Good politicians should disappoint you

I’m one of those people who is “into politics” but, in my defence, I started back when it was boring. The last four years have seen politics consume everyone’s attention and the results have not been edifying. If there is one political story to come out of 2020 it is that people want politics to be boring again. Boring politics seems a bit like the dentist: clearly important but something only a small group focus on for more than scheduled visits. Personally, I’d rather politics be boring and still have people pay attention, but I appreciate that the rest of the population finds it less difficult to get a date and so have better things to do with their time. I’d also like to see politicians disappointing people a little more regularly, even with the risk that it may turn people off of politics.

To see why politicians should be disappointing, we should probably think about why we have them in the first place. My own view is that politicians exist because we want to establish a set of common rules and operations for the community (that is, the government and its laws) while also recognizing differing, if not opposing, views within that community. We choose a politician to represent us and navigate those differences on our behalf. In essence, we elect a politician so that they have to talk to our scumbag neighbours instead of having to deal with them ourselves.

My view on why we have politicians is certainly not the only one. In fact, it seems to be a minority opinion. It seems more likely to run into the view that politicians are a bit like lobbyists and that politics is a matter of getting your people in to impose a particular agenda, lest the other side get in and do all the stuff you don’t want to have happen. Depending on what country you are in and how often your preferred party wins, my description in the previous paragraph might just be seen as spin for this style of politics. Despite the fact that in all but two elections I’ve voted in my chosen candidate was not elected, I can’t really bring myself to see politics in this light.

I am writing from Canada, which will mean most of my examples will come from Canadian or American elections. I mention this because it really is the case that there are countries in the world in which governing really is a matter of enriching enough factions at the expense of others to make sure you stay in the job. I do not think that the existence of such governments elsewhere mean that we can’t hope to improve our own, only that I think it’s worth distinguishing between a rhetorical flourish and the actual operations of a given government.

One reason why I can’t adopt the view that politics is getting enough votes so you can screw the other guy is because of how stressful the past four years have been. What we saw in the United States was not business as usual, and at least part of that stress was a genuine feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed without any regard to the well being of the country as a whole. In fact, the stress this agenda provoked seemed to be an added benefit (“owning the libs”). It’s worth remembering that the last for years of US politics has not been miserable for everyone. While it is hard to see supporters of the outgoing President as a particularly happy bunch, they are satisfied on the policy front.

While I think we have recently lived through an example of a government that was remarkably indifferent to navigating differences and building consensus, the perception that this is how government normally works is certainly older than that. I recall an example that may seem odd to a non-Canadian but it concerns a conversation with a progressive (that is, more inclined to vote for left leaning parties) friend before Justin Trudeau (a leader likely more in line with my friend’s preferences than other leaders of the same party) became Prime Minister. My friend explained that they could never vote for Trudeau because apparently there was some bill concerning pharmaceuticals that he conveniently was not present to vote for rather than voting against (my friend’s preferred position and, given Trudeau’s absence, likely a politically unpalatable one). I pressed for more details, but the preceding account was all I could get. I run into similar comments about politicians frequently, even right down to the vagueness of the offence.

What worries me about this kind of sentiment is not so much that the speaker may or may not be voting for my preferred politician, but rather that the standard is that a politician must be ideologically pure and that any deviation is sufficient to withhold a vote. This view seems like a slightly better read version of “I don’t vote because they’re all liars and crooks.” Clearly there are deeply held beliefs that would make voting for a particular politician untenable, but a half remembered rumour about abstention from a pharmaceutical bill does not seem to fit that case. It seems much closer to the electoral equivalent of a temper tantrum.

Implicit or explicit purity tests for politicians make me question someone’s commitment to the idea of living in a democracy in the first place. There are systems of government in which one group always gets what it wants without question, they’re just ones that don’t really need elections. Whether it’s through the occasional recognition that I don’t have all the good ideas, or simply the self-interest of knowing that a party I disagree with will one day form government (if it isn’t already in government) it simply seems like there’s no other way but to provide elected representatives some latitude when it comes to their actions in office.

This is why I think politicians should disappoint us. I can’t stand other people, so I hire the politician to put up with them instead and govern in our common interest. If the politician is doing their job this will mean building consensus which will often involve compromise. Compromising with people I can’t stand is inherently disappointing. Good politicians should annoy a large number of citizens by giving them close to but not exactly what they want on most things. Obviously some policies are going to be strongly felt and dichotomous. This is not to suggest good politicians are the ones who institute the death penalty but promise it will be gender balanced to make sure the liberals get a little something too. But I do trust someone with the empathy and understanding of the electorate to manage the cases that allow for compromise well to be able to do the right thing in the difficult cases where there is less room for compromise.

A lot of this may seem like common sense, and it is. I’m bringing it up now because we’re coming out of a time when everyone is “into politics” in the worst possible way. It would be good if people continued to pay attention and be involved in what their government is doing because it is important. Viewing politicians as the specialists you hire to deal with the people you can’t stand, and acknowledging the disappointment that stems from that role helps mitigate the burnout from the times when the decision does not go in our favour. It’s the right amount of boring that lets us be politically active while still having a life.

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