WITH THE ARRIVAL OF THE NEW YEARS HAS COME the public announcement of some to run for politics. In London, Ontario, a number of citizens who have currently observed from the sidelines have decided the occasion is right from them to enter the political arena. Times are becoming more desperate and we require new blood in our politics if we are to drive change. Who can doubt it? The present management of our public estate has not only proved lackluster but self-defeating.
Now that they’ve signed up, these aspiring politicians have a steep learning curve ahead of them. For want of a better phrase, political life inevitably becomes a kind of “migrating” discipline. In most cases it commences from a place among fellow citizens in the community, infused by local populism, and inevitably winds its way towards a kind of isolationism. If elected, you spend large amounts of time in committees, with stakeholders, and at official meetings. It’s an education, to be sure, but the process slowly draws you away from the very citizens you once swore to represent with all your best efforts. It’s nothing intentional; it just evolves that way.
Politics would be far more authentic if it merely entailed the politician in direct relationship with the voters – messier, for sure, but more transparent. At its essence, politics is supposed to be about the sharing of power democratically throughout the community, but in reality it results in the concentration of power in a manner that can provide easier access to those with resources than those without them.
Philosopher and theologian John Murray spent a lot of time attempting to help local citizens fighting against those larger forces that always seemed to prevail in most communities. Worse yet, governments and politicians often had their agenda set by such influences.
We are not really a group of citizens singly engaged in the search for truth, relying solely on the means of persuasion, entering into dignified communication with each other, content politely to correct opinions with which we do not agree. As a matter of fact, the various ideas and allegiances among us are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground, they have developed interests, and they possess the means to fight for them. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige which frequently become primary.”
The machinery of our governments is creaking and only the details vary. Election after election ends up the same way: many who promised to overturn the status quo end up becoming part of it, their days filled with an eye towards the next election. Stakeholder groups take the place of citizen engagement and invariably power nestles in the polished corridors of those who can manipulate it.
London provides a clear example. The familiar clash between citizen activists and developers has been joined now that election season is nearly upon us. The tension is palpable. The only way substantial donations from a few developers can be offset is by dedicated donations from a large portion of the citizenry. But this rarely happens, leaving frustrated candidates demonizing developers when the truth is that citizen engagement in not sufficient to counteract stronger forces. In such situations it is helpful to recall that, at the federal level, groups capable of making large political donations were no longer permitted to do so and the result has been politics at its worst, not its most democratic. The true issue is the level of citizen involvement as a countervailing force, not the size of the donation.
Today there are numerous indications that we are undergoing a transitional period, when something seems to be crumbling and on the way out but what is to take its place is not yet clear. It’s as though the political state has exhausted itself while we wait in vain for something to rise from the rubble. We must thank those putting their names forward for their sacrifice, but if they can’t remain in close contact with those citizens who voted for them, then nothing will have changed and the election is just a warmed over version of the last one. The engagement of citizens remains the highest priority of political action. Keep things at that level and not only our communities, but democracy itself can be renewed.
So, this time around, let’s make a pact. Let those announcing their intention to run vow to do their very best to remain among their peers instead of migrating ever onwards towards those with inordinate power that is hardly democratic. And let all of us who have been pressing for people to run promise that we will be there for them, reminding them of their original commitments and keeping them honest through our transparent interaction.
Democracy isn’t supposed to be like sending someone off to war; where we wave our goodbyes and hope for the best. Rather it is like welcoming a new person into the family – someone from among us who has taken on the dignified and proper response of benefitting their community by seeking to represent it. But the only way they can give us their best is if we stay in relationship to them by giving them the most honorable thing we can do as citizens: to work with our leaders to put our community first. It is never the politician that is meant to migrate but the community itself, from a place of disenchantment and fracture to a living and breathing organism, populated with enough citizens who dedicate themselves to the honourable place in which they live.