Something new is happening in our political culture. We live in fast-moving times, and it can be hard to pinpoint important changes – but this is surely one. I think of it as the emergence of political avatars, the players and voices across social media who are now replacing elected politicians as the representatives of values, belief and ideology.
I’m using “avatar” not in the Hindu sense of embodied deities, but in the modern sense of online creatures or personalities who stand for, or in front of, aspects of real life.
They are as varied as you can imagine: Gary Lineker, former footballer and broadcaster; JK Rowling, novelist; Piers Morgan, daytime television presenter; Michael Sheen, actor; Laurie Penny, writer; Arron Banks, financier and Ukip supporter. The only things they have in common are that none is an elected politician; all have very strong views and are followed by thousands or millions of people every day; and are addicted to social media, Twitter in particular.
The rise of vocal players from outside the political establishment has been going on for a long time, of course, nudging aside traditional newspaper commentators and politicians keen to make speeches. But it’s gathered even more momentum in the past few weeks.
Take this week’s famous spat between Morgan and Rowling. The author lured her enemy into a Valentine’s Day trap by appearing to get him to forget that he had once idolised her. She quoted an old Morgan piece, which he…