Can a politician be too popular?

What’s most important in a politician: seriousness or knowing pop songs?

This lovely piece of on-ground reporting from the 2012 Presidential race got me thinking about what voters value most in a politician.

Republican voters at a rally worried that people would vote for Obama because he was “hip, cool, and sympathetic.” They wondered out loud whether they were electing a President or “someone to know the top hip hop songs”.

It’s a fair question. The reality is that voters appear to want both: they want someone who can govern with the gravitas and smarts required of a serious job, but who is simultaneously aware of ordinary things.

Voters want politicians to be like them, but much better versions.

This is why populist politicians fail (they’re too much like us) and why serious politicians fail (they’re not enough like us). The strategic magic of politics in carried out between those extremes.

This also explains why too much popularity can be a bad thing. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key spent his first term on a prolonged honeymoon with voters. His affable, easy-going, style was a hit. He could be your neighbour. A comparison video on the respective “blokiness” of Key and his 2011 Opposite, Phil Goff, made the point. Key was the guy you’d want at your BBQ. He wouldn’t talk politics and be right-on and on-message all the time.

John Key has become too conscious of his success.  His recent description of himself as someone who makes jokes and “entertains” many people each week, was unsettling to see stated out loud. He now prefers and seeks out these sorts of informal and non-political interactions with the public. Self-belief may have led to recent injudicious comments denigrating Beckham as “thick as batshit” and another describing a radio host’s red jersey as “gay”.

Flippancy is acceptable in the context of informal light-hearted engagement. But John Key is crossing the line so far into populism that he’s at risk of losing the gravitas we want even of our most popular politicians.

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