I know, this is a bit of a surprise coming from me. Often on record for registering my disillusionment from what has happened to the political order in general, and the House of Commons specifically, I nevertheless possess a deep and practical yearning for the potential of politics and the difference it can make.
Talk to people on the street and the vast majority heap their scorn on politicians and their practiced trade. Even the most reserved personality expresses doubts. In an anti-political era, they quietly nod in affirmation of Groucho Marx’s observation that, “Politics is the art of look for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”
And yet … and yet we remain fascinated with it. Even its most vehement critics spend three-quarters of their time in coffee shops talking about it. People who used to tell me they couldn’t imagine how I kept my sanity as an MP have recently approached me as to the possibility of their own running for office in the future. What’s with that?
The answer, I believe, is at least three-fold.
To begin with, there’s nothing quite like politics to stroke the ego and entertain the possibilities of the ambitious. There are the media spotlight, speeches, notoriety, hangers-on, the acknowledged looks you receive walking into a room, and the sense that you’re somebody. This is why people who say that they are too honest to be in politics run anyway. It’s their best chance at cracking the big time. It’s tempting to use inclusive language with such individuals (ambition is good, competition is healthy, etc.), but a critical mass of such people on a city council or in a national caucus dulls the collective mind and inevitably undershoots the target.
There are those who get into politics for ideological reasons. Just like they can’t comprehend religion without a denomination, so they require a political party to feel at home. There are thousands of faithful party stalwarts across the country that do valuable service but who find their fortunes and their ideals so linked to the party structure that political service for them is a relentless swing of ups and downs. By baptizing themselves to a brand, they limit themselves to its possibilities and pitfalls. This is where they develop an us vs. them rationale. In finding a rigid ideological home for their leanings, they find companionship at the same time as they grow more isolated from broader communities. There are many party faithful in this country who haven’t fallen for that trap, but as the political order becomes more hyper-partisan, the ability to remain sensible and cooperative, compromising and progressive, is diminished.
Then there are those who see politics for what it can accomplish for the public good. Being politically involved only makes sense to them as they improve the lives of all. To them politics is noble and they are willing to sacrifice a good part of their daily routine for the sake of others and for their country. They understand what Edward R. Murrow meant when he said that, “a nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves,” and they stay engaged to keep beasts at bay. They view democracy as perhaps the greatest franchise bestowed to humans whereby the most benefit can be reached for the most people.
This is the form of politics I came to delight in from an early age. It was about protecting the freedom of others, extending security to others, giving a voice to others, keeping poverty away from others, creating broader possibilities for others, providing a sustainable world for others. Without the ability to reach and secure these goals, neither the party nor ambition can claim success or effectiveness.
As difficult as it was in Parliament for me personally, I nevertheless willingly accepted the ongoing stream of character tests, some of which I failed, but others that strengthened my conscience and helped me to put constituents first. The very thought of being in a hallowed political chamber that possessed the possibility of providing resources to Canadians to lift their level of consciousness, education, and responsibility towards others was enough to take my breath away – every day. Sadly, we all failed in those precious years of democratic opportunity to raise the game of the country, to provide for our own, and to develop skills of innovation that drive our economy to new and sustainable possibilities.
I love politics because it inspires me in that direction. Like so many others who want government to be what it can be, my spirits are more elevated by the lofty goals of a West Wing instead of the murky ambitions of the House of Cards. I’m aware they are both entertainment options and that some say West Wing was unobtainable. But, God, what a calling! To work at the pinnacle of power with others for the betterment of all yet remains the only kind of politics that the public can ever trust again. I want the grand ideas. I want to believe we can work together to pull out of the doldrums. The politician who can emerge from the sacrifices for such pursuits carries a weight in the public mind that is real and noble because they get us to believe in ourselves.
Politics can produce these kinds of leaders, but its ultimate genius is that can defray a power so expansive to the welfare of citizens that they themselves build the country. I love it.