Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are you waiting for politicians to tell the truth?

While people in the streets are feeling more powerful these days, people in politics are feeling especially uncertain, unpersuasive, and vulnerable. Our leaders will survive 2011, without putting any significant problems behind them. Are they in trouble, however, because they’re not telling the naked truth?

Allan Greg, Chairman of Harris/Decima joins a chorus of observers who believe that our politics are enfeebled by the reluctance of our politicians to be authentic and by an observant public’s lack of faith in what their leaders say. In a strikingly anxious lecture to the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa, Greg asserted:

“Most Canadians no longer believe their leaders speak the truth; they expect little of government and feel disengaged from the whole political process. Asked this year how often a typical politician would tell the absolute truth when making public statements, four out of 10 claimed less than 50 per cent of the time. Put another way, almost half believe that, any time politicians speak, there’s only a 50/50 chance they’ll be told the truth.

“Yet, it’s the truth and authenticity we crave, more than anything.”

In fact, Greg believes that we’re operating in such incredulous times that a bracing dose of truthfulness could actually be good medicine: “Telling the naked truth can be good politics.”

This will sound utterly cynical. However, there is something over the top about this concern for the credibility of our politicians and the status of absolute truth in politics. Politicians get our attention mostly when they’re attacking or defending themselves from criticism—when, in truth, there are at least two ways to look at what’s being said.

They hurt themselves and the democratic system when they are consistently unpersuasive and demonstrably insincere. However, they are not employed to trade exclusively in uncontested truth. Thankfully, those days are over for bishops as well as typical politicians.

Having a clear majority of Canadians believe that a typical politician is telling the truth most of the time is good enough. It’s good enough to maintain very high taxes, peaceful elections, a united federation, and almost universal compliance when new taxes, regulations, and laws are enacted.

Restoring trust in politicians is too ambitious and, anyway, it would be dangerous if we talked ourselves into such a state. We don’t need another awards program or an international index of political authenticity.

However, we do need to be led. And Greg is right that our leaders are shrinking before our greatest problems.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

Rather than complain about bores being inauthentic, let’s worry more about lying. What editors and readers need to reward are journalists who catch the lie. Conversely, they shouldn’t tolerate the lazy false accusation that “they’re all liars, anyway.”

Rather than wait for the naked truth on carbon taxes, health reform, and social inequality, let’s better reward politicians who clearly take sides and consistently say brave things. Today, journalism invariably reports such outbursts as “controversial” and treats representative opinion as more “professional.”

Rather than try to make everyone better, let’s look for better leaders. Let’s make progress by exception.

One of the unintended consequences of trying to turn politics into a profession is the paralyzing fear of making a mistake—of endorsing the wrong idea and being rejected by the people. Pollsters and ghost-writers generate ideal images, offer the right words, and rank policies from safe to suicidal—and then wonder why successful politicians aren’t more spontaneous.

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