Political Victory Punctures Illusions

            Grant McCracken errs when he writes that “Glamour will not plead or wheedle. No, but it can bully, less democratic than monarchical.” He’s right about not pleading or wheedling, but bullying partakes of the same unglamorous neediness. Glamour projects the opposite of the pleading, wheedling, or bullying that begs for attention. It feels self-sufficient. Neither is glamour about striking awe. That’s the stuff of spectacle and magnificence. Glamour is seductive and intriguing, requiring grace and mystery. It offers the illusion of effortlessness, with room for fantasy and projection.

            Most important, glamour does not exist apart from its audience. It is not a style. Glamour arises only when we see our ideal, longed-for selves in the other. “It wasn’t Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, it was me,” said a woman recalling her teenage filmgoing in the 1930s and 40s. Another explained that she liked the era’s glamorous movie stars “because I could put myself in their place for a short while and become everything I wasn’t—beautiful, desirable and popular with the opposite sex.”[1]

            Glamour transports us into a setting or identity in which we feel our yearnings realized. We imagine a different, better life in different, better circumstances. “Wouldn’t it be perfect to be here?” suggests the resort ad showing a couple looking across their infinity pool toward the even bluer ocean. Glamour is about aspiration. It implies change, making us feel that our desires are achievable and that we are not stuck with the life we have. A glamorous person, setting, artifact, or idea represents neither ordinary life nor unattainable status but, rather, an imaginative bridge between the actual and the ideal. As political rhetoric, then, glamour is neither monarchical nor populist but something more idealistic and complicated.

            Elected officials are rarely glamorous, just as they are rarely extraordinarily beautiful, as Autumn Whitefield-Madrano rightly observes. Democratic politics generally rewards what she calls “an exaggerated averageness” and what I’ve referred to, usually when answering questions about Michelle Obama, as “an extraordinary version of an ordinary person.” (In the 2008 campaign, Mrs. Obama’s down-to-earth qualities and familiar personal background provided a reassuring counterweight to her husband’s exoticism and glamour.) We want our representatives to be a little better than we are, but not too much. Besides, democratic politics cannot abide mystery—today’s watchword is “transparency,” while glamour demands translucence—and opposition research inevitably uncovers flaws.

            Glamour in politics therefore appears less often in individuals than in causes and ideas. Some political movements offer a version of the same glamour that draws people to the latest hot restaurant, to Harvard, or to the U.S. Marine Corps: the allure of belonging to an elite. You may sincerely want to convert the world, but the glamour of your cause derives in part from its exclusivity. You’re the vanguard of the revolution, the true patriots, the smartest and most enlightened citizens, the last defenders of freedom. You’re important, special. You’re “saving the planet” or—that most glamorous of political phrases—“changing the world.” Exactly what the change will look like or how, in detail, it will be achieved is rarely specified. The vagueness encourages projection, making space for diverse, sometimes contradictory longings.

            Political victory, then, is like meeting your idol or getting your dream job. It punctures the illusion, revealing the contradictions, difficulties, and flaws hidden in the glamorous idea of a world transformed. Those problems may be as mundane as dysfunctional health-insurance websites or stop-and-go freeway traffic. Or they may be as  horrific as gulags and famine. Whatever the particulars, utopia never arrives. History doesn’t end. Neither does political conflict.

            That’s the biggest disappointment. The most glamorous idea in modern politics is the notion of escaping from history and from politics itself—from imperfections, accidents, compromises, tradeoffs, and dissension. That escape was the promise of the twentieth century’s “high modernist” ideologies, with their disinterested experts and rational planning. A different version informs many libertarian imaginings. We will start from scratch somewhere, and we will get it right this time. But, as Stephen Toulmin wisely observed, “there is no scratch.”[2] And as anyone who has ever lived in a condo association or worked in a large organization, politics does not require the state, only human beings with incompatible goals. In politics, as in the rest of life, glamour can only be a guide, not a destination.




[1] Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1994) pp. 146, 150–151.

[2] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) p. 178.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Virginia Postrel argues that it’s a mistake to excise visual appeals from politics. The truth is out there, and yes, we must ultimately rely on empirical work to find it. But to persuade may after all take more than facts and figures. To fight the undeniable glamour of bad public policies, good public policies must respond with a glamour of their own.

Response Essays

  • In the realm of visual persuasion, Grant McCracken distinguishes luxury from glamour. The former, he finds, is the tool of political power: Luxury is obedient to, and intimately connected with, the state. The state’s messages are its own, more or less. Glamour, though, can come from oppositional groups as well as from the center. Quite often, the state’s attempts at glamour backfire, particularly when it misjudges the public mood, or when its messages reach the wrong audience.

  • Autumn Whitefield-Madrano looks at the attractiveness of political officeholders. She connects it to scientific research showing that composite faces, made up of the average of many different people, tend to be rated more attractive than most real-world individuals. She suggests that many people seem to look for a similar kind of average when they choose their representatives. And it shows: Politicians tend strongly to be just kind of nice-looking — neither unattractive nor stunningly beautiful. Is this any way to choose a nation’s leaders?

  • Martin Gurri suggests that the world’s elites have lately lost control over the visual. Anyone can publish images today, and it’s changing the world. Images legitimize, because they help to tell stories, and no social order can sustain itself without stories that justify its existence to the people. But when the people themselves can circulate competing images, they can also circulate some very effective competing stories. It’s not a coincidence, then, that trust in government is at a low ebb around the world today.

    Warning: This essay contains images of graphic violence.