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Fire and ashes: success and failure in politics

Politics is a worldly art. It is a profession that is founded on the ability to instill hope, convince doubters, and unite the disunited – to find simple and pain free solutions to what are in fact complex and painful social challenges. In recent months a small seam of scholarship has emerged that explores public attitudes to politics and politicians through the lens of Daniel Kahneman’s work on behavioral economics and psychology. ‘Think fast’ and the public’s responses are generally aggressive, negative and hopeless; ‘think slow’ and the public’s responses are far more positive, understanding, and hopeful. Such findings resonate with my own personal experience and particularly when I founded a “Be Kind to Politicians Party” as part of a project for the BBC and it was amazing how many people I was able to recruit in a fairly short time.

The aim of telling this tale is not to make the reader feel sorry for politicians, or really to defend them or their profession. The ‘aim’ – if there really is one – is to promote the public understanding of political life and to steer it away from over-simplistic representations of sleaze, scandal and self-interest. (P.J. O’Rourke’s Don’t Vote for the Bastards – It Just Encourages Them! suddenly springs to mind.)

Admitting to the pressures and dilemmas of political life is rarely something that a politician dares acknowledge while in office but political memoirs and autobiographies frequently admit to the anguish created by a role that is almost designed to ensure a decline in mental well-being. Job insecurity, living away from home, media intrusion, public animosity, low levels of control, high expectations, limited resources, inherently aggressive, high-blame, low-trust, etc…. Why would anyone enter politics? Exploring the pressures placed on individuals as politicians – we often forget that politicians are individuals – is a topic that a small seam of scholarship has explored with Peter Riddell’s In Defense of Politicians (in spite of themselves) (2011) providing a good entry point to a more scholarly and complex field of writing where Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters (2006) and David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy (2010) form critical reference points.

But what has so far been lacking is a political memoir written by an academic that reflects solely on the paradoxes and dysfunctions of democratic politics. That is, until Michael Ignatieff penned Fire and Ashes (2013) as something of a cathartic process post-political recovery project.

Until 2006 Michael Ignatieff was a hugely successful and acclaimed academic, writer, and broadcaster who had held senior positions at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard. After 2006 he was an elected member of the Canadian House of Commons, and from 2009 Leader of the Liberal Party. Ignatieff was therefore an academic schooled in the insights of the political and social sciences who made the decision to move from theory to practice. “What drew me most was the chance to stop being a spectator,” Ignatieff writes, “I’d been in the stands all my life, watching the game. Now, I thought, it was time to step into the arena.”

Despite its title, the deeper insights of his book are less about success or failure, fire or ashes, but about the manner in which the demands of democratic politics appear to almost oblige individuals to adopt a certain way of being that grate against the ideals and principles that led them to enter politics in the first place. Put slightly differently, the political hypocrisy that is so often detected by the public, ridiculed by the media, and even attacked by opposition politicians who are spared the dilemmas of power are arguably systemic in nature rather than representing the failing of specific individuals.

The reality of modern attack politics, of 24/7 media news, of the Internet, of all those elements that come together to form ‘the system’ is that an individual’s freedom to actually speak openly and honestly is suffocated. The energy and life – possibly even the hubris – that propelled an individual to enter politics can be very rapidly destroyed by a systemic negativity and cynicism that means that spontaneity must be surrendered to a world of soundbites and media management.

But to end at this point – to blame elements of “the system” – in the hope of explaining the rise of anti-politics would be wrong. There remains a deeper tension at the heart of democratic politics that takes us right back to Bernard Crick’s classic Defense and a focus on the essence of compromise. Democratic politics is – when all is said and done – an institutional structure for achieving social compromise between contesting demands. And here lies both the rub and the real insight of Ignatieff’s experience: the worldly art of politics requires that politicians submit to compromises in a world in which compromise is too often associated with weakness and failure. Moreover, specific sections of society must be made to feel that they are special and that their demands are not being diluted when in fact they are due to the harsh realities of political life. To a certain extent, the hypocrisy, half-truths and fake smiles become essential due to the simple fact that no politician can please everybody all of the time. Democratic politics is a crucible for compromise.

But for the individual who enters politics with a very clear mission the need for compromise and conciliation – combined with an environment that is based on aggressive ‘fast-thinking’ – can be soul destroying. “As you submit to the compromises demanded by public life, your public self begins to alter the person inside,” Igantieff notes, “Within a year of entering politics, I had the disorientated feeling of having been taken over by a doppelganger, a strange new persona I could hardly recognize when I looked at myself in the mirror…I had never been so well dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.”

The “hollowing-out of the state” is a topic that has received a huge amount of academic attention, as is the “hollowing-out of democracy” but could it be that the “hollowing-out of politicians” demands at least a little consideration within debates about “why we hate politics”?

Igantieff is, however, nothing if not resolutely positive about the beauty of democratic politics and the capacity of politicians. His aim – like a lot of my writing – is not to put people off stepping into the arena but to help people enter the fray better prepared than he was. Better prepared in the sense of understanding the need to “play the game” in the sense of being worldly and sinful, while also remaining faithful and fearless at the same time.

Image credit: “Parliament Sunset” by Greg Knapp, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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