One conspicuous symptom of our miserable times is the number of politicians leaving careers in defeat or being written off well before their next election. Most noted has been the defeat of some 54 incumbents in the November US congressional elections.
But political exile is common elsewhere. In Canada, Gordon Campbell, the Premier of British Columbia, was effectively chased out of office for expanding the tax base. Nationally, Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party’s former leader, summarily lost his job after unsuccessfully advocating a carbon tax to fight climate change. Today, in London, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party has, in one season, gone from being Britain’s most liked politician to “Nick Clegg, Dick Head!”
A great deal of human capital has been forcefully withdrawn from public service and many good people are finding themselves with fewer friends.
Today, with so many really smart people, with high incomes, dependent on the favourable opinions of voters, defeat causes many to shudder like seeing a bat at dusk. Increasingly, consultants treat defeat as a medical illness; insisting that with the proper application of market intelligence and personal discipline other politicians can avoid the same fate.
However, political defeat is not a medical condition or a freakish occurrence. It is a good politician’s unshakable companion. Competent representative democracy could not carry on without it.
We know stories about Presidents and Prime Ministers who stood by their convictions. However, an equally relevant and inspiring book on the subject of political courage was written by an American historian about Winston Churchill’s followers in the House of Commons in the 1930s. Lynne Olsen, in “Troublesome Young Men,” tells the story of the handful of back-benchers who defied Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, risking their careers and social standing against a massive majority in Parliament and in the country. What is striking about these mavericks was their youth, savvy and ambition. Individually, most all of them rightfully aimed for high political office. (Two, in fact, eventually became Prime Ministers.) Despite their personal ambitions, they stood against the professionals and with Winston Churchill, a loner, a has-been, a bore to many, who appeared to lack the humility and discipline to tack or make new friends.
The contemporary political victims noted earlier are not amateurish or arrogantly disdainful of the preferences of their constituents either. By and large, they are hard working representatives, not especially disputatious or headstrong. Their unpopularity was born in conscious efforts to tackle important challenges, to serve an urgent public interest.
Furthermore, they see themselves as moderates and pragmatic; their positions were unpopular even though they were often compromises as well. Nevertheless, on climate change, fiscal stability and universal healthcare, these modern politicians recognized that a viable response to the problem at hand required their support, whether that response was popular yet or not.
If there is anything inspiring about 2010 to take into a bracing New Year it is not the public’s ability to rage, but the continuing ability of a goodly number of politicians to pay for their principles.