The Worst Approach to Politics

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874–1965)

Swinging into the penalty box, his body language shrieks incredulity.  Eyes rolling, he shakes his head in disgust as he sits down with a thump.  Hometown booing echoes his implied message: Whaddya mean?  That was a clean hit! The referee is unmoved: a show of baffled innocence is part of the game.

In this dimension, at least, hockey is apt metaphor for politics.  Under the guise of keeping things moving, hockey trades fair play for television advertising revenue, losing player protection somewhere behind the net.  Under the guise of getting things done, politics trades due process for power, losing public engagement somewhere between the sponsorship scandal and the stimulus boondoggle.  

Yet each game sets some limits, some rules.  Getting up slowly off the ice, hittees wipe their faces hopefully, looking for the blood that means an automatic penalty.  Caught in the act, hitters stomp into the penalty box in feigned indignation: hockey theatre, nothing more.  As with hockey, so with politics.  Opposition bloodhounds bay triumphantly at the merest sign of ‘blood’: any whiff of fiduciary irresponsibility.  Caught in the no-man’s land where noble purpose somehow transforms into cheap electioneering, Government members suspected of violating the rules commit political theatre, sputtering as they are dragged into the limelight.

Grand performances make it easy to confuse theatre with reality.  In the hockey arena the crowd’s pro forma protests can become genuine, albeit self-delusional, outrage at every call against the home team.  Demonizing opponents as unsportsmanlike, fans see no harm when their team commits the same foul.  In the political arena participants come to judge themselves by their intentions, but others by their actions or even the appearance thereof.  Demonizing opponents as absolutely corrupted by absolute power, each party thinks nothing of patronage—whether spun as sponsorships or stimulus—when it’s their turn at the trough.

Treated as a game, politics is susceptible to the same excesses as hockey.  As the NHL’s second season grinds along, coincident with our fourth federal fun-fest in seven years, it’s good to know we have choices: our approach to politics needn’t be determined by pontificating politicians any more than our approach to hockey need be determined by posturing players.  We can be more than ‘homers’.

Hockey is enjoyable even without extreme partisanship.  A late convert, ambushed in mid-life by the game, I cheer my team on but can’t find it in me to excuse their every infraction, or to huff and puff when they are sinned against.  Can politics, too, be played with less partisan feeling?  What are our realistic choices in our other national sport?

We can choose to play with a vengeance, as if politics were hockey.  It spreads the perks around, but it doesn’t push back against abuse or inattention—a serious failing when it’s our money they’re abusing, our concerns they’re according only lip service.

We can choose not to play.  Don’t vote, it just encourages them is the rallying cry of the ‘pox on all their houses’ school of political philosophy.  It keeps our blood pressure down, but it doesn’t keep others from playing—a serious failing when it’s our money at stake, our public policy being decided.

Or, we can choose to redefine the teams.  We can see the contest in Canada today not as competing ideologies but as us against the politicos.  For those of us trying to get by and do the right thing, the ideological split looks more and more like a clever ruse, luring us into emotional partisanship so we check our minds at the arena entrance—umm, the election booth—along with our coats.

In practical terms, how would we play on the citizens’ team?

First, we get into game shape: they’ve been playing for years and have a head start.  Becoming more informed, we ask better questions of our representatives.  Even if we can’t be public policy experts, we can know more than we do now, splitting the research effort with friends and relations.  Talking amongst ourselves, we can all be more fit for the game—able to recognize and discount simplistic arguments, inflammatory appeals to emotion.

Second, we express our ideas, pressuring the politicos’ team to do what we want, no matter who’s in power.  Writing letters, making calls, attending meetings, responding to polls—these are all options.  We bewail governance by public opinion, but we are the public and can affect or even highjack the process.

Third, we vote.  While it’s a move available only every few years, it looms over the entire game.  Our citizens’ team has ample upside potential here if we improve our participation and sophistication.

Redefining the teams could foster an environment with more light and less heat, à la Woodrow Wilson; over time it could even change the opposing team’s roster.  Regrettably, though, it doesn’t give us any easy sense of team membership: no nice, neat, identifiable entity to belong to.  Instead, we have to build common cause with our fellow citizens: a cantankerous, opinionated bunch, notoriously difficult to work with.  Nor will fielding a citizens’ team guarantee the win, or offer any reprieve from constant vigilance.  So why bother?  For just one reason: as democracy is to government, so might this be the worst approach to politics, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

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6 Comments

  1. Gary Cerantola

    I agree and then some. Accountability and transparency find themselves by the wayside if we choose not to be engaged as the electorate.

  2. Dave

    In hockey, rule changes are made from time to time to improve the game; e.g. recent clamp down on head hits. So let’s keep democracy, but let’s get rid of this dysfunctional “first past the post” system.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      I expect there will now be a groundswell of support for proportional representational from some circles – now that ‘first past the post’ hasn’t served the Natural Governing Party well. Hard to see many Canadian parties interested in giving up the shot at absolute, albeit time-limited, control, just for a chance to participate in coalitions more often.

  3. With the popular vote at 39% and 31% and 18% Monday night, with Proportional Rep. there would a series of Coalitions. Perhaps not a bad thing: Forcing parties to work together achieve anything; ideally taking the best from each.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      As Ed Broadbent (former leader of the NDP, for my loyal Finnish readers) pointed out in an interview on Tuesday, ‘even’ the UK is looking at proportional representation – it’s already widespread in Europe and has a beachhead in the Commonwealth (New Zealand). When the Liberals held majority governments for so many years, many decried the ‘4-year dictatorship’ of the Prime Minister that our system entailed. Not many Liberals, I expect, but there it is: when the system works for you, it’s hard to get motivated to change it. More and more, my view is that ‘first past the post’ serves the politicos, rather than the citizen team (see The Worst Approach to Politics). Coalitions will have their own flaws, but it’s an imperfect world.

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