Politics is Toxic. Get Over it?

There’s a popular narrative that goes along these lines: the population is disillusioned with all the negativity of schoolyard, partisan politics. Therefore, if politicians would just clean up their act, citizens would re-engage with democratic process.

But what are the grounds for this proposition? Has there ever been a period in history when the political arena has not been engulfed in backbiting, backrooms, and backscratching?

Democratic governance has never had a golden age. And it never will. It can’t. And even if we achieved this hypothetical state of democratic glory, we could just as easily lose it all again in four years. That’s the nature of democracy. We love democracy because it guarantees the impermanence of our governors. But it is this very impermanence that guarantees a permanent state of scandal. The proposition that we might one day arrive at a nirvana of enlightened, competent, and permanently rational leadership is not a rational belief to hold, nor to propagate.

This discussion about voter apathy and disillusionment has nothing to do with the unscrupulous antics and stupidity of politicians. It has to do with a fundamentally flawed expectation and explanation of political process. We elect politicians in order to slug it out. Equilibrium in a democracy is not universal agreement or a collective love affair with an ideal (fictitious) politician. No, it’s a tedious combat between opposing ideological agendas. That’s the point of democracy: self-governance requires internal conflict. This is an intrinsic feature of any self-organizing system.

Our participation in our governance should have nothing to do with peddling, promising, or advocating a safe, sanctified, and sanitized version of democracy. It can never exist.

So why are voters disengaged? Maybe they’ve been told their governance it is only worth engaging in to the extent that politicians are worthy, upstanding, and moral role models. Let’s drop this foolishness. The underlying premise of democracy is that we are all sovereign, which means that any single one of us can choose to assert ourselves in the leadership arena. The point of democracy is not that we have an aesthetically and emotionally “pleasant arena” for making collective decisions. The point is that we govern ourselves. This means taking a few bruises in the arena, and accepting the fact that corruption in democracy is as sure as the wetness of rain. If you want a supreme Superman to protect you from the harsh manipulation and posturing of statecraft, stop looking in democracy, my friend.

Democracy is messy. Let’s drop the rhetoric that people will get involved if we clean it up. This belief is counterproductive to the vision of a citizenry who takes their own governance seriously. Lying to ourselves (and those so-called “disillusioned” citizens) about the nature of democracy is only making rampant “dis-engagement” more acute.

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