On Thursday I worked as a poll supervisor for Elections Ontario. I have joined election teams for the last couple provincial and federal elections. I cannot fully explain my enthusiasm for working election days. The days are long and mentally exhausting, and yet strangely rewarding and enlightening.
To be a poll official is to spend a day devoted to serving your neighbours — and a day focused on the technical challenges that arise when serving so many fellow citizens in a friendly and efficient way.
Elections are political. The act of voting tends to stir convictions with cortisol. When my focus is on my ballot, my attention is wrapped up with ‘my side’ winning the election. But the work of elections staff is very different: it is all about neutrality, accountability, and customer service. Assuming this role makes for an entirely different way to experience and participate in an election. ‘Winning,’ for a poll official, means making democratic participation as accessible as it can be for as many people as possible.
I think everyone who lives in a democracy should try serving their compatriots at the polls. Try it at least once in your lifetime. The concern for elections staff is executing the practical logistical requirements of a functioning democracy, and in this context you find yourself working alongside people of every political ‘colour’ who come together and set everything aside to get a job done.
Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?
The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.
Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.
I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.
I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.
One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?
Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?
Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.
I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.
However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.
Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?
Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.
The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.
A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.
Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.
In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.
Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.
Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’
I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.
It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.
As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.
I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time
Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.
Perhaps there are two definitions of liberty?
The first definition asks: if liberty does not protect me from the power of others over me, how can I be free?
The second definition asks: if liberty does not protect my right to amass power for myself, how can I be free?
In the first case, liberty is protection from external subjugation.
This is equity through legislating shared access to power.
This is liberty as the antithesis of being oppressed.
This is freedom in the sense of living among equals.
Here, freedom of speech protects the voice of the minority speaking truth to power.
In the second case, liberty is the right to consolidate power.
This is equality in the license to centralize influence.
This is liberty in the sense of rising above the crowd.
This is freedom in the sense of opportunity to become greater.
Here, freedom of speech turns into a monopoly on rhetoric, brandished by the power majority.
Critics of the first definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equitable rights afforded to everyone by an institution more powerful than anyone’ leave anybody free?
Critics of the second definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equal opportunity to take advantage of one another’ leave anybody free?
What does liberty mean to you?
If your definition of liberty culminates in restricting the freedom of others, how do you distinguish between your definition of ‘liberty’ and your concept of ‘oppressor’?
Kate is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Western University. Learn more about her research at ‘Mayors Project,’ where she is exploring the role of the mayor in ten Canadian cities — the largest in each province — to understand the how the position varies and what this means for our cities and our country.
In the summer of 2016 after finishing his undergrad, Micah Richardson (@richardsonmicah) quit his job and joined a fellowship in the Hillary Clinton Campaign. He was stationed in New Hampshire, working in field operations, where he organized a volunteer organization with regular phone-banks and canvassing.
In this podcast — a tiny dose of modern history — we hear Micah’s story and reflections on the nature of social movements, the politics of media and messaging, and how large groups of people align themselves to ideas and ideals.
We are joined in conversation by Jennifer O’Brien (@JeninLdnont) — a highly respected journalist and reporter in our community.
James Williams’ talk, Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?, is a must-listen. Riffing on the story of Diogenes and Alexander (with an interpretive lens drawn from Peter Sloterdijk) and Herbert Simon’s definition of an attention economy, Williams posits that there is a massive discrepancy between the design of digital technology and what we, the users, genuinely want for our lives.
What does technology want? It wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates, etc. It wants your attention — as much of it as it can take. And it wants to hold your attention for as long as it can. Your attention is the prize that Facebook wants to win. And keep.
What do we want? Well, presumably our dearest hopes and dreams for our lives go far beyond spending another 20 minutes on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. When you ask most of us what we want, we talk about more time with family, causes we care about, books we want to read (or write), traveling, adventures, experiences, personal achievements, and so on. We don’t tend to define another 20 minutes on social media as a step towards our ideal lives. But we check our phones again, anyway. Hence is the disconnect: technology is designed to hook us into behaviours and activities we don’t want. Williams suggests that it is time to consider the very real possibility that the “industrial-scale persuasion” complex baiting you into your newsfeed might not actually have your personal, human hopes and ambitions in mind.
What if every minute with your newsfeed takes a minute away from what you really want?
Williams says we need to think beyond the daily bait and switch that leads us to ‘accidentally’ getting sucked into Facebook for another 20 minutes. What is ultimately at stake here? Digital media distracts from our personal goals and pursuits in life. 20 minutes at a time, this industrial persuasion apparatus steals attention away from us — attention that might otherwise be invested in activities we feel truly matter. Ergo, the real crisis here is not that we just lost 20 minutes to some mindless activity: the issue that technology is intentionally usurping us from our own lives with “epistemological distractions” that divert us from the goals and activities that we sincerely do care deeply for.
So, should we blame the end user? Williams, a former Google employee himself, disagrees. Every day, millions of dollars and the brightest minds in the world are invested figuring out more effective ways to circumvent our will-power. Surely the answer to this dilemma is not, “Just have more will-power!” These infinitely scrolling newsfeeds are designed to drug us into submission — like “informational slot machines” whose sole purpose is sticking more ads in front of us along the way. Another 20 minutes. We are not only distracted from what we want in life by the promise of another dopamine hit, but we are also distracted from recognizing the opportunity cost of the addiction itself.
As far as Williams is concerned, we need to see “technology design as the ground of first political struggle” moving ahead. The present ‘solutions’ offered by digital technology are not working for us, but corporate interests have successfully usurped our imaginations when it comes to what can happen in 20 minutes of conscience existence on the planet.
Williams, therefore, declares that it is time for collective action to “assert and defend our freedom of attention.”
In an attention economy, your freedom of attention is your freedom. If you do not have the freedom to focus your mind on the things you truly care about, do you really have any freedom at all?
(Interested in getting together with some real live human beings — in an actual room — to critically analyze the prevalence, ubiquity, and power of social media in our lives? Come to Should We Quit Social Media? on Monday, October 16, 2017, 7pm at Central Library, to join the conversation.)
On a recent panel, journalist Joris Luyendijk argues that our conventional assumptions about the relationship between political election systems and populism are backward:
France, Britain, and America have a kind of first-past-the-post district system. And so you can have a candidate who initially only commands 20% of the vote theoretically make it into the presidency. But countries with proportional representation have had “populist” movements for a long time. It has been allowed to play out. It is a yo-yo: it’s going up and down.
Luydenijk goes on to reference longitudinal German research from the 1950s thru the 1980s suggesting that about 15-20% of the population is susceptible to politically motivated racist rhetoric at any given time. Many nations have established majority-system election structures that effectively restrict this segment of the population from meaningful participation: no platform, no political parties, no newspapers. One of the principal ‘intentions’ of first-past-the-post is to amputate fringe ideologies or extreme elements from political power. But Luydenijk is one of many voices pointing out the serious unintended consequences of this strategy:
I used to study political science, and there was always a sense that proportional representation was more risky in terms of bringing the neo-Nazis back to power: “just look at these awful parties.” But now it seems like proportional representation is actually a better absorber… In first-past-the-post you have this thing simmering under the radar…
In essence, proportional representation takes a strategic gamble: it bets that surrendering representational power to interests with, say, racial superiority or anti-establishment agendas plays a mitigating role against full-out populist uprisings in the long run. By democratically allowing all ideologies into the political equation, the influence of fringe elements becomes tempered by the same bureaucracies, bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and disillusionment as all the others. But more importantly, first-past-the-post risks becoming an incubator for the anger of those who feel structurally unrepresented by it. The danger here is evident: when a critical percentage of voters in a first-past-the-post system get angry enough, the logic of majority systems for suppressing populism completely falls apart.
Cas Mudde, recently quoted in The Atlantic, puts this far more coherently:
For a long time, received wisdom was that majority systems prevented populist parties from gaining success, whereas proportional systems—particularly without a high threshold like the Netherlands—make it much easier for them to get in parliament and build from there. The problem is, of course, that while you normally only win a part of the cake in proportional systems, you win everything in majoritarian systems.
When ridiculed for breaking his campaign promise to implement electoral reform, Justin Trudeau said that “an augmentation of extremist voices in this House…is not what is in the best interests of Canada.” Evidently, the Liberals feel that the fear of populism and “extremist voices” in government provides adequate political currency for defending the status quo. But does this remain a rational, coherent argument in today’s world? (All it takes is one would-be messianic figure crossing the finish line first to demonstrate that the contrived arrangement of the finish line is insufficient to bar demagogues from winning the race.)
The logic of majority systems — where power is usually an all-or-nothing, zero-sum-game — only makes sense if you assume that marginalized ideas will obediently shrivel and die for lack of oxygen. I reckon this hypothesis has proven invalid. Looking around the world, we might also think of first-past-the-post as a landmine, just waiting for a perfect storm of discontentment to roll in and trip the wire. Electoral systems that deny extremist, fringe voices a viable avenue to participate only entrench disenfranchisement at the margins.
The fundamental assumption of democracy — the sovereignty of the people — is that self-governance is a more attractive option than living under a fascist or autocratic regime. For this premise to work, a critically vast majority of people need to feel like they have some semblance of representation. But demagogues feel like godsends when you feel unheard. Democracy is only more attractive than its alternatives to the extent that engaging in the political process actually means something.
Therefore, the systemic benefit of an election framework that ‘accepts’ hateful, unsavory ideologues is that the entire populace remains engaged in the political process. If the world has taught us anything over the past few years, it is that disengagement seeds resentment, which in turn fuels desperation. In the long run, perhaps the only way to nurture a legitimate, so-called ‘political centre’ is to give the voters at all poles of the ideological compass a voice in their government.
Democracy is riddled with paradoxes.
The more confident we are in the stability of our state, the less attention we pay to our stability.
We demand our leaders persuade us with coherent argument, but we are ruthlessly critical of leaders who sound persuasive.
Even the strongest democracy is only as strong as its collective ability to ignore the next would-be demagogue.
If you visit any democracy on the planet, at any point in history, you will notice another permanent feature of self-sovereign state rule: disparagement of the ruling order. Autocrats and tyrants have the luxury of actively suppressing dissident voices, but democracies are institutions of dissidence: the only way to achieve power in a democracy is to convince enough voters that you would be a more competent leader than the present clown in office.
Criticism is a hardwired, permanent feature of democracy.
No one runs for political office on the platform that the incumbent government has superior practices and policies. Every bid for power is an inherent criticism of those who hold it. Ergo, democracies are cynical places. They have to be. There can be no democracy without skepticism and ridicule. We can’t rule ourselves without being critical of one another.
Think about it for a moment: in a democracy, there will always be someone trying to convince you that the currently elected leaders are ignoring your interests or treating you like crap.
Even at the height of prosperity and peace, you can be guaranteed that there will be someone insisting that your country is being mismanaged, led into decline, or disintegrating into a mire of corruption. You will always hear a voice of protest. As long as someone else wants power, someone is crying foul.
A curriculum for democratic literacy, then, must include a critical piece of training: how do you determine whether or not your nation is really going to hell in a hand basket? Rest assured: for as long as you live in a democracy, no matter what side of the ‘political spectrum’ you setup your tent, you will live amidst people who have strong ulterior motives for convincing you the end is nigh.
Perhaps this is yet another great paradox of democracy: the more citizens, by percentage, who can be persuaded of an impending calamity through a groundless, reproachful lampooning of the present government, the closer calamity itself inches.
Be critical of the critical, too.
My city is gearing up for municipal elections in October. Several campaigns are already well underway. Many lawn signs are already staked in the ground.
The slogan for one would-be mayor’s campaign is, “Opportunity for all…Not red tape!” The sentiment aims at one of the biggest frustrations many of us have with bureaucratic institutions: the myriad of procedural bottlenecks that seem to hamper forward thinking and efficiency.
But I, for one, am a reluctant supporter of red tape. It is a necessary, self-regulating ingredient in democracy. Imagine the consequences if it was all eliminated: official plans, zoning regulations, public participation procedures, etc. — gone! Now what?
Let’s suppose that I, as a cyclist, got myself elected and convinced my fellow councilors that the city needed more bicycle lanes. In fact, let’s put bike lanes on every street! Of course, there are a mountain of legislative and fiscal obstacles to this stunt, but in our imaginary world, the red tape doesn’t exist. So we plough ahead with our agenda.
Great, right? If there was no red tape at all, we could actually get stuff done!
But in our excitement, we overlook a confounding reality: If our elected council has it in their power to arbitrarily redesign the function every street in the city at their whim, the next council has equal capacity to undo everything that was done. Sure, we can put all the bicycle lanes in, but in four years, all the bicycle lanes can just as easily be removed.
Clearly, this chaos is neither efficient nor productive. The fact that higher levels of government require municipalities to adhere to specific, longterm, legally binding plans creates a maze of hoops and “obstacles” that hinder the willy-nilly, so-called “freedom” of haphazardly building at will. For me, I’d rather have red tape than not have it, as tiresome, frustrating, and impeding as it is. Make no mistake: red tape isn’t fun — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. People say red tape is inefficient, but it seems far more inefficient in the long run to just whimsically do whatever feels best in the moment.
When a political hopeful comes along promising the end of bureaucratic inefficiency and the elimination of growth bottlenecks, I find it somewhat amusing. First, they apparently seem to have little understanding of the Leviathan that is modern democratic legislation (which many a confident candidate hath already sworn to overthrow in the past). And secondly, more importantly, they don’t seem to respect the idea that red tape might actually have a purpose that ultimately serves the greater, longterm good of a community. At very least, the notion that red tape exists for the benefit of the citizenry doesn’t appear to register on their radar of political ideas.
Red tape is the saving grace of democracy: it’s the thread of continuity that allows us to survive the idiosyncratic folks we elect to govern us every four years. There’s nothing like a good, stinky pile of bureaucracy to help assure that the ridiculousness, radicalness, and craziness of the characters we elect is a bit more benign and manageable.
I think it’s time we take a second look at red tape, and critically examine the rhetoric of the politicians who try to convince us that it gets in the way of progress.
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.
A democratically elected leader finds herself in an ambiguous situation: she is appointed as a servant of her constituency by ballot, yet she is subsequently expected to exert robust and steady leadership over them. She is responsible for leading those who sovereignly selected her. To be successful, she must become a paradox: a faithful servant executing the burdens of office and a manifestation of confident, driven leadership.
This demand creates a systemic conundrum: if the population perceives that she too easily tweaks her plans or principles, she will be ridiculed as spineless, incompetent, and wishy-washy. If she charges ahead with policy agendas despite public outcry, she will be accused of undemocratically ignoring the voice of the people. Democracy thus forces her to constantly and convincingly explain herself to the public, in order to keep as many citizens ‘on side’ as possible. In a democracy every act is scrutinized, and therefore every act must be justified. In other words, democracy inherently necessitates rhetoric.
Yet here the leader runs into another terrific problem: people do not like rhetoric. Even though a democratic state relies on debate and discussion, citizens naturally become extremely suspicious of political rhetoric: if it is flippant, it is written off as just more deceitful, dishonest babble from self-interested politicians; if it is convincingly persuasive, it is seen as being undemocratically manipulative, and therefore dangerous.
Rhetoric is thus the primary tool in the democratic leader’s kit, even though rhetoric itself is generally considered pathetically useless (mere words and promises sure to be broken) or as lethally treacherous (tyrannically persuasive and illegitimately influential over the minds of the masses).
Consequently, the democratically elected leader instinctively attempts to make her rhetoric not sound like rhetoric. John Kane and Haig Patapan call this the “art of artless persuasion.” (Kane & Patapan 2012:72-74) When she leads, she must demonstrate deference to the sovereign masses who appointed her, which means her only mechanism for leading is her voice — that is, rhetoric. But rhetoric, while it is essential, is equally suspected as being deceptive, manipulative, and dishonest.
The democratic leader therefore must seek to persuade without sounding persuasive. She has no choice but to use words to influence people — people who are automatically skeptical of her words to begin with.
This is the recipe that brews the general attitudes many of us have about politicians: we can never be fully certain that they are ever telling the truth. We must suspect that every statement is just a talking point. It’s all strategic jockeying, leveraging, and manoeuvring for some agenda. After all, while we demand that our leaders be honest, transparent, and straight to the point, we also know that we will surely punish leaders who simplistically tell us the truth.
This is one of the great ironies of democracy: we elect people to be calculating and strategic leaders and spokespersons on our behalf, even while we are simultaneously suspicious of the calculating and strategic manner of speech we force them to adopt.
Today, the question is not, ‘Do all politicians lie?’ but rather, ‘Does the structure of democracy implicitly require politicians to perform like actors?’ Like critics at the theatre we scrutinize politicians’ every move, eager to expose a lie in their performance. And then, once we’ve proved that it was all just an act, we ridicule their inability (and apparent unwillingness) to execute our script exactly.