Whatever anyone’s hopes and fears around the current US election drive, no-one ever dreamed that it would set the template for politics in a post-coronavirus age…
Was it really only 12 weeks ago that, opening a rally for Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar asked everyone in the audience to hold hands with those next to them in a show of solidarity?
But that was before the coronavirus changed the world. With all the rallies long gone, touching others is still strongly discouraged. The nation whose medics invented the term ‘social distancing’ is now seeing the democratic process itself being morphed by the need for everyone to keep two metres apart.
As the US emerges – state by state, and at varying rates – from lockdown, the presidential election can serve as a model for the rest of the world as to how the template for democracy can best evolve. One thing we do know is that the change in tactile behavior – touch – now seen as a result of the pandemic will greatly alter the function of democracy not only in the US, but worldwide.
The fact is that coronavirus will greatly alter many aspects of politics during the 2020 election cycle, not least traditions of political touching.
The Royal Touch
The use of bodily contact by politicians and leaders – either to convey warmth and trustworthiness or to legitimize claims to rule – has a long history.
In early modern Europe, the tradition of the king’s touch involved sick people being presented to royalty. The king would then place his hands upon the ill person in an attempt to cure the afflicted. Most of these cases involved the condition of scrofula: caused by tuberculosis, scrofula produces a large growth on the neck. Often, it clears up on its own and the tumours recede – giving the appearance that the king’s touch was curative.
The message being conveyed was that the monarch had special powers, that divine right – the belief that God provided the king with the right to rule – was being displayed through the body of the king, who was able to heal the ill.
The modern tradition of kissing babies and glad-handing with supporters came later but still follows from the idea that those in power have types of charisma (a word that originally meant ‘a divinely conferred power’) that can be sensed through touch.
As monarchies gave way to elected governments, touching remained a potent way for politicians to retain their sense of legitimacy as a man or woman of the people. In the paraphernalia of politicians getting known and bonding with the people, the handshake became a common way for US politicians, in particular, to engage with voters at a personal level.
Abraham Lincoln was well known for his constant political tours, often to the extent that the frequency of his glad-handing on the trips would make his signature appear shaky on important documents.
The handshake also became a staple of 20th-century party politics, whether in backroom deals or between politicians and their constituencies. While in the UK, Tony Blair cemented the appeal of New Labour with epic street parades and seemingly endless hand-shaking, the US saw constant images of Bill Clinton patting backs and hugging a plethora of supporters on the campaign trail. Indeed, these images in 1992 increased the sense of interpersonal trust that became so associated with the future president.
When to shake hands – and when not to – has also become subject to occasional political intrigue. On the debate stages of 2016, Trump and his challenger Hillary Clinton appeared to depart from tradition and keep their hands to themselves.
The reality is, though, that the role of the handshake in legitimizing and conveying trust will fade during this election year.
To look at the bigger picture, it isn’t just the behavior of politicians that will be affected by the virus during this electoral cycle.
Coronavirus and its restrictions on touching has already changed how people turn out to vote. Fears over crowds at polling places and concerns over keeping polling machines, pens and ballots free of the virus has already led to the first round of remote ballots – and to Donald Trump’s much-publicised Twitter claims (rightly or wrongly) that these open the door to ballot rigging and skewed results.
Touch of a different kind
Even with these many changes to political traditions, touch will not be removed from the 2020 election, as the sense will increasingly be felt through the touch of a screen or keyboard at home.
A political world that shifted heavily to message boards and memes during the 2016 election now looks destined to hinge even further around social networks and anonymous digital spaces.
The loss of touch in standard American politics may now lead the way for politicians globally, as individuals isolate from interpersonal actions. Yet since these are the very things that can often overcome hardened ideologies (just ask Barack Obama!), when we jettison them we risk exaggerating the partisan divide. The ‘new normal’ of politics will still be as much as ever about the fight over who should hold power.