Politicians, mistrusted just when we need them most

August 6, 2013

A talented friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an offer he received to take up a political career. The friend has brains and ambition, and achieved and enjoyed a stellar career. I advised he accept the invitation. I made sure to underscore the downside; from most points of view, it’s all downside. It would be a life much less well-rewarded, more strenuous, with the certainty of bitter opposition and the strong possibility of final disillusionment. But I still said it was the better choice.

I said that if politics, the most necessary of professions, doesn’t get such people in its ranks, its current raggedness will get worse, and the fabric will begin to rip and disintegrate. I was advising selfishly. I want to live in a world where the essential work of managing its conflicts and emergencies is overseen by elected men and women who are highly intelligent with a social morality at once liberal and firmly held. I believe they exist, and shouldn’t be discouraged by the low status of politics we’re all suffering through now.

The general consensus is that political parties are losing their talent pools because there are so many lucrative, attractive and even useful careers around for clever and energetic people. It’s worse than that: their internal struggles are at least as internecine as ever, but the tasks and dilemmas facing them are more complex and strenuous than ever before. Moreover, the press and public regard them with anything between indifference and contempt. There are only occasional flashes of admiration.

Yet political parties are the rocks on which democracies build political life. We entrust parties to establish and run programs to help our countries’ development. When we vote them into government, we further extend our trust that they will pass and enforce laws, safeguard the rules and procedures of the legislatures that give a mandate to these laws, use the power wisely to declare war or settle a peace, impose taxes, define crimes, supervise the intelligence services at home and abroad…and much else. When not in power, we trust them to be loyal to the state while determined to oppose those who run the show.

That’s a lot of trust to extend when most polls in most democratic countries show we don’t trust them much, or even at all. A December 2012 Gallup poll showed that members of the U.S. Congress were regarded somewhere in the range of used car salesmen.

The problem is only worsened when we reflect that in such countries, people are asking more and more of their governments, run as they all are by one or more political parties. In the future government will essentially become a vehicle for the management of life’s risks. If we don’t trust the people managing our lives, what’s lost?

In tackling these huge and intractable issues, governments must wrestle not just with the rising costs of financing health, social security, pensions and education in societies at once aging and under-educated, they must also cope with public resistance — at least in European states and increasingly in the U.S. — to immigrants receiving full or even any public support. And they must come down on one side or another of a political-philosophical debate, especially well-developed in the U.S., on whether or not public provision is compatible with full freedom for citizens.

Surrounding these are the global risks — of lack of energy, ecological disasters, region-wide drought and famine, pandemics and new threats of war with deadlier weapons than ever. How can we ask organizations we barely trust to construct governments that have to deal with this tsunami of problems?

An essay this year by the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that it’s not all the politicians’ faults. Krastev believes that many of the good things that have happened to politics and society in the past few decades can also be bad for us. He thinks, for example, that great and benign changes — the burst of anarchic creativity in the sixties, the even wider spread of consumer power in the 1980s, the collapse of Soviet communism, the arrival of the Internet and the growth of neuroscience — have set us free, and at the same time loaded us with new chains, because we have lost collective purpose, become much more unequal, see our rulers as malign and feel powerless and confused by the complexity of life.

Take, for example, how the Internet has aided transparency, what most of us consider an obvious benefit. Krastev wonders: “Is the transparency movement capable of restoring trust in democratic institutions or is it, alternatively, going to make ‘mistrust’ the official idiom of democracy?”

What this suggests is greater responsibility, not from politicians but from their voters. The biggest danger to political development is the belief that they are not us — and so should be viewed skeptically as a matter of principle. We have to be able to discriminate between those who really can’t be trusted, and those who make mistakes. Not to do so would be the biggest mistake of all.

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