A blupete Essay

Politicians, Part 5 to blupete's Essay
"Politics and The Lie of Legitimacy"

Have you heard that politicians always take the required long-term view; that they always sacrifice their short-term political prospects; that they are always faithful to their promises of serving the public interest; that they put themselves last after all others; that they dissolve their empires, and withdraw to their homes and innocent pursuits when they can see that they are doing harm -- if so, you have heard a gigantic fairy tale.

The image of the politician, very much earned through the years, I am afraid, is that of a sinister person, a shrewd schemer, a crafty plotter, an intriguer. A politician, as a general proposition, is a person who is keenly interested in politics; one who engages in party politics, or in political strife; and, above all, one who lives by politics as a trade. What he should be -- and such persons have popped up in history, especially in the early years of the United States and throughout the 19th century in England -- is an individual versed in the theory or science of government and the art of governing, who is skilled in politics and is practically engaged in conducting the business of the state; he is, or ought to be, above all things, a statesman who knows very well that what he does will have a great effect on the welfare of the people of his country. What we are fixed with in these years are not statesmen, but rather politicians as first described, "whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs." (Adam Smith)

Not that these politicians are unimpressive people: most of them, especially those who get themselves elected time and time again, are quite impressive.30 Usually, they impress people by their oratorical ability. However, one should not believe that there is a correlation between the degree of one's ability to speak in public; and, say, to think, or to deal with matters in an honest manner. Indeed, in regards to plain honesty, there is an indirect correlation: it's the slick talkers we need to watch out for. Effrontery and falsehood is all too often enough to defeat the side that is in the right. A clear and unprejudiced point of view founded on fact, sad to say, as is commonly observed, gives way to the crafty or fraudulent devices of the orator. The politician is not normally out to get at the truth of the matter, but, rather, to get an advantage, if not for himself directly, then for the party. His object is to raise passion to such a level that it swamps reason; and then, at the moment the crowd reaches it's highest point get them committed to a course of action.

"The orator may wish to gain a special vote, to secure suffrages or to evoke from his hearers repeated confirmations of the policy he defends, and so to produce a modification of public opinion; but in any case his efforts are meant to rouse actual political action on the part of other people. His intention is to make others subserve his own ends, to strengthen his own scanty forces by means of the power that others possess, and this, whatever the character of his efforts, be they selfish or unselfish, be they directed to securing, the advantage of an individual, of a party, or of the state. A political speech is distinguished from a pamphlet, from expert advice, from a memorial or a dissertation, by the special fact that it seeks to bring about a comparatively rapid result, and to prevent a close and detailed examination of the subject under discussion. Vigorous, attractive, and even sweeping language, followed by a decision as rapid as possible before the flame of enthusiasm dies away, such is the course of events invariably most desirable to the great orator ... A crowd of people is in most cases disinclined, and little competent to undertake, an accurate examination of the questions at issue, and the more incompetent it is the greater will be the influence exerted upon it by clever oratory. Where the influence of oratory is supreme we have to suppose a general decay of intellectual force ..."31
That the mesmerized will stay mesmerized long after the mesmerizer has left their presence and that they will often then feel any injury that is inflicted on the mesmerizer -- is a phenomenon which is worth a study. What is it in these men, in their mode of oratory that extends their influence beyond the moment, beyond the occasion, beyond the immediate power shown. If one objectively listens to it, there is little in the average political speech that is remarkable or worth preserving. Is there anything at all that implies a habit of deep and refined reflection? What little knowledge one might gain from the politician in full oratorical flight is of the kind that lies within the reach of most of us with the expenditure of very little effort. The magic of oratory as William Hazlitt described, is due "to the powers of language, the chief miracle is, that a source of words so apt, forcible and well-arranged, so copious and unfailing, should have been found constantly open to express their ideas without any previous preparation." At least that is the way it seems, Hazlitt continues:
"They do not, it is true, allow of preparation at the moment, but they have the preparation of the preceding night, and of the night before that, and of nights, weeks, months and years of the same endless drudgery and routine, in going over the same subjects, argued (with some paltry difference) on the same grounds. Practice makes perfect. He who has got a speech by heart on any particular occasion, cannot be much gravelled for lack of matter on any similar occasion in future. Not only are the topics the same; the very same phrases -- whole batches of them, -- are served up as the Order of the Day; the same parliamentary bead-roll of grave impertinence is twanged off, in full cadence by the Honourable Member or his Learned and Honourable Friend; and the well-known, voluminous, calculable periods roll over the drowsy ears of the auditors, almost before they are delivered from the vapid tongue that utters them! It may appear, at first sight, that here are a number of persons got together, picked out from the whole nation, who can speak at all times upon all subjects in the most exemplary manner; but the fact is, they only repeat the same things over and over on the same subjects, -- and they obtain credit for general capacity and ready wit, like Chaucer's Monk, who, by having three words of Latin always in his mouth, passed for a great scholar."32
We do not need great scholars to run the affairs of government nor do we need (as if such people existed) those who have all the answers; what is wanted are honest people who understand that progress, since the times of Newton, is made by the application of scientific principles. Sir Karl Popper:
"... what is needed most is the adoption of a critical attitude, and the realization that not only trial but also error is necessary. And he must learn not only to expect mistakes, but consciously to search for them. We all have an unscientific weakness for being always in the right, and this weakness seems to be particularly common among professional and amateur politicians. But the only way to apply something like scientific method in politics is to proceed on the assumption that there can be no political move which has no drawbacks, no undesirable consequences. To look out for these mistakes, to find them, to bring them into the open, to analyse them, and to learn from them, this is what a scientific politician as well as a political scientist must do. Scientific method in politics means that the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, and of blaming others for them, is replaced by the greater art of accepting the responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying this knowledge so that we may avoid them in the future."33
Popper proceeds to point out on how our elected political representatives must proceed slowly and little by little. The reason for so proceeding is so that -- and by the very definition of science, viz. trial and error, mistakes will be made -- the mistakes will be little ones. There is a correlation between the bigness of the trial and the bigness of the error. It is very hard to learn from very big mistakes. The reasons for this are twofold: given that large mistakes come from large enterprises, there can be no manageable feedback; and second, free discussion for all effected (the electorate) on large undertakings can hardly be tolerated if the plan is to go ahead at all. As Popper observed, "Accordingly there will always be a tendency to oppose the plan, and to complain about it. To many of these complaints the Utopian engineer will have to turn a deaf ear if he wishes to get anywhere at all; in fact, it will be part of his business to suppress unreasonable objections."34 And, remember, without feedback, there can be no scientific progress.

The process to which I have just referred is essentially one of learning and growing, of submitting our expectations to the test of experience, the control and correction of speculations. This is a process which is to be employed in evaluating what is the next best step for any one of us to take as we proceed to deal with the endeavours of life: it is, since the welfare of a multitude of lives are at stake, particularly important for politicians who govern our country to employ such a process. But they seem not to know of it; their education, it certainly would appear, is sadly lacking. The typical politician appeals to the passions and prejudices of the crowd in order to simply obtain power. Whether it is by the methods of their pursuit or because they are so from the beginning (which drives them to be politicians in the first place) politicians have an overweening opinion of themselves, an overestimation of their own qualities, and a personal vanity or pride that seems to go along with most who posses magisterial power.35 A sobering thought for them would be -- politicians are not a race apart; they arise from the population; they are like the rest of us. Though there be exceptions, especially, as history will show, at times of national emergency, politicians are not better than the average sort of person: they are as a class not more able, not more kinder, not more moral, not less corruptible. A politician in power needs only the normal set of virtues and to understand that for success in this life (this applies to all of us in any pursuit), we all need to rely on the goodwill of men and goodwill, will be forthcoming to those who conduct themselves in keeping with the common principles of morality, that, in all of our dealings with others, to apply standards of right conduct and to avoid any form of wrong-doing or vice.

The first object and principle of action for every one of us is to do what is right; this is particularly so for politicians. And I have no doubt that politicians aim to do what is right, but more often than not they proceed to do what others think is right. The typical politician is forever "anxious to do all the good he can without hurting himself or his fair fame. His conscience and character compound matters very amicably. He rather patronises honesty than is a martyr to it. ... [He] has the pride of being familiar with the great, the vanity of being popular, the conceit of an approving conscience." Hazlitt wrote further that such a politician (in this case he was describing Lord Wilberforce) is not necessarily a hypocrite, as a hypocrite "is one who is the very reverse of, or who despises the character he pretends to be."36

"He took it in a very cool and leisurely manner, watched his competitors with a wary, sarcastic eye, picked up the mistakes or absurdities that fell from them, and retorted them on their heads: told a story to the mob; and smiled and took snuff with a gentlemanly and becoming air, as if he was already seated in the House."37
I would like to leave off on a positive note, like that earlier struck: that all men, in the final analysis, in knowing what is good for them, in their dealings with others, proceed to do what is right and to avoid wrong-doing. One would think that of all the callings those who seek political leadership would unfailingly follow the right road, the honest path. "Alas, both for the deed and for the cause!" One need but scan the pages of our newspapers, any week, and see how our politicians perform. The fact is: political power comes to those, who persuade an efficient minority to coerce an indifferent and self-indulgent majority. Voting is but a promiscuous free-for-all scrimmage. In a democracy the people can be bribed, cajoled and bamboozled. The people's representatives in their pursuits are dishonest; and the people victimized by their own ignorance.


A featured essay in a book


Essays: Law & Politics


Found this material Helpful?

[Essays, First Series]
[Essays, Second Series]
[Essays, Third Series]
[Essays, Fourth Series]
[Subject Index]
Peter Landry

Custom Search