by “women, doctors, local political leaders” — yet it was Fetterman’s mild disability that observers found unwatchable. Apparently, ableism is one of the few prejudices that can still be voiced publicly in the US. A more thoughtful review, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker, noted that Fetterman’s “enforced simplicity” might have ultimately worked in his favour by pointing up “how much Oz sounded like a politician”.

As it transpired, the public proved more forgiving and more empathetic than the pundits. In a CBS/YouGov poll, 51 per cent believed Fetterman had won the debate. His campaign raised $1 million on the back of it.

It’s not much, perhaps, but in this age of trivialisation, distraction and lettuce live-cams, the notion that some people are still prepared to look beyond the optics, the entertainment value and the glib cynicism, is something we should hold on to.