Political buffoons succeed for much the same reason that comics thrive. They’re entertaining. But there’s an important difference. Comics poke fun at social conventions, public figures, and sometimes themselves. When leading political figures are buffoons, however, they undermine important state institutions. Performers like Cleon effectively tell a credulous public that braggadocio, outlandishness, and mockery are more important in a leader than seriousness, deliberation, and knowledge.
When politicians like Cleon succeed, it’s a sign of decay. The decadence of bad leaders is part and parcel of the decadence of their followers. Shakespeare describes this concisely in Timon of Athens: “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ th’ flatterer.”
America isn’t immune, but its vulnerability has been mainly at the state level. When running for governor of Louisiana in 1983, Edwin Edwards announced, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Eight years later, after spending one term out of office, Edwards ran in the Democratic primary against David Duke, a notorious white supremacist. Edwards remarked, “The only thing we have in common is we’re both wizards under the sheets.” Embracing the buffoonery, Edwards’s supporters handed out bumper stickers that read: “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important,” a reference to their man’s earlier trial on charges of bribery. His clownishness metastasized into fraud and racketeering, for which he was convicted in 2000. Edwards went on to star in an A&E reality show about him and his wife.