The Duck of Minerva

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Failing Upwards and Global Elitism

October 14, 2021

This post really could have been screamed into a pillow, but, since I have posting privileges on the Duck, why not?

Yesterday I learned that Matt Hancock, a Conservative MP and the UK’s Health Secretary during most of the Covid lockdowns, has failed upwards. Less than four months ago, Hancock resigned in ignominy, caught breaking his own social distancing rules when he and an aide had an affair in his Whitehall office. Yet, after a brief summer holiday, he’s now been resurrected, appointed a UN special representative working on covid responses and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.

This story really stung as I have a special disdain for Hancock, the hypocritical architect of some of the UK’s most draconian and non-sensical Covid policies (banning outdoor socializing with friends, giving government contracts to private firms that charged obscene rates for tests to travel, refusing to recognize my US vaccinations). But it also led me to reflect on the phenomenon of failing upward, especially as it permeates international politics. Why do we allow political leaders to revive their careers after they’ve failed miserably? Who, exactly, wants more of Matt Hancock?

In the US, upward failure is a bipartisan phenomenon, though I think it’s fair to say it is especially prevalent on the right. In many ways, Donald Trump was the pièce de resistance of upward failure — a man who survived every possible scandal to win the presidency and, despite his own ignorance and repeated screw-ups, to this day retains a firm grip on around 40 percent of the country. Beyond Trump himself, Trumpism seemed to usher in an epidemic of upward failure, particularly in the American foreign policy establishment. This included the resurrection of Iraq War evangelist John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor, Liz Cheney becoming a leftist hero, a resurgence in George W. Bush’s approval rating, and even a decent run for Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Pence became the next James Bond.

Upward failure is not limited to the foreign policy establishment, nor is it uniquely Anglo-America. It comes in all shapes and sizes and often it seems that every well-connected well-educated ne’er-do-well has a comeback story to tell. But, for the sake of conceptual clarity, it’s worth distinguishing upward failure from a few adjacent phenomena, if only so we can all scream into our pillows with the same terminology.

First, failing upward is distinct from the more general phenomenon of surviving a scandal. While Lebron James took a lot of flak for The Decision and a lot of Clevelanders burned his jersey, none of this reflected on his basketball ability. He still made First Team All-NBA the next year and probably should have won MVP, too. For this reason, when he eventually made amends and went back to Cleveland, the basketball community forgave him. Matt Hancock’s slip up, on the other hand, reflected the failures of his own draconian and elitist policies. By getting a post at the UN, Hancock failed upwards and my grudge stands.

Second, though I don’t have data to back this up, I suspect that failing upwards is much more common among white men than other groups. I don’t know the degree to which this reflects other inequalities of opportunity or speaks to the racial politics of public forgiveness, but it strikes me as worth noting. Though no one deserves to fail upwards, if the phenomenon must exist it should at least be distributed equitably.

Third and finally, whereas some political pathologies are about financial gain, failing upwards seems uniquely about power — both the power of those who facilitate it and the power-hungry who benefit from it. On the side of the facilitators, it’s the power of world leaders to say, “I don’t care that he’s terrible at his job, he’s my friend and that’s why he gets to be [insert prestigious post here].” When Trump appointed John Bolton National Security Advisor, he was basically telling the American people that Bolton’s Fox News appearances praising his administration were more important than receiving competent foreign policy advice. From the perspective of the Hancocks and Boltons of the world, the motivation is clearly power — neither needs the money of a government job and neither has demonstrated themselves to be a particularly selfless public servant. Nor, I suspect, does either really desire the endless editorials furious over their appointments. Power must be a hell of a drug.

Ultimately, failing upwards is a particularly pernicious form of political corruption. It perpetuates elitism, closes off opportunities for progressive change, and serves to alienate the government from the governed. But, perhaps worst of all, in this case it means we still have to hear from Matt Hancock.   

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).