Identity Politics

by Glen

identity-theft-02With the Speaker of the House seated beside me, I addressed a group of my fellow MPs in as frank a manner as I could:

If our politics were united around our commonalities and centred in consensus and compromise, political polarizers wouldn’t divide us as they seek to now. They would experience far more difficulty raising “conflict money,” and ultimately they would have less political power over us. But we have to know who we are and what we want before we can proceed any farther.

The effect was interesting. In thanking me, Speaker Milliken said that if such an outlook were adopted Parliament would be a far different place. My peers from all parties approached, stating how they wished they could get to the point of consensus politics. In each one I noted a sincerity that was completely missing in Question Period or even in committees.

In Ottawa, but increasingly in provincial capitals and communities, this sense of pragmatic idealism still struggles against the deep dissolution of the age. Politicians still talk quietly of how we could achieve a better future. Quite genuinely they want to improve the collective lot of the restless tide of humanity that laps up against the shores of this country seeking a better life than what they face at present. These politicians note the various democratic declines happening around the world and would seek to do their best to keep our world from destroying itself.

I can say from personal experience that this is the shared identity of most politicians I know and have worked with. There is only one overriding problem. There is another larger identity they must match themselves up with that frequently suppresses who they really are – overt partisanship and party politics.

It’s now entirely obvious that many powerful forces are engaged in our politics that are diametrically opposed to those men and women of goodwill who wish for a more equitable Canada, a more peaceful world. And the problem for the average politician is that they can’t get there from here – the powers of polarization far outmatch their individual abilities to truly represent their communities and the greater good. And since their parties don’t permit them to work together to counteract such alienating forces, they have little choice to conform to the politics of the age, realizing that they are being personally diminished in the process.

As Shakespeare put it: “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” This, in a nutshell, is the curse of the modern politician. She or he has an identity fully capable of transcending the pettiness and meanness of modern political practice, but can’t accomplish it without breaking with the corporate identity of the party, the political tribe. He or she knows internally what they are and the better angels of their nature, but will likely never know a politics that will permit them to be all they can be.

They are not stupid individuals. They know the task of politics goes on, as do the tasks of daily survival their constituents confront every day. They are aware that people will get on with their lives regardless of what happens in the political theatres of the land.  And they grow disillusioned by the reality that they, the people’s representatives, matter less and less to those daily lives. There is a life force, a survival mechanism, in citizens that learns to ignore, even despise, the machinations of MPs, MPPs, prime ministers, councillors, reeves, and mayors. It is a bitter lesson to learn as a politician that your own ineffectiveness, limited by polarization, earns you the title of “redundant” in the eyes of citizens. They must go on with the important things of their lives because they can no longer count on you to place their interest above that of your party. And so they walk on, regardless of what is created or ruined for them in the modern pyramid scheme of politics.

Lacking the courage to break with the system, the politician does what his constituents have learned to do: go on, because there really is no choice once you take your real identity out of the equation. Citizens have learned to do without you and you slowly learn to take them less and less into account. You are a passenger in the juggernaut of political power, sadly realizing you can’t control it. The power lies elsewhere – not in your identity but in the managers of the party.

And so you become an anomaly: a politician without a people. They grow confused at your aims, baffled and exasperated at your preference for party over people, and your refusal to take the important things of their lives into account. They believe you have the capacity to break with prevailing politics of the day; you can’t see any way of doing that. And so the chasm between you and those you represent grows wider.

There is no denying that you are a politician with some power to elevate the status of your constituents. You can champion their cause or not. Your tragedy is that you won’t pay the price to do that. Their tragedy is that they have given up on looking for someone who will. You have run in a great race, only to discover that it’s a circle and that you meet yourself back on the starting line. In losing your identity you lost your people.