One more insight from Michael Ignatieff’s book, Fire and Ashes, stuck with me and it forms one of the great results of losing in politics – namely you become one of the forgotten ones. At least that’s the theory. Ignatieff puts it like this:
In the weeks afterward, the solitary reality of defeat began to sink in. It turns out that there is nothing so ex as an ex-politician, especially a defeated one. Your phone goes dead … When you’re done in politics, you are well and truly done, and it is a good idea to accept this as quickly as you can … the psychic challenge after defeat is to recover your standing.”
Political office can add a kind of esteem to your profile. People notice you in restaurants. There are requests to speak or attend meetings. But what the politician often doesn’t realize is that it is the office that lends that credibility, not necessarily anything you have or haven’t accomplished. Then, once you no longer hold that office, you often aren’t accorded the same kind of notoriety. I have known dozens of former politicians who speak to this being their experience. This reality that “your phone goes dead” can be disturbing if one is not prepared for it. The higher up the pecking order you are in politics, the busier your phone gets. But lose that office and you discover that the fall is not only precipitous, the silence can be deafening.
And yet there is another side to being out of politics that is often overlooked. If your connection with your community was strong and vital prior to entering the political arena, you discover that you can quickly pick up those relationships again once your political days are done. In my case, the phone started ringing. Job offers immediately came in, but more important were those desiring help with their various community endeavours. I was asked to sit on boards of churches and local organizations. I ended up meeting with families without food, and wealthy individuals seeking a place to invest their resources that would spell the most good to our city.
But by far the greatest amount of requests came from those desperately struggling to believe in the validity of politics. They rightly assumed that some kind of “system-wide failure” was rendering the political class ineffective. The majority was desperately trying to believe that politics could still have an honourable place in our communities.
For whatever reason, my life took on some special meaning after politics. It took me some time to understand it, but it basically came down to the fact that if you put your community first prior to entering politics, and give it the place of prominence while you are elected, then your community, in turn, will respect you in kind. In other words, if you live a life that transcends politics, you eventually discover that your fellow citizens are eager for your community development energies once more.
There is now this profound feeling in the Canadian citizenry that politics is all about the party, about getting elected, about treating voters as a means to an end. It has almost become universal, yet many politicians continue to play and extend that game. It has been going on long enough that citizens are getting far more attuned as to who is a fake and who isn’t. They can detect that party “groupie” from the principled public servant. They easily spot the person with fabricated answers. They know when they’re being played and when they’re being honestly engaged.
Which leads me to believe that the person who can put their constituents above everything else in politics – the parties, the perks, the propaganda, the pandering – is the very person who can restore integrity to our political structures. The politician who lives his or her life well beyond politics itself will be recognized by citizens for the genuine article she or he is. I watch in despair as both aspiring politicians and those already elected manipulate the public to get their vote and realize that I’m just one of thousands that detects the superficiality of it all. By the same token, I delight when I’m spoken to straight up and humbly, just as most citizens would be delighted. In fact, we would be overjoyed at meeting someone who is directly authentic.
British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was once confronted by an opponent who pitted his policy against Disraeli’s. It was a bitter exchange. Disraeli looked seriously at the man and said, “Sir, I shall not defeat you – I shall transcend you.” Isn’t this what we are looking for, the kind of politics that can get past itself? What is wrong with wanting our next mayor, provincial or federal politician to be the next Mandela or Vaclav Havel? Nothing, absolutely nothing. In fact it is a welcome aspiration. But for a person to actually be that kind of politician, they must first live transcendent lives, the kind that wins the voter through humanity, genuineness, transparency and passion for community instead of party planks and plastic smiles. Be that before you enter politics and you might be the next politician to turn your community around through humble and respectful public service. It’s what you are and not what you want to be that will spell the difference.