John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:
“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”
I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.
And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.
And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.
From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.
We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.”
The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.
Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.