“I miss you in this place. I so badly wanted a better form of politics, but now it’s all about power, and who has it, and not participation.” This email popped up on my iPhone a couple of days ago from a Conservative MP who’s tired of the same-old, same-old. We shouldn’t be surprised at this; there exists in the House of Commons today, and perhaps more particularly in the Senate, good Conservatives who know in their heart that they’ve become unmoored. Now with power fully in their grasp, they feel they may never find their way back to a more participatory democracy that defends modern institutions and invests in their effectiveness. The same MP said that he envied my freedom and I believe him.
Politics in recent years has become the immoral equivalent of war and in our heart of hearts we know it. Numerous MPs sense it isn’t the noble calling it once was and they are troubled by that sad reality. It’s not just about big battles like elections, but the ongoing negatives in which relationships are always seen as adversarial. When politics becomes all about controversy, contest, and conflict, then public service is degraded and the public good is marginalized. A consequence of all this is the inclination to journey to the extreme.
For Liberals in their rebuilding phase this same temptation exists. We become trapped in our own “us-versus-them” philosophy. Yet the issue isn’t about Stephen Harper or the Conservative party but rather about the same yearning that characterized that Conservative MP’s email to me – freedom, the desire to serve, individual accountability. What we become and not what the Conservatives are should be the primary focus of all of us seeking a progressive centre that sticks, imagines, and, yes, ultimately governs.
We forget at our peril that this politics of intimidation continues to be an unattractive option to most Canadians. Sure, the tactic of voter suppression has worked for the present government but it results in a great part of the electorate turning away in their disgust and lack of enfranchisement. It’s not the successful path for rebuilding. Somewhere along that journey citizens have permitted themselves to become victims and there are some in Liberal party grassroots that are playing the same card repeatedly. Angered by both the Conservatives and how they lost relevance under the Liberals, they have become angry agents of change, little realizing that this same form of negativity is what turned the public off in the first place.
This culture of helplessness makes for a poison in the ranks of those seeking genuine renewal. It’s supposed to be about inclusiveness, about a party more interested in restoring faith in the political system of dedicated public service than about creating an atmosphere of constant conflict. We have permitted our politics to only be fought by well-prepared troops drawn from the ranks of the professional political classes, rather like the peasants of the Middle Ages who watched as knights went off with their minions to fight in distant fields.
We in the Liberal grassroots, in our own way, let it come to this, though we frequently refuse to admit it. In the “glory days” of Liberal majorities not so long ago, we revelled in power, had our pictures taken with our knights as we permitted them to draw from our ranks for support. There were some calling for democratic renewal, but most comforted themselves in the fundraisers, success of the party, and the fact that our knights faced divided tribes that made victory all the easier. We participated in all this and we evade personal responsibility by suddenly blaming everything on the party and their elites. True, they pulled from us our resources to support their distant efforts, but we gave willingly, little realizing that we were sowing the seeds of grassroots demise.
Liberals are what they are because of the choices they have already made – good and bad. They will now be what they will be because of the choices they will make in the next few weeks, months and years. Philosopher Simone Weil might as well have been speaking to Liberals when she wrote, “Someone would be a complete slave if what he or she did were controlled by the bad things other people do. We are only really free if what we do is directed by our inner sense of what we think we should be, by our own choices.”
My Conservative MP friend who wrote the email is in the same box as we are in. He assisted in permitting his party to be taken over by the knights because power is intoxicating. It’s a strange world we are living in where power now strips one of accountability and personal liberation. Liberals must be careful that lacking power doesn’t produce the same result.