Tackling Political Convention through Unconventional Means
As part of the V&A’s The Future Starts Here exhibition, the museum will be displaying the Super Citizen Suit worn by Antanas Mockus during his tenure as mayor of Bogotá. Here, Callum Tyndall explores how Mockus’ unconventional approach saw success, and how other irregular approaches can, and have, challenged traditional politics
It can often seem like the world has gone somewhat mad if you spend your time glued to headlines or alerted by every addition to your Twitter feed. There’s a dotty old bigot in the most powerful political position on Earth, the old European order is (maybe?) crumbling and for some godforsaken reason the current meme (at the time of writing) is eating Tide Pods.
With norms and standards that had previously been set to seemingly stand the test of time immemorial shattered almost every other day, it’s not hard to think of politics as being broken.
That said, the breaking of norms isn’t all bad. Set aside the rabid punditry infecting the White House and focus instead on the way in which grassroots politics has been invigorated in recent years, and you can see how, while certain norms are in place because we’re trying to run a civilised society, the machine of politics certainly can benefit from disruption from time to time.
Take, for example, a two-time Colombia mayor who incorporated the wearing of a superhero outfit into his strategy, and left his second term having reduced crime and accidents by over 40%.
Unconventional politician Antanas Mockus. Image courtesy of César Martínez / Barcelonya. Above: Mockus in his Super Citizen suit, one of his more unconventional approaches to motivating politics from the bottom up. Image courtesy of Juan Alberto Castañeda/ Santa Monica Museum of Art.
Running (A)Mockus: Rise of the Super Citizen
It would not be totally absurd to suggest that Antanas Mockus launched his first bid for the mayorship of Bogotá off the public profile he gained from mooning a disruptive group of students during his tenure as president of the National University of Colombia.
The 1993 incident would see him depart his position at the university only to take the mayoralty of Colombia’s capital in 1995. Departing the position in ’97 for an unsuccessful presidential bid, he would return to once again be elected mayor in 2001.
Mockus became known for the more absurd elements of his administration, the use of mimes to mock traffic violators stands out as a strategy, but more importantly, while his ideas may have been often wrapped in a certain absurdity, he brought politics down to an incredibly local level and encouraged citizens to take charge of their own part in making the city better.
I’m battling for the integration of ideas from the left and right
At one point, he asked citizens to voluntarily pay 10% extra in tax and 63,000 people did so. During his tenure, the homicide rate fell 70%; traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%; he improved the provision of drinking water in homes from 79% in 1993 to 100% and increased the sewerage provided to homes from 71% to 95%.
A complicated mix of ideologies, he supports both a strong government role in society and cutting the public payroll.
Mockus told the New York Times in 2010 that: “I’m battling for the integration of ideas from the left and right”. This is perhaps the best explanation of his unique approach: the attempt to fuse the individualism of the right with the government assistance of the left.
Mockus’ choice to dress as the Super Citizen may seem comical but the intent, to symbolise the power of citizens to enact change, is anything but. Combining bottom-up strategies with a certain irreverence for political expectation may not have solved all of Bogotá’s issues, but it made Mockus a pretty successful mayor.
The 2017 Women’s March on Washington, protesting Donald Trump and his behaviour and policies. Image courtesy of Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr
Nasty Nativists and Passionate Protesters: The saddening success of [insert country here]
Irreverence for expectation, for the established norms of the political arena, has not always been quite so wholesome. It’s hard to talk about unconventional politics, particularly in the last few years, without discussing the rise of prominent populist movements. Whether looking at Donald Trump managing to claim the US presidency or the Brexit campaign’s success, a wave of backlash against globalism and multiculturalism (along with some far nastier motivations) has seen nativist movements sprout across, prominently, Europe and the US.
And while populism (taking this nativist form in particular) in and of itself is nothing new, and nor is its success, what is perhaps new is the seriousness with which it’s being taken. And, more worryingly, the extent to which it has managed to break political norms with little to no negative consequence.
Trump is an easy target, for so many reasons, but, as awful as he is, he is incredibly important. Not just in that he is probably the most powerful world leader, but that, at least in modern history, there have been few presidents who have come even close to treating the presidency in a similar manner, let alone getting away with it.
I think that fear and anger work better for Republican voters than they do for Democratic voters
What makes the debasement of the office more notable, however, is that it was achieved via a distinctly populist campaign that didn’t even win the popular vote. It’s easy to point out how Trump used populist rhetoric to win an office that he has then primarily used for standard conservative policy (by American standards), but it’s more interesting to point out that, while many other factors influenced the election, his “populist” victory was also one that strategically took advantage of the electoral college to pull out a victory from key locations.
However, while populism has largely gained headlines for the negative side of things (Trump, Brexit, Marine le Pen), it has also served in the US to spark the emergence of an almost shockingly engaged, grassroots protest movement on the left.
Although Trump’s worst impulses have continued to be almost universally let slide by the Republican establishment – here’s looking at you Paul Ryan – they have met massive resistance from a progressive, Democratic base that, at the time of writing, turned out in droves to support a government shutdown until the Dreamers (illegal immigrants who were brought to America as children) were protected.
“America First”, while largely proven to so far be ill-thought out at best and an outright lie at worst, may have succeeded on a base of the forgotten and angry, but it now looks (hopefully) likely to fail in the face of the informed and angry.
“People are angry right now, but I think liberals like to be inspired. I still believe that. I think that fear and anger work better for Republican voters than they do for Democratic voters,” Jon Favreau, former chief speechwriter for President Obama and co-founder of Crooked Media, pointed out on Vox’s Ezra Klein Show.
“I think that inspiration still works on the left. I think that's what people are still looking for even if they don't like to admit it, because people are so cynical and it's almost embarrassing to admit that you want to be inspired in this political environment. I think that if someone comes along and does that, you'll see people react positively to it on our side.”
The micronation of Sealand seen from above. Image courtesy of Ryan Lackey/Flickr
Taking things a little less seriously: Sealand and the satirists
There are, of course, groups who place irreverence for the regular political modus operandi at the forefront of their identity. Take, for example, the gloriously named Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany. Or the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the UK.
Both exist pretty much solely to satirise the mainstream political parties of their respective countries, and the process by which they operate. The Raving Loonies in particular have frequently operated with the intention to provide an alternative for protest voters, and pose challenges in traditional ‘safe seats’ that would see voters waste votes on anyone but the entrenched party.
Impressively, the Loonies actually had some rare success in the ‘80s and ‘90s, though have since largely deteriorated to pick up mere handfuls of votes in elections. The Anarchist Pogo Party also found its chief success in the ‘90s, receiving 5.3% of the votes in St Pauli during the 1997 Hamburg city elections and thus becoming the fourth-strongest party in that district.
We're perhaps the most undemanding state in the world
Both parties are or were largely comedic, their policies designed with a lack of expectation for victory. In fact, when Alan Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party was elected to Ashburton Town Council, admittedly unopposed, in 1987, the party was torn over the fact that it had previously decided that any member who achieved public office would be automatically expelled from the party.
On the other side of the absurdity spectrum is the Principality of Sealand. A micronation that claims an offshore platform called Roughs Tower as its territory, Sealand is located in the he North Sea approximately 7.5 miles off the coast of Suffolk and has been occupied since 1967 by family and associates of Paddy Roy Bates, a former major in the British army and pirate radio broadcaster.
Despite claims of sovereignty, Sealand has not been recognised by any official sovereign state and, legally, exists within British waters. In spite of this, the Bates family insists on recognition of their sovereignty and the family members are referred to by royal titles, the Sealand constitution (instituted in 1974) establishing the nation as a constitutional monarchy.
As to why such a bizarre nation continues to exist? "We're perhaps the most undemanding state in the world,” explained Michael Bates, the current Prince, talking to the BBC. “We don't force anybody to worship any god or religion or anything. Maybe that's why we've lasted so long. Hopefully I'll be around for the next 50."