The Necessity of Politics

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I returned from south Sudan to some 4,000 emails. One was from a good friend welcoming me home. He said he has come to the conclusion that while he loves Canada with a passion, he absolutely “hates” politics.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed and who can blame people for feeling that way?  But there is the sense of unintended disingenuous about it, for any nation that exalts patriotism without duty or engagement runs the risk of being insensitive and irrelevant.

Obama touched on this theme during his Second Inaugural Address. He could have just read out a litany of accomplishments but instead focused on the great challenges yet facing America. And he reminded his listeners that hurdles like climate change, tolerance, freedom and economic health cannot be attained without political action.

In fact, the President’s speech was more highly political than many predicted. It was if he had come to the conclusion that modern partisanship was so debilitating that the only way to defeat it was to summon citizens to cooperate on a larger political agenda – larger than any party and roughly equivalent to America’s overriding potential.  That’s what politics is supposed to do – raise the collective game – but it has become so infested with political partisans as to be almost sterile.

And so Obama went out on a limb, alluding to grand tasks he had not yet accomplished.  Perhaps chief among them was the long-delayed imperative of tackling climate change. Its inclusion in the speech surprised many, in part because they viewed politics as being incapable of proactive solutions.  It was almost as if the President was saying, “Not yet – we can still do this thing.”  He refused to do the populist thing and remind people to conserve energy or blue box; instead he committed to engaging the governing apparatus to press for and resource solutions that can only come at a national level.  The threat is so severe that he challenged his hearers to remember that without a political solution there is no way out. That remained true for a litany of challenges he went on to list – medicare, poverty, race relations, human rights, and equality.

He knows he has the chance to pull it off because, like Ronald Reagan, he is personally more popular than his politics. In that subtle distinction he perceives the opportunity to urge people to seek political solutions rather than mere local ones.  It’s difficult to imagine such a possibility in Canada since no party leader seems capable of transcending the political cul de sac.  As a nation we have a politics in love with its own rhetoric instead of extending an honesty that concedes that we have yet to meet our potential. Significant challenges straddle the path in front of us and we seem to be incapable of removing them – through cooperation, innovation, or even imagination. We have chosen to live with our collective limitations, one of them being a political machinery no longer capable of transcending its present.

So, yes, politics pales at the moment and has lost much support. But without political action there is no grand solution, no national vision, or even a robust national identity. In our collective concession that our politics is broken we have found a convenient excuse to permit our great problems to remain. Obama reminded his listeners that one particular group stands to lose all should citizens and their governments give in to defeat – our children and our grandchildren.  If this doesn’t arouse us from our slumber nothing will.  “We know that our failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” And in case anyone misinterpreted his meaning, he called out:

The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

And so there it was – government as an enabler. We have spent years moving in the opposite direction – stripping public policy of its imagination and resources, becoming mean-spirited in the process – and where has it gotten us? They answer should be clear: incapable of facing our greatest challenges because we no longer know how to come together now that politics has become smaller than we are.

An engaged citizenship will now be absolutely essential to any future success – an acknowledged new reality. But if it is citizenship without politics, we will remain docile before the sweeping powers of climate change, poverty, inequality, lack of productivity, the degradation of human rights, and financial elitism. We will require legislatures, policies, oversight, and the recapturing of the dying political arts of compromise, ingenuity, and a people-centered focus. And for that we require two new entities. Our present political stock will have to begin the process of putting their constituents ahead of their parties, or an entirely new generation of political leadership will have to arise that knows how to cooperate with those of other opinions – all for the greater good.

Thomas Jefferson’s insight is more necessary today than ever: “I predict future happiness for citizens, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”  For that to occur, politics is just as essential as citizenship.

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