Where is the fandom in Luxembourgish politics?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 12.10.2018

In the coverage of American political campaigns and elections, something you see regularly are fans of the candidate. I love to be horrified by these fans, and the more distance I get from my native United States the more profound my horror becomes. It’s better to call them fans than supporters because, deep in their faces, you see the emotion, the worship, the—no hyperbole intended – love. In 2016, Clinton followers sobbed on national TV; Sanders fans raged apoplectically; Trump goons went on celebratory racial crime sprees. I judge these fans. Every time I see them, I judge them, because loving a politician is like loving one of the lanes on the motorway. It’s there, it has a function, but it exists on a scale of mediocrity whereby the most memorable thing it can do is disappoint you. It certainly doesn’t love you back.

Before you throw me away as just another cynical person, let me assure you that I’m far too uninformed to be a cynic. My interest lies in the ferocity of the American political emotion, which has no replication, not precisely, here in Luxembourg. Campaigners in the Grand Duchy also have passion, anger, and tenacity, of course, and the country has had its political superstars, but fandom doesn’t apply in quite the same way.

Back in 2008, a French friend of mine described the States as a land of extremes. He was speaking about movies, comparing Hollywood’s uniquely moronic comedies to the indie scene’s artistic experiments, but the comment lodged in my brain as being applicable generally, and has insisted on its own truth countless times since then. American start-ups must alter human history; American craft brewers must obliterate your tastes with outrageous ingredients; American bankers must be richer than gods; and so on. Political personalities are no different. American voters, according to many accounts, rejected Clinton because they found her boring. A Clinton had already been in the White House, and apparently her dull slogan (“I’m with her”) and dull demeanour actually bored people into staying home on election day. Ultimately, she wasn’t extreme enough. Meanwhile, the other guy proposed to make a farce of the country so extreme that, it seems, we just had to have him.

Put another way, Americans are emotional voters. And the delivery system for these emotions, at least during election season, is the fable. Politicians must rely on storytelling, because only a narrative, simplified and representational, can burn sense through the giant, hazy mass of ideals that America is imagined to be.

Fables, especially wealth fables, have a long tradition in the States: Andrew Carnegie, the son of a poor weaver in Dunfermline, moves to Pennsylvania and becomes the second richest American in history; Mark Zuckerberg, a mere college student, creates a website that mushrooms into a generation-exploding marvel of communication; and so on. We memorialise these fables, and more specifically their leading figures, in books, films, and our foundational imaginations.

What we really celebrate, however, is not merely the hero of the tale. We celebrate the mechanisms of America that conspire to thrust him or her into fame. In many cases, this includes our economy, hence the popularity of wealth fables. In support of this argument, consider that many of our best fables don’t even have American heroes: Andrew Carnegie, Justin Bieber, Elon Musk. Indeed, the national identity of the States does not centre on food, tradition, lifestyle, or crafts quite the way European countries’ identities do – rather, it largely imbibes of this grand sense of opportunity, riches, and excessive success, all at the fingertips of the determined individual.

A hero’s meteoric rise to fame also puts the strength of another of our dearest institutions, our media, on show. There is a proprietary attitude towards celebrities in the States that, if you can’t handle the media pressures of stardom, then you’re not a star. On the whole, we are just as interested in seeing this pressure destroy you as elevate you, which suggests again that centremost in our hearts is, really, the institution.

American politicians all know this, and thus compete not with their selves but with their narratives. You will always hear about a poor upbringing, uneducated parents, personal stumbling blocks, and so on, because every plot needs obstacles for its protagonist to expunge. The winning tale is usually that which most emotively invokes the American dream, economy, media, ideals, etc. According to the principles of storytelling, being likeable is better than being good—and thus myth becomes more powerful than candidate.

Such myths seem to be missing in Luxembourg. Some Luxembourgers do worship celebrities, if usually less fervently, but they simply do not get whipped up into a frenzy over politicians.

Why? I don’t know. Jean-Claude Juncker was adored, of course; tales of his wit and charisma as Prime Minister have even reached me, a Bettel-era expat arrival. But I sense that, in some ways, Juncker was an anti-hero: a neighbourly favourite, comedic in a Luxembourgish way, authentically dishevelled. Supporters were perhaps proud of him as one of their own, rather than as a mythological figure. Whereas he represented the best of Luxembourgers, American politicians are asked to represent the potential of the whole concept of America, an unclear concept certain only to be grander than any known reality.

More to the point, there is Luxembourg’s size: in a place where candidates actually have a shot at meeting statistically significant proportions of voters, legends surely cannot grow too wildly. The average politician probably ends up dispelling any myths of personal greatness by ruining that image in person (which accords with the maxim, “Never meet your heroes.”)

In Luxembourg, additionally, being a politician is more career path than heroic undertaking; ministers are more like neighbours than parent-figures. In the States, the number of baby boys named “Barack” skyrocketed in 2008, and even enjoyed another bump in 2016, whereas it’s hard to imagine a few extra hundred five-year-old Xaviers waiting to be picked up from their crèches right now.

Ultimately, this American political storytelling seems to be about forging a national identity, with the candidate-hero epitomising whatever that identity is. The fans try to convince themselves, more than anyone, of its veracity. They even throw themselves into the myth as zealots, to make it realer. And this is why you see these weird idiots on TV. They’re trying to believe their country into existence. They feel like they have to. In my view, the Grand Duchy doesn’t have a national identity crisis in at all the same way, which leaves voters with more ironic distance to candidates.

So, as you grumble about Luxembourgish politics this weekend, consider, as a plus, the relative emotional sanity with which you have engaged with this election cycle – or, shed a tear for that lane on the motorway with all the potholes.

Jeffrey Palms
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