Tobias Phelps, drawing on Stephen Marche, draws attention to the difference between the Pose and the Voice in politics. As he explains:
The Voice, a product of post-war literature’s emphasis on identity and experience, encouraged verbal originality and idiosyncrasy, the fullness of personality poured onto a page. It was flawed, often belligerent and short-sighted, lacking the range of the modernists or the authority of earlier writers. But at least it had spirit.
The Pose, however, is a product of distinctly 21st Century anxieties — its “foremost goal” is to “not to make any mistakes.” It is “language trying not be language, with the combed-through feeling of cover letters to job applications in which a spelling mistake might mean unemployment.” And as with Starmer’s brief reflections on his upbringing, “the style grows less personal even as the auto-fictional content grows more confessional.”
For Phelps, the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s recent essay, The Road Ahead, amounts to 12,000 words of visionless Pose, endless in detail but divorced from any overarching vision.
Juxtaposed to this, we have the booming and meandering Voice of someone like Boris Johnson, who is grand in vision and meagre in detail.
Thus, we see the Pose and Voice context playing out in electoral politics. Some are inexorably drawn to Starmer’s suave competence, a prized and celebrated feature of soft-left government in recent years. Where some see competence, others see a lack of vision and authenticity, a descent into technocratic management-ese. Across the pond, JD Vance commented that Barack Obama’s lack of appeal to the Hillbilly community was because he sounded nothing like that community, his different accent betraying a different set of values.
When it comes to Johnson, some are inexorably drawn to the grand vision while others claim to see through the bluster, the lies and deception, the lack of detail, to what is at heart a lack of competence.
All of which begs the question: what makes someone drawn to the Pose, and someone else to the Voice?
I would guess that it has something to do with Haidt’s moral taste-buds, with conservatives latching on to someone who, despite all the flailing and lack of polished speech, speaks passionately to their cultural values. Contemporary liberals, meanwhile, have generally favoured economics over wading into the cultural fray (and when they have, they have arguably been at odds with the cultural mood of the nation). When the cultural and economic intersect, say in the issue of immigration, we get Gordon Brown’s disastrous “bigoted women” gaffe. Global economy trumps local and national, cultural commitments. And yet, by and large, those who might be called the liberal part of the electorate, despite the lack of reference to values, are drawn to a leader who exudes competence.
This distinction, if true, would appear to vindicate Goodwin and Goodhart’s distinction between economics and culture (the Conservatives have moved a little right on culture and a little left on politics). The Conservative party of Johnson attempts to speak to the culture of the broad swathe of the electorate while the Labour Party considers the economy to be the main thing worth talking about. This is compounded by the fact that both parties—or, at least party leaders—sound pretty similar on the economy at present (a major difference from the Cameron regime, which was essentially committed to double liberalism with austerity bolted-on). Cultural differences also come to the fore because both parties sound pretty similar on Covid, with the only difference perhaps being the degree of the severity of measures Labour would wish to introduce.
So, is it the case, then, that in recent years, competence, especially on economic and governance, is the ultimate prize among left-leaning liberals? And, conversely, is there some truth in saying that the ability to speak to cultural values is the most highly prized attribute of small-c conservative voters?
It’s a fascinating set of questions to ponder.
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