How is one to recognize good politics these days? It is increasingly becoming a kind of spectacle and gives rise to an air of pervasive unreality that stumps politician and citizen alike – nothing seems to work anymore. When the ultimate political standard is how well someone can sell himself instead of the manner of conduct that sees to the public business first and foremost, then we have turned democracy on its head. Worse, we have turned the citizen into a spectator of the absurd. Think of the parody of Rob Ford, or the tragedy working its Shakespearean way through the Senate. We shake our heads in disbelief, but, since we, along with the media and political sophisticates, believe it to be the essence of human drama, we relegate politics to the realm of performance over principle. Worse still, we can turn the entire display into something self-serving, as with those who continue to support the Toronto mayor, regardless of his conduct, because he lowered their taxes.
In his novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes states that, “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” We are living precisely in such times, but where are these supposed patriots? Certainly there are the shoulder shruggers, the finger wavers, the “tut-tutters,” but where is the kind of outrage that prompts people to enter the arena of engagement instead of exiting it? As one federal cabinet minister told me once, “Canadians are just too amenable and opt to avoid conflict in any contest. That leaves the field open to the organized and hyper-partisan.”
Consider the three types of politicians. First, there are the followers. They talk a tough line in an election campaign and then go quiet when elected. It is their very absence of conscience, even in the halls of power, that has permitted our present state of politics. They are good, decent and mostly honest people who desired to make a difference but who understood quick enough that to play the system is the only way to stay in the game. They like the trappings of power but are actually terrified by the real thing. Their individual goals in getting elected are eventually subsumed by the projection of the political tribe. It becomes a preoccupation. Without realizing it, they become tribal warriors, seeing the enemy where they once saw only an opponent. War is waged under peace towers, and conflict rules in chambers. Deep down they know they aren’t equipped to lead. That’s actually a noble trait. Yet they permit themselves to follow such leaders, becoming the water carriers of war by another means.
Second are the leaders, and in their own way they introduce new dangers to the public space. Unlike their troops, they are not afraid of power; they are in love with it actually. They know their time in office is limited, and whereas their predecessors most often fulfilled the nation’s business in a custodial fashion, the new generation of leaders is out to shake up the whole system. They believe history is a thing to reverse, not to build upon, and so they wage war on the conventions well-earned and erected over the decades. And their best friends are not merely the revolutionaries, but the average citizen who will accept any diabolical intervention so long as they can keep a bit more change in their pocket. In other words, these kinds of leaders know their voters can be bought with their own money. They use the lofty language of citizens and votes to get into office, and then manipulate them as mere consumers ever after. They aren’t so much interested in respecting history, or even making it, but obliterating it.
And then there are the third kind of politicians: the saints. They are rare and they are endangered. The public says it craves such individuals, yet repeatedly vote in ways harmful to the public estate. Saints often don’t fit normal profiles of celebrity. They instead can be found in committee rooms, bars, restaurants, even in media circles, moving others towards consensus, sacrifice, a sense of integrity, transparency, and, ultimately, stability. To them, history is important, not an impediment. They are builders, not destroyers; gatherers, not slayers. They have emerged from the present political system and renounced the sheer violence and inanity of it. If by some odd circumstance they found themselves in Rob Ford’s shoes, they would be horrified at themselves. They would immediately recuse themselves so as not to harm the public office any further. They would apologize, not to quickly gain favour, but to begin the long process of healing that would be required to rehabilitate the public space and public perception. What these “saints” all have in common is their renunciation of the tools of war in politics. They want peace and refuse to use sedition or tribal custom to get it. I know some good politicians who fulfill just such roles – Hugh Segal perhaps being the most recent example.
Aristotle once put it this way: “It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Sadly, our modern ethos in politics is to win the election and wage perpetual war afterwards. The saints can perhaps save us, but only if we stop marveling at the spectacle and start working for a new democracy.