QA 25. (Oct 10) How to raise better politicians

The Cape Times (Cape Town) published an edited version of this as “If we are cynical about our politicians, we will get the leaders we deserve”, 1 November 2010


Against the horizon of the media tribunal disputes here, I have been thinking about how we chatterers create the conditions for the political leadership we get, and wondering if we couldn’t do it better.

Politicians must be the last group of people that can be maligned in polite society with impunity, or even relish. A bunch of crooks, fat cats at the trough, only out for themselves, inept, corrupt. Right? You hear it on the train, in the coffee shop, at the golf course. You read it in the papers. It’s not uncommon. But it’s a big problem.

In fact, it’s misguided on every level. One: it’s bad logic, a flawed thought that assumes what it sets out to prove. Two: it’s toxic to democracy. This kind of cynicism tears down, but builds nothing. It offers us only the tools of suspicion, manipulation and regulation. That’s not freedom. Three: it’s a disservice. A good leader is just someone who hasn’t been caught yet and a great leader can only appear as an exception to the rule – incomprehensible, miraculous, messianic – which is neither helpful nor true. Four: it’s nasty. It’s unpleasant, ugly and mean.

The very worst thing about this politicophobia is that it promotes more and more corrupt politicians. Any right-minded person would hesitate to enter such a morass. Those in office who sincerely want to work in the public interest are continuously undermined. And those who seek self-enrichment at the public’s expense go merrily about their business, doing just what’s expected of them and thus proving the cynics right. What a hollow victory.

The alternative is not blind idealism, which is the flip side of the same coin; the most virulent cynics are, after all, broken-hearted and resentful idealists. And it yields the same result – bad politicians. Idealism is a problem when it closes its eyes, when it can’t accept unpalatable facts, when it insists its beliefs about reality are more real than reality itself. Reality does not take kindly to this, ever.

We shouldn’t imagine ourselves as standing on the sidelines shouting “yay” and “boo”. There are no sidelines. One way or another, we are all in this field together, and what happens next depends on choices we make now. Like it or not, that’s how it works.

Then how could we prepare the ground for better politicians? How can we lead our leaders better? Since cynicism and idealism are characterised by wilful blindness, first of all we had better open our eyes. We will need to be clear-sighted and aware of what’s happening. This new vigilance is part of cultivating a new attitude: trust.

“When you do not trust people, people will become untrustworthy.” So says the Tao Te Ching, and our previous administration demonstrated it very well. At every juncture where they could have consulted people, they didn’t. It’s not surprising that people got unruly.

There are, I think, three strands to correcting this error. Certainly, the government needs to listen seriously to the people. When we are trusted, we will be trustworthy. Historically, South Africans have shown this time and again. “Being trustworthy” means showing up, constructively and substantively. This is the second strand: if we are to have a participatory democracy and people-centred and people-driven development, we the people must take our place.

The third strand is that we have to trust the government. If we don’t, how can the government be trustworthy? If we trust our leaders, they can rise to their position and we can hold them to account with dignity and respect. When we mistrust them, we cultivate corruption and then pile on more layers of regulations and checks and balances to limit it – which never work anyway. We hobble state power instead of harnessing it for the public and social goods that we so urgently need. This is crazy.

An outlook of vigilant trust, however, which is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, can also generate what we value in our democratic order. It can call for a free press to keep us informed, to present different opinions, to analyse, to investigate and to expose bad behaviour. It can call for electoral processes that are credible, free and fair. It can call for systems of accountability and transparency in government. These appeals are more supportive and better supported than when they’re made from mistrust and suspicion, or even from a merely technocratic logic of “best practices”.

I won’t deny that power tends to corrupt. But notice that “corrupt” refers to an original integrity which has become tainted. Václav Havel, who also journeyed from dissidence to power, spoke very lucidly about this in a speech he gave in 1991. To the extent that we are involved in the political sphere, perhaps it applies to each of us, journalists, citizens, politicians.

“Politics,” Havel said, “is an area of human endeavour that places greater stress on moral sensitivity, on the ability to reflect critically on oneself, on genuine responsibility, on taste and tact, on the capacity to empathise with others, on a sense of moderation, on humility. It is a job for modest people, for people who cannot be deceived…  I have no idea whether I am such a person. I only know that I ought to be, because I have accepted this office.”

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5 responses to “QA 25. (Oct 10) How to raise better politicians

  1. Thanks I really enjoy your writing, and I hope LOTS of others do too. And more than enjoy – I think it should be essential reading because it’s a rare antidote to the jaundiced eye we’re exposed to so often.
    I’ll do some friends the favour of sharing your blog.

  2. Hi Helen,
    I like your defense of politicians and I would go one step further and suggest we need to honor them. I’d ask your readers if any of them would like to do what the do,making tough decisions in the public gaze with only one shot at each decision? And one wrong decision could mean big time losses as well as loss of job and career Lots of luck as they say.

  3. I should mention that a new found appreciation for politicians will emerge from a reading of Bruno Latour

  4. I have two immediate thoughts (without much reflection) on this topic.

    1. Is the role of politician being devalued because more women are taking on the role?
    2. Are we setting up politician’s in a role that is unmanageable – our political structures are still geographic but power is not so tied to geography anymore – they are expected to fix problems that may lie beyond their control.

    As I said – two quick reactions to the topic. Keep blogging.

  5. In response to this post, Andrew Feldmár sent an essay of his own on power and corruption. It’s too long for a Comment, but interesting stuff, so I’ve put it up as a Page, which you can find on the title bar above.

    “The temptation to use the powers invested in me for my personal gain or pleasure can be overwhelming. Corruption and depravity are flowers of evil growing out of the soil of neglect…”

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