Mel Gibson opined last week that someone needs to “arise from the ashes” and save his nation from the current crop of pathetic politicians. People love to complain about politicians, and blame everything on those in Ottawa, or Washington, or wherever your ire is currently focused.
And yet I’m not entirely sure that’s fair.
If I were to ask one hundred random people to name the best American President, the majority would likely name Abraham Lincoln. Yet my husband and I watched the movie Lincoln over the weekend, and it struck me that what that great man faced wasn’t all that different from what politicians face now. Today we’d all be in agreement that outlawing slavery is a no-brainer.
But we sometimes forget that this was actually controversial–even in the northern states who were fighting against the southern ones in the Civil War. And Lincoln had a devil of a time getting an anti-slavery amendment passed. This great politician, whom we all like to remember as leading his people by the strength of his moral fortitude, had to do backroom deals like the rest of them. The reason was simple, and it’s that messy thing we call democracy.
While Lincoln wanted the amendment, many people did not. And as a politician, it’s not a great idea, if you want to be re-elected, to vote against what your constituents want. Lincoln’s problem, then, wasn’t really the politicians as much as it was the people. If Abraham Lincoln, of all politicians, couldn’t get something that was 100% morally right passed without shady backroom maneuvers, why do we think anyone can get anything done pristinely? Why doesn’t the U.S. government end the shutdown? Because people don’t agree about what should be done, so how can politicians? Why doesn’t the Canadian government do something about welfare, or the environment, or the coming health care crisis, or the coming pension crisis, or marriage, or abortion, or whatever else you’re worried about? Because people don’t agree. And if we don’t agree, it’s awfully hard for politicians to accomplish much of anything.
Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all of the others that had been tried, and I think he was right. It would be much easier to get things done if politicians didn’t have to worry about what the people who elected them thought.
But they do need to worry, and if they do anything too controversial, they’ll tick off a large portion of their constituents. No wonder it’s often easier to not do much of anything at all. I think the essential problem of democracy is that everybody wants as big a piece of the pie as they can get. It’s just like the Newfoundland cod fishery: everyone fishes and takes as much as they can because they know if they don’t take it now, someone else is going to get it. So we all take too much, and we end up wrecking it.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher writing in the mid 1800s, toured through America, trying to understand democracy. And he concluded that, “A democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.” When people realize they can vote themselves favours, they won’t vote for the public good. They’ll vote to enrich themselves. We’ll end up fighting against each other instead of figuring out the best thing to do.
Politicians cannot act for the good of the country until people are willing to put the good of the country above their own interests. We can’t ask politicians to do what we, as individuals, do not seem capable of doing. And so the problem, I don’t think, is with the politicians. The problem is with us.
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