“PEOPLE GO TO FAR GREATER LENGTHS to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire,” noted one of the characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and our current brand of politics is proving this – over and over again. Manipulative politics understands that, while humans are naturally moved by hope, they are far more motivated by what they are afraid of; it’s been in our DNA from the beginning. They play to it, believing that it’s easier to get people into the voting booth through what they’re afraid of than by what inspires them. And so, in an increasingly dangerous world, political success is deemed to be located in that sweet spot where terror intersects with citizenship.
This dynamic is increasingly playing out in the run-up to the next federal election later this year. The government has a responsibility to protect citizens, but not by driving them to fits of insecurity. And the opposition parties are right to talk about the threats to our privacy through wide-ranging anti-terror legislation, but must do a better job at detailing a more rigorous foreign policy that involves smart investment, international development, and diplomacy.
It used to be, especially in times of deep international insecurity, that politicians sought to enlist us to create a more hopeful world. They achieved this in different ways, but their authority and power to inspire us came from the belief that their citizens could yet move towards what Martin Luther King Jr. called the long arc “that bends towards justice.”
But politicians rarely speak like that anymore, in part because they have found it easier to drive the politics of fear than a democracy of hope. They have become managers of public life rather than visionaries for it. They have preferred contention over collaboration and division of people over dedication to principle. When people are fearful, even if only some of the time, they are easier to bait than when they are full of confidence concerning their future. And so we get played, and, like sheep fearful of a wolf on the perimeter, never realize that our greatest danger always comes from promoters of fear in our midst dressed as our defenders. It is a fantasy through which politicians trade leadership for a kind of invisible enforcement. In any discipline in a turbulent world, those with the darkest fears and highest ambitions often get to practice both in leadership.
Yet author, Marilyn Ferguson, reminds us all that we know that on the other side of every fear is freedom, if we would but work for it. Plato put it differently: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.”
Bruce Anderson, a pollster and panel member of CBC television’s popular “At Issue” panel, knows a thing or two about politics and is a gifted diviner of the national mood. In a recent Globe and Mail piece, he hearkened back to recent history, where politicians enjoyed success because they ran campaigns “about aspiration, about the future.” He goes on to add, “There’s a vacuum to be filled. It’s rare to hear leaders talk about dreams, except maybe how to avoid a nightmare.”
Andersen is right, as he is when he says our political conversations can feel more like “what do we need to do” than, “who do we want to be?” But we aren’t there at the moment, are we?
Vincent Van Gogh once boasted, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Will our leaders put aside their broadswords in favour of aspirations that unite a nation instead of dividing it? In the midst of a dangerous world, does the future not belong to those who wish to build it instead of merely protect it?
This imposing and complex planet now confronts us with the greatest challenges in a generation: terrorism, climate change, poverty, financial dysfunction. It’s full of big lurking things and we require big inspirational leaders who once again remind us that fear itself is, in fact, our greatest enemy. Fear doesn’t just come from the presence of danger, but the absence of inspiration and a sense of optimism. Ultimately the task of any politician is to call us out from the collective of fear to that place where whatever we dream and believe we can actually achieve.