What if Politicians Aren’t the Problem?

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column addresses the problem of democracy and the solution to make it a well-oiled wheel. What if Politicians Aren't the Problem.

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.

Don’t miss a Reality Check! Sign up to receive it FREE in your inbox every week!

// ]]>


  1. One of my favorite quotes, because it describes why and where we are (read: sin):

    “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” — President Dwight D. Eisenhower

  2. Sheila,
    I do agree with you! If we all do the things we can each do around us to make our world a better place then the whole world becomes a better place. If we sit around expecting others to do it it will never happen! Great reminder!
    Cassie recently posted…4 Tips On How To Be A Servant LoverMy Profile

  3. You’re exactly right. Most often, we get the government we deserve. Our government, after all, is a reflection of us – of our choices, our desires, and our flaws.
    Lindsay Harold recently posted…Do Christians Force Their Beliefs on Others?My Profile

  4. To a degree you are correct. I constantly say we are a spoiled nation. But…that is also part of the people we elect is to look at the good of the country as a whole. Yes, they need to follow what their constituents want, but just because my kid would like to eat candy all day and not do homework, doesn’t mean I let them. Most constituents are uneducated. And I don’t meant that in regards to having a higher degree of education. I’m saying they accept whatever the media feeds them for what they need to know. We are about to go into a multi million dollar bond election (again) of which are school district once again says we need all this new stuff. Won’t argue that point but will argue to the degree of how fancy and the costs that it will take. More huge debt. Not in our best interest right now. Especially when we have schools overcrowded that are in portables. But I’m pretty sure it’ll pass because the “powers that be” want it that way and most people are not willing to look into it and vote otherwise. So yes, we should hold our reps accountable, BUT they were elected to make the better choices based on their expertise and those that have the expertise. A friend of mine who was president of a company once told me…”I don’t want to be surrounded by ‘yes men’, I want to be surrounded by people who will do the best for this company.”

  5. Sheila,
    You and I have had our disagreements but when you absolutely knock it out of the park I’ll be the first in line to say you are spot on. In general, we get the government “we” deserve. Our politicians are merely a reflection of it’s people. You nailed it.

  6. Except America really isn’t a democracy. It was formed as a REPUBLIC. Benjamin Franklin was quick to identify it as such when, as he exited the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he answered a bystander who asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got?” With no hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Not a democracy, not a democratic republic. But “a republic, if you can keep it.”

    There is a difference, but the American people seem to have forgotten that. As the federal government, through its elected representatives, takes control over more and more of what is not constitutionally their jurisdiction (because uninformed or ignorant people don’t know their Constitution and/or participate actively in their government), we go down the slippery slope into dependence.

    As Thomas Jefferson once so aptly put it, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” But we have to make it our responsibility to enlighten ourselves. Leaving it to a flawed public education system (government mandated and directed) won’t do it. It’s up to the people to educate themselves on the issues and their Constitution, and vote accordingly.

    So, yes, we really do get what we deserve. It’s too bad the minority, who seems to know better, has to suffer them as well.

    • I completely agree! May God deliver us from a trend of low information voters and career politicians. I know God’s ability to part the waters and save this nation, but my human mind doubts if that is His plan at this time. I’m sad for our country, but most of all for my children!

  7. The funny thing is that we blame politicians for our problems, but we don’t want to go into politics.
    How can we remove the “bad people” if the “good people” don’t go in?

    Thanks for sharing
    Osayi recently posted…Why Married People Need Married FriendsMy Profile

  8. One of my favorite quotes is, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for lunch.”

    I don’t think the issue is particularly that everyone wants too big of a piece of the government pie, but that no one should be able to dictate another’s activities that don’t harm someone’s person or property. If we took most of the power away from government, maybe there’d be less motivation to do backroom dealing.

  9. Stephanie says:

    This is so true! What the majority of people want, rather than what is best for everyone, is what benefits them.

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. Any comment that espouses an anti-marriage philosophy (eg. porn, adultery, abuse and the like) will be deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are replying to another commenter, please be polite and don't assume you know everything about his or her situation. If you are constantly negative or a general troll, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Sheila Wray Gregoire owns the copyright to all comments and may publish them in whatever form she sees fit. She agrees to keep any publication of comments anonymous, even if you are not anonymous on this board.


  1. […] Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column addresses the problem of democracy and the solution to make it a well-oiled wheel.  […]

Leave a Comment


CommentLuv badge