The Political Industrial Complex

There was a strong reaction to my last blog post on the need for good folks to run for politics. That was encouraging. But we must also be frank. Here’s why.

Following the last post, I received two calls – one from a retired Conservative MP and the other from a city politician. Both commented on how they were in danger of losing hope in the last few years. Their comments were sincere, emotional, and not a little bit sad. Both laid the blame squarely on a growing partisanship and the inability of politicians to find compromise in such a setting. Jane and I were recently visited by a provincial politician who stopped in to see how I was faring following my recent surgery. When the subject inevitably came to politics, there was a sigh, and then the admission that the politics of Queen’s Park (Toronto) is now about as contentious as the House of Commons in Ottawa, making it more difficult to get anything accomplished. “Partisanship from all parties is ruining our chances for cooperation,” he noted.

So, if you want to run for politics, this is what you’ll be up against. Note that all three levels of government were mentioned in the preceding paragraph. If you want to be effective, the political forces arrayed against your interventions will be significant. It’s what comedian Stephen Colbert recently referred to as the “political industrial complex.” What is that exactly?

It was a play on a phrase used over 60 years earlier by outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower. In his farewell speech to the nation, he spoke of how America used to be a more peaceable nation but that it was now moving towards a permanent conflict paradigm. He warned his fellow citizens of the “Military Industrial Complex” – the interplay between government, the military, and the industrial base that produced all those weapons that were consuming an increasing amount of the nation’s resources. He spoke of how political contributions and lobbying for defense contracts were taking the nation away from its more democratic past.

Colbert, by his interesting twist of phrase, was merely acknowledging what people already know: politics has become the privilege of the elite and threatens democracy at its most basic levels. Consider some of Eisenhower’s closing thoughts in the fateful 1961 speech, which you can view here, and see how they speak as much to the loss of democracy as the massive increase of military/defense/government power:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

If you want to run for politics, you’ll have to deal with this reality Colbert is speaking of. Can you do it? Will you run for the sake of those who elected you (and even those in your constituency who didn’t) and place it over party and partisanship? Don’t just assume you can because the political forces arrayed against you will be massive and intimidating. This is what happens when politics and government unite to form such an imposing front that even democratic initiatives themselves cannot hold them to account. Are you willing to stand up for those you represent and fade into anonymity in the party? Gandhi used to say that, “It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” All too many politicians these days hide from their constituencies in the cloakrooms of power and partisan politics.

Political parties must be challenged by their own members to be more sensitive not only to their members but the constituencies those politicians represent. Your job will not be to mingle with your party colleagues alone, but to bring the challenges and opportunities of your riding into the larger mix. Don’t worry about burning bridges; it won’t matter if you’re building your own. It’s just what you do that you will be held accountable for. You will also be judged by how you didn’t represent your community.

Thomas Paine stated boldly in the early days of the American Revolution that, “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” Well, that’s what’s happening right now. Canadians are tuning out by the millions because they no longer trust the political system nor those that represent it. The political industrial complex needs to be challenged, not just by concerned citizens, but by politicians themselves who put representation and accountability ahead of cronyism and partisan pursuits. It must be challenged from without and from within if the political system is to be reformed. That will take courage and you must determine if you have it in enough measure to enter the fray. Political courage isn’t about not feeling intimidated, but rather acting on the knowledge that something else is far more important – your constituents and their possibilities.

If you can, by all means run, but only if you are completely certain who you are to serve. The salvation of politics itself will rest on decisions just like that.