Monday, October 29, 2007

The Problem with Politicians

Canadians don't like politicians. We've all heard the standard lines: they're all corrupt, once elected they don't pay attention to constituents, they're sheep who vote the party line. This generalized cynicism about politicians is so common that it is truism. One can say these things -- or things very much like them -- without fear of contradiction. Certainly, some recent events might give Canadians cause for pause with regard to politicians, but generally I think this perspective is completely unfounded. Moreover, it belies other concerns and illustrates, at the very least, serious misunderstandings about the political system. I don't want to say people who look on politics (and politicians) with a cynical eye are wrong. There are, as I hope to explain, good reasons why such ideas circulate in contemporary Canada. These reasons are, however, something different than many people might at first pre-supposed. Let's look at this cynicism and think about the merits of this perspective, before turning to why it has become so pervasive.

Are all politicians corrupt? Is one as bad as the next? Do politicians forget their constituents the minute they are elected and become beholden to a party and Ottawa elite that ignores voters? Perhaps: I don't think anyone assessing this viewpoint should ignore the fact that there is some truth to it. Party disciplines imposes conformity on elected representatives (ask Bill Casey). But, this is not the only thing going on. MPs or MLAs don't "vote the party line" in legislatures and the federal Parliament simply because of some nefarious party machine. The truth of the matter is that with only a limited number of exceptions, most MPs and MLAs (or MNAs, MHAs, MPPs depending on the province), are elected under the banner of a political party. They are a membeer of that party and run as a its representative. This is not a secret but it bears a level of emphasis it does not normally receive in public discourse. If one is a party member, running as a party member, often with a long history of involvement in that particular political party, then the fact that any given MP (or provincial member) votes according to that party's line should not be surprising.

Take my local riding as an example. Federally we are represented by a Liberal, Dominque LeBlanc. The reason Mr. LeBlanc is a Liberal is because he supports the Liberal Party. He agrees with their ideology (say on the role of the state in society or gay marriage or regional economic development) and may even have had a hand in fashioning party policy. If he did not support Liberal policy, he would not be a Liberal. If he were a socialist, for example, he'd run as a member of the NDP. If he were conservative in his views, he'd try to win the Conservative nomination. He didn't. He ran as a Liberal. The fact that he then supports the Liberal Party line on any given issue should not at all surprise us. In fact, if we are to believe that he takes his politics seriously and is sincere in his commitment to specific philosophical and ideological perspectives, we'd expect nothing other from him. The opposite is what would be surprising: if he jumped all over the place, supporting Liberals one day, Conservatives the next, the NDP the day after. In point of fact, I'd find an MP who jumped all over the place cause for concern. It would illustrate that they only thing they cared about is following the polls and trying to be on the winning side of issues X or Y. It would illustrate to me that they were not committed to a particular philosophy of public life or a particular vision for the country. Instead, their political behaviour was purely self-interested. I wonder if this is the kind of representatives most Canadians really want to have? Do we want representatives who take principled stands -- knowing it could cost them votes -- in the sense that they follow a clear and consistent and knowable ideology (and vision of Canada) or do we want someone who will change stripes every time the wind blows in a different direction, who is more interested in keeping their job in Parliament then in presenting options, choices and policies to voters?

Now, someone might say: OK, this is true. I'd prefer principled to self-interested leaders, but surely representatives job is to represent "the people" and if they are just following the party line they can't do that. Following the party line serves only to corrupt democracy. Voters have a right to expect their voices be heard through their representative and if that representative is only following the party, he or she can't do that.

This is a good argument but it is also intensely problematic. Its problematic because we need to ask "which voters?" In any given riding, there are all kinds of different views on any given subject. Some voters support Canada's involvement in Afghanistan; some don't and want to end it; some want it redefined; some want a time-line to leaving with specific objectives that allow (theoretically) Canadians to measure the success of the mission. These different perspectives are not compatible with each other. One can't want to immediately withdraw our forces from Afghanistan and want them to stay there at the same time. How does an elected MP represent both sides? They can't and on most issues there are a lot more than two sides. On many issues, in fact, as I tried to indicate above, there can be a range of views. My point is this: in representing his or her voters (by voting a certain way on a specific bill), the elected representative has to not represent others. The nature of democracy, in this case, will ensure that some voters will be deprived of their voice regardless of what the elected representative does.

OK, this same person might now say, what the MP should do is represent the majority opinion in their riding. This would be democratic. Again, this is a good argument, but one of the odd things about public life, and the reason this becomes complicated, is that most people think their view is the majority. The vast majority of Canadians favour gun control. The numbers, in fact, in support of gun control might even be down a bit from where they were a number of years ago. I mention this because I remember very clearly a party to which I was invited about five years ago. I was the only male at that party in favour of gun control. Every other man opposed it and was absolutely certain that only a small clique of lefties were in favour of it. I offered my polling data n support of my argument but they would have none of it: polls can say anything, they told me. Everyone they knew opposed gun control and so who could support it?

I'm not trying to rehash the gun control debate but to make another point: most of us associate with people whom we get along with. We talk to our friends daily and so convince each other of particular views. I'm a Christian and I spend a lot of my time hanging out with other Christians. The result is that we come to share certain views either through self selection or dialogue. There is nothing wrong with this, by the way, we just need to remember to keep our views in perspective. We need to understand how diverse social, political, and economic perspectives are in Canada. We need to understand that there is not one or two perspectives on any issues but many. In our own circles of friends, it might not seem like that and that is what we need to remember. My point: because we hang out with like-minded people it seems to us that there are majorities "out there" (and, they happen to agree with us), but there really aren't.

Moreover, even if there were majorities and minorities on specific issues, another issue is raised. In a democratic society, can a majority deprive a minority of its voice? If we had elected representatives who only spoke for the majority on any given issue, then this is, in fact, what would happen. Alternatives perspectives would be silenced. I'd be so bold as to say those alternatives perspective not only deserve to heard but need to be heard. Differing views are what drive democracy. Good ideas sometimes emerge from the margins (like environmentalism, equality for women and gays and lesbians, and further back: ending child labour, universal education, and civil rights for Native Canadians, for instances). The basis of a democracy is that a minority can use reasoned dialogue to become a majority (to convince people through argument in reason that there are better ways of doing things). If minorities are silenced this aspect of democracy is lost. Consider the irony: in the name of democracy one of the basic conditions of democracy (the right of minorities to be heard) is abrogated. Is this what we want?

Let me recap my points: (1) people run as Liberals or Conservatives or New Democrats, etc., because they are Liberals or Conservatives or New Democrats and they ask us to vote for them -- to elect them -- on that basis. The fact that a Conservative ends up being ... well, a Conservative after they are elected should not shock people and, what is more, no one has lied about it. The elected representative, in fact, campaigned on that basis. (2) Having an elected representative change their allegiance on every vote in conformity with what they think the majority of voters in their riding want might not be all its cracked up to be. Rather than being a sign of democracy, it might actually be a sign of a lack of sincerity, of self-interest over principle. I asked what type of people do we want as leaders: those driven by principle or those driven by self-interest? (3) Even if we want representatives to follow the wishes of the majority, we need to pause to ask if there really is a majority "out there." Our own views are coloured not just by our perspectives but by the fact that we usually associated with people who share our own views. This can lead us to believe that there is a majority (that just happens to think like us) but is there? Certainly, the currently fragmented character of federal politics would lead me to suggest that there isn't. (4) Even if there was a majority, it is very important for the health of democracy to ensure that minority views (whatever these might be) are not silenced. If they are -- and they could be if a representative just went with the majority flow -- then something important to the state of democracy would be lost.

Where does this, then, leave us? Is this an argument for the status quo? I hope not. I hope it serves to explain, in part, why we still have an intensely problematic and deeply troubled political system: simple solutions (like "representatives should vote the way their constituents want") are not implemented because they either won't work or will create new and potentially more far-reaching problems then the problems they seem to solve. In the face of solutions that are, then, not really solutions, the status quo is maintained. I also hope it illustrate why at least some measure of the cynicism that currently surrounded politics and politicians is not merited. It results from misunderstandings (of the merits of simple solutions, of the nature of party politics, of a consideration of the different options facing voters, of the nature of Canadian society). If we begin to think concertedly about the nature of the Canadian political system, about principle, about reasonable expectations, and the pre-conditions of democracy, then at least some part of the cynicism that infuses much public discourse begins to dissipate.

This is, of course, not all there is to say on this subject. In my next post, I'll begin to address a couple of other key issues related to public distaste of politicians: the roots of cynicism and solutions to it. I'll try to suggest that blaming politicians, in fact, obscures what is the greater problems and the real root of contemporary political malaise.
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