Andy Burnham and ‘Dishi Rishi’: How the pandemic might explain why we fancy politicians more than ever

Alexandra Jones
·3-min read
 (Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

I actually can’t believe I’m about to admit this given that I’m an immigrant from Eastern Europe who grew-up in a northern mining town, went to a state school and always voted Labour. But Boris...I kind of would, you know? Like, maybe not right now because Covid seems to have left him permanently wan and sweaty, but back in his heyday, when all he was doing was peddling mistruths re: Brexit, or voting against pay rises for nurses and in favour of fox hunting… whew!

I don’t know what this says about me (two words may come to mind) but let’s press pause on the pop psychology for a sec. During the pandemic lusting after politicians has become something of a national sport, with Rishi Sunak becoming the acceptable face of fancying a Tory. He’s handsome and has been giving us money, so it makes sense. Still, as I told a friend who admitted to being all a fluster during one of Rishi’s 5pm briefings, he’s essentially a safe choice for aspirational interns - i.e. I’m just not sure he’s the stuff of real smut.

On the other side of the political seesaw, if Twitter is anything to go by, Andy Burnham has been getting a fair bit of airtime in our fantasies. He is also quite hot (hello eyebrows) and watching someone passionately stand up for what they believe in adds an extra frisson of excitement. Interestingly, in the past Burnham has featured in “sexiest politicians” polls run by both Vice and Mumsnet, so the man has some truly broad-base sex appeal.

Of course, none of this is exactly new, there’s a rich history of people fancying politicians — the idea that John F. Kennedy’s success came down to his dashing good looks, for instance, has persisted ever since he took part in the first ever televised presidential debate in 1960. And there’s an attendant rich history of scientific research which seeks to codify our desires. Which is not as ridiculous as it sounds given what’s at stake.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been nicknamed Dishi Rishi by adoring fansReuters TV
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been nicknamed Dishi Rishi by adoring fansReuters TV

As humans we make involuntary judgements — some of which happen in as little as 33 thousandths of a second. Despite the fact that they’re essentially baseless, the effect of these snap character judgements is so powerful that scientists have correctly predicted the outcomes of elections in the US, Bulgaria, France, Australia, Mexico, Finland and Japan based solely on the faces of the politicians who were running.

Previously this was put down to a “halo effect” — the idea that we ascribe good characteristics to good-looking people. But in 2013 a group of researchers from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University actually found that a preference for good-looking politicians was likely linked to ancient adaptations for avoiding disease. As they explained in the New York Times: “Past research has found that some of the features associated with beauty — smooth skin, shiny hair, body and facial symmetry — are actually indicators of health” and that “voters’ preferences for physically attractive politicians might reflect a desire for leaders who are free from disease.”

For their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, they examined voting patterns in the 2010 US congressional elections and found that good-looking candidates were twice as likely to win in districts that saw a higher prevalence of disease than in healthier ones. In fact, they found that “where people were generally healthier, being the better-looking candidate had no measurable effect on electoral outcomes.”

Ok so perhaps there’s also something about men in positions of power that we don’t want to delve too much into, but if we believe this research, the fact that we’re mid-pandemic might just explain why we’re thirsting so hard after Dishi and Burnham et. al. Though, admittedly, none of this explains my thing for Boris - let’s be real, he’s no Kennedy. Thankfully I vote with my heart not my loins, otherwise it might be a truly frightening prospect for democracy.

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