A funny thing happened on the way to the polling booth in Ukraine. Citizens chose a comedian to be their next president. No joke.
Tired of inauthenticity and hypocrisy, exhausted by unrepresentative leadership and downright cynical about democratic process and outcomes, people are turning to those who seemingly tell-it-like-it-is for insight and leadership. Around the world and at home, voters are looking to comedians to break the cycle of undeliverable political promises.
Volodymyr Zelensky is Ukraine’s new president. A role he practiced on his popular television comedy, “Servant of the People” — a show where the 41-year old Zelensky plays an outraged teacher who is suddenly thrust into the presidency.
Art imitates life imitates art.
Questions abound regarding Zelensky’s ability to lead, his potential policies and his personal relationships to monied supporters and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Other than his TV character’s policies, Zelensky has no political track record or firmly held policy positions. He is both interested in increasing dialogue with Russia — his neighbor actively conducting a hybrid war in southeast Ukraine — and in building stronger economic and political bridges to the West.
Zelensky is unbound by expectation, and his actor’s approach gives him an unbridled ability to message clearly and to connect with the people. He can make citizens laugh and also laugh at themselves. His challenge is to make sure Ukraine does not become a laughingstock as he demands Crimea’s return from Russia, seeks an end to hostilities in the Donbass and tries to rejigger IMF loans that soon come due.
Ukraine may be an extreme example of a nation looking for a stand-up to believe in. After all, the country globally ranks dead last in citizens’ trust in politicians. According to a recent Gallup poll taken before the April 21 election, only 9 percent of Ukrainians believed in their national government, “the lowest confidence level in the world for the second straight year.” Gallup says the global trust average for all countries is 58 percent, though countries in Southern Europe have also taken a nosedive in the polls.
Italy’s popular trust poll is hovering around 14 percent. It should be no surprise then that Italy, too, has turned to comedian Beppe Grillo, a political satirist so caustic about establishment Italian politicians that he was banned from state television. Grillo went on to found Italy’s Five Star Movement political party in 2010, a party that took the largest vote share in last year’s national election. Grillo’s party is now in a national coalition government, ruling with the League party - a political party that finds common cause in irascible Europeans and leaders who want to undermine Brussels and see the European Union as the ultimate bad joke.
Comics are sought after and supported by a growingly jaded electorate everywhere around the world. They are increasingly seen as society’s truth-tellers and political disrupters. They are there to fill the void in a world that has become more complex, both societally and politically. A world where digital disruption has weakened — or entirely undermined — established, credible institutional structures, whether political parties, organized religion, universities or labor unions.
Internet noise has drowned out the once-clear signal delivered by newspapers and network news programs, institutions we once relied on to interpret and analyze our world. In the United States alone, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, This Week with John Oliver, Realtime with Bill Maher, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Saturday Night Live are among the ever-growing list of comedians and comedy programs providing political insight and interpretation that have supplanted mainstream media as a source of entertainingly digestible news and information.
It should seem unremarkable, too, that comedians supplant mainstream politicians.
Al Franken — Minnesota’s former U.S. Sen. Al Franken — was America’s contemporary professional comedian who made a splash and defeated an incumbent for a coveted Senate seat. He got there not by making light of the work, but by suggesting that his opponent was not serious in his duties and failed to treat the weighty issues of war and peace with gravity. In the Senate, Franken left behind his SNL-attitude and served honorably until a not-so-funny 2006 photo of sexual impropriety turned up during in 2017 during the #MeToo moment and movement. Who will be the America’s next comedian or reality star-turned-politician?
As with many global trends, American is on the leading edge of political change. Franken may have seemed like a pioneering U.S. comedian-politician, but the ’60s brought an earlier version of a funny man playing it seemingly straight. Pat Paulsen was a staple on The Smothers Brothers variety show, and his presidential candidacy sometimes seemed like the only sane political discourse of the time. He campaigned on the promise that, “If elected, I will win.”
Ukraine has a checkered political past where elected leaders do not always win — they sometimes get poisoned, as was the case with President Viktor Yushchenko during the 2004 election. Ultimately, governing is serious, even if politics can sometimes be funny. But meddling, poisoning or perverting elections is never a laughing matter.
Markos Kounalakis is a serious international relations scholar at the Hoover Institution. Regardless, he frequents comedy clubs.