Elections, the powerful generously tell us, are our day, that one moment every few years when we, the “ordinary people”, are listened to by the elite.
That phrase alone is enough to raise our suspicions. Any politician who calls voters “ordinary” clearly believes in two separate species of humanity – one ordinary, the other, by implication, extraordinary – and is therefore not fit to hold any leadership position except perhaps in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan or the genocide-planning department of a rogue state.
Of course, it could be worse. Instead of calling us “ordinary” they might call us something more honest, like “enablers”. But still, does anyone else find it odd that “our” big day is dedicated entirely to obsessing about the powerful? Isn’t this just a large-scale version of that gag in which the narcissist tries to be modest and says, “But enough about me: what do you think of me?”
Perhaps I am being overly suspicious of politicians and their motives, but then isn’t it the duty of every citizen of a democracy to err on the side of doubt? If it is, we’re doing a particularly bad job. As we get more and more suspicious of everything and everyone around us – technology, commerce, other people, our own bodies, food, even the weather – so we seem to be handing politicians larger and larger blank cheques.
The inconsistency has become bizarre. When a well-dressed man in a suit rings our door bell promising to change our life in return for a small donation, we assume he is either a religious zealot, a conman, or a serial killer. But when a well-dressed man on the television promises to change our lives in return for 25% of our salary, we shrug and say, “Seems legit.” If an accountant stopped traffic so that he could kiss my baby, I’d demand that he be put on a register. But when it’s a politician, we gush and take photos.
Is this a kind of mass psychosis, or are we simply made this way?
Consider the meteoric rise of a chimpanzee named Mike. When Jane Goodall first saw him in his jungle home he was a wretched creature, regularly beaten and deprived of bananas by his fellow chimps. But one day Mike wandered into Goodall’s camp and found two empty paraffin cans. A light dawned in his sad little chimpy eyes: one could almost hear the opening chords of Thus Spake Zarathustra. He began to bang the cans together and everything changed. Instead of telling the primate percussionist to pipe down, the other chimps were awed, cowed, impressed. Soon he was rising through the ranks of chimp society: simply by making an appalling noise Mike had raised his status.
No doubt this explains the careers of a great many people in the music industry, but perhaps it is also relevant to our relationship with politics. Bang enough petrol cans together, shout enough encouraging platitudes into microphones, and you can rise quickly to the top of our national jungle. Our primate brains seem to be helpless against loud, self-serving noise, but, because we are human, we try to infuse it with meaning, truth, and hope. We convince ourselves that it is not just noise, and that the people making the noise must be worth listening to.
Perhaps our surrender is more conscious than we might like to admit. Perhaps it’s the payoff for not having to run the country ourselves. Those of us who cling to the middle class like the idea of democracy. We talk a mean game about the rights of the individual, about taking personal responsibility for things, but the words we like most of all are “public servant”. Just as “ordinary people” betrays the elitism of the ruling class, so perhaps “public servant” betrays more than we would like to admit to: a desire to have our world run for us by servants.
The truth is that many of us who claim to be democrats and who despair about political sleaze and ineptitude have not thought through the contradictions in our own methods. For example, we all accept that power corrupts, and yet we continue to install strangers into positions of power. Even curiouser, we continue to be scandalised when the inevitable corruption is revealed.
If we really believe that power corrupts, then we have no business voting for career politicians. Instead, we should actively pursue an alternative form of government: for example, a system whereby all adults are drafted into local and national government for fixed terms. And boy, would that suck.
No, the simple truth is that we tolerate politicians because we don’t want to have to deal with the tedious minutiae of running a modern state. Or maybe we’re just impressed by those damn paraffin cans.
First published in The Times and TimesLive