A sense of betrayal?
February 27, 2016 9 Comments
Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government – except for all the others. Democracy is, when you think about it, an odd form of government – it operates on the assumption that the majority is right, which is, to say the least, a debatable proposition. It is always mediated through some system of government designed to iron out the dangers of what Mill called the ‘tyranny of the majority’. From Robespierre to Lenin, Stalin and Mao, many of the major atrocities of the last couple of centuries were carried out in ‘the name of the people’; a politician who invokes that mantra seems to feel himself dispensed from the moral imperatives which are supposed to guard us against tyranny.
Yet, in our own times, it is not that danger which stalks our politics, but rather the other, and less appreciated one of interest groups. Democratic politics is expensive (though there is no intrinsic reason it should be) and politicians need to garner great ‘war chests’ even to get a chance of high office. In the UK we have restrictions on what can be spent during an election period, but there are no restrictions between times – except that large donations have to be declared. If an MP gets a ‘safe’ seat – that is one where his party holds a considerable majority – he can stay in the Commons for decades. In the USA, except for the President, there are no term limits, and a Senator or Congressman can build himself an impregnable fortress. But all of this takes money, and for many of us, it seems as though our politicians are somewhat in hock to big business. The appeal of Mr Trump (quite lost on me, as on most Europeans) seems to rest in part on the fact that he’s at least spending his own money and can’t ‘be bought’.
Politics is, if you think about it, an odd business. What sort of person wants to hold high public office, to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and all for what? Politicians will say they want to do good for the public, but there are many ways of doing that which don’t involve leaving home, living in the nation’s capital for a large part of the year, and listening to mind numbing ‘debates’ (which are seldom anything of the sort). My old College politics tutor used to say that such people were ‘megalomaniac narcissists, verging on the sociopathic’, which, while a bit on the harsh side in some cases, has much to be said for it. He used to say their hobbies were ‘adultery, booze and ambition’. We hear much of the need for our politicians to be representative of us – perhaps in these senses they are.
Politicians are a necessary evil in a democracy. We need them, and if we are not inclined that way ourselves, we are not in a strong position to complain about the type of person who takes it up as a career. We’re told sometimes it would be better if politics was not a career, and myself, I think term-limits a good idea, but there is no getting away from the fact that only certain types of people will want to get into politics for the long-term.
The real criticism is, I think, that our politicians give the impression of caring more about their corporate sponsors than they do the electorate. That may, of course, have always been the case, but at least they used to pretend it wasn’t; there might, after all, be something to be said for having actors in political life – at least they know how to deliver the script.