The landslide presidential win of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine reflects specific domestic political dynamics in the former Soviet-bloc nation but his surprising election also underscores the political winds blowing in different parts of the world in which non-politicians are elected to lead their nations.
A former comedic actor, Jimmy Morales, was elected the 50th president of Guatemala in 2015, and real estate magnate-turned-reality-TV star Donald Trump sits in the White House. Though not necessarily a trend, their wins are significant enough for many to wonder about what’s behind the electoral victories.
Perhaps it has to do with the growing sense that traditional politics is no longer capable of bringing the change many voters strive for and hence their willingness to wager on whether non-politicians can yield better results. Many voters see that risk as worthwhile. Yet, not a convincing assessment.
Alternatively, the rise of non-politicians to presidential leadership might not be based on the wishes of many but on the communication skills of media personalities who figured out what traditional politicians failed to learn — that politics today is tantamount to entertainment that is heavily visual. And who is most capable in conflating politics and entertainment than those already successful in using media.
Ronald Reagan may be taken as the first politician of the modern era to successfully merge politics with entertainment, but he also entered the presidency after two terms as governor of California. Presidents Morales and Trump and now Zelensky don’t bring such experience, and many voters did not seem to require that they possess such qualification.
It is unclear whether the experiment will succeed or for how long, but the political phenomena will likely continue as media-savvy individuals are tempted to act as politicians.
That may be all it takes to win.
Amos Kiewe is a professor of communications and rhetorical studies in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.