September 01, 2015 - 8:03 AM
Since my earliest political involvement in the late 1980s, I've been struggling to understand why people aren't more engaged in federal politics. I still haven't figured it out, but over twenty plus years of political engagement, I've developed a couple of notions.
First, most people just don't know how government works and if you don't think that's true, here's a case in point: Back in the day, in graduate school, I was offered a job as an MP's legislative assistant in Ottawa, and at a goodbye party thrown by my buddies they bought me a book. It was called "How the Canadian Government Works" and it was a primer on the mechanisms of the Canadian federal government. Over the next few days I read it cover to cover because until then I didn't have a clue how the federal system worked. Normally you could chalk that up to my general cluelessness, but no one else at the graduate level knew anything about it either. Why, you ask?
We had all graduated with honours degrees in political studies from a major Canadian university and we were chock full of high-level theory, but not one of us had the faintest idea what politicians actually DID on a day-to-day basis. Yes, we had slept through Politics 101 way back in first year, so technically we should have known, but that was all long forgotten in the years of theory that followed. And I don't think we were a whole lot different from everyone else in the lack-of-knowledge department. If people who are supposed to know how federal politics work don't, how can people who have other things to do be expected to understand politics?
Second, people tend to hold a deep distrust of politicians. I suspect it's mainly rooted in the same lack of knowledge, because wherever there's a knowledge gap I think we tend to try to fill it with anything that makes sense, and nefarious intentions are easy to project onto politicians.
Judging by social media, a lot of people think all politicians are greedy puppets taking bribes. Others think politicians are slimy lizards who say whatever is required to get elected and then play golf for the rest of their term. If it's a politician on the left, the right leaning electorate thinks they're sops for unions and communist interest groups, and if it's a politician on the right, the left thinks they spend their time discovering new ways to make life miserable for the poor. Social media is waist deep in such silly stereotypes.
The entertainment media isn't particularly helpful when it comes to depicting politicians accurately either. Shows like "The West Wing" make the US federal government into a sort of Byzantine cauldron of plot and counterplot punctuated by an occasional scandal. "House of Cards" takes it a step further, portraying politicians as thoroughly toxic bastards who spend their time lying, conniving and committing skullduggery of the most heinous sort. And then there's the old British sitcom "Yes Minister," one of my favourites, in which politicians are buffoons led around by the nose by hilarious Machiavellian advisors.
Sure, there are plenty of real life naughty stories to go around. I remember one MP in Ottawa who went through a bottle of vodka every day for three years, eventually rounding out his political experience by dying of cirrhosis of the liver. I remember another who preached socialism to anyone who would listen until he lost his career trying to overthrow the bourgeoisie by stealing a ring from one of them. Several got busy using their positions to seduce anything that twitched and others became bloviating narcissists, or at least allowed that side of their personality free rein. Still others became one-trick ponies, bludgeoning everyone within reach over the head with their pet project at every opportunity.
But for the most part politicians are just like everyone else, some good, some bad, some dishonest, most honest, all trying to do a job they are more or less unprepared for. Cut them some slack this October when you go to the polls because chances are they are just like you.
But dammit, make sure you go to the polls.
— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.
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