You can’t blame an un-housebroken puppy for making a mess on your living room floor. Nor should anyone, in a democracy, feign shock at the actions of the stupendously incompetent who ride into office on waves of voter discontent and proceed to wreck the place. As I’m writing this, the United States Senate has just passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding by the narrowest of margins a default brought on by the extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party who were swept into power in the 2010 midterm elections. The Brothers Ford are threatening to balance Toronto’s books by… cutting books (i.e. libraries), as it turns out that all of the city’s fiscal woes cannot, in fact, be cured by eliminating the “gravy train.” You can’t really blame these people for being unskilled and unfit to govern. They didn’t put themselves in office. We should blame ourselves for buying what they’ve sold without thoroughly kicking the tires first.
In politics, the simplest message is the most successful. “I Like Ike.” “Yes We Can.” “It’s the economy, stupid.” “Stop the gravy train.” “He didn’t come back for you.” So too does it often seem that the simplest people have the simplest time getting elected – for the simple reason that running a campaign of pandering is the simplest path to victory. Tell people what they want to hear often enough and you’ll convince them. Why? Because democracy is a pain in the ass. In a democracy, the governed are meant to stay informed, learn about issues, examine all sides of a problem and keep their representatives honest. The problem is, nobody really wants to do that. The majority of us are perfectly happy to leave governing to anyone who wants to, so long as we don’t have to. The least we are asked to do is vote and many of us can’t even be bothered doing that. Those of us who do bother are usually seduced by the infamous simple message. “I don’t like taxes and this guy says he’s going to cut them, that’s good enough for me.” Imagine interviewing someone for a job at your company – you have an applicant who has no prior experience, no qualifications for the position and just keeps repeating the phrase “Hire me and I’ll save you money.” You’d be showing him the door faster than you can say “hard-working families.” Yet politicians use the same strategy to find their way into highly-paid positions of authority where they can affect thousands, even millions of lives.
George W. Bush came from a legacy of failed business ventures and could barely pronounce half the words in the English language and he was placed in charge of the nuclear launch codes for eight tumultuous years. I choose not to believe it was because the majority who voted for him were stupid. It was the widespread laissez-faire attitude I’ve described above that favored his simple answers over the more complicated solutions Al Gore and John Kerry respectively were offering instead. The irony is that governing is complicated. Anyone who says it is simple is lying for votes. Good governing is a dance of nuance, intelligence, curiosity, respect, and compromise when necessary. Not everyone can do it and it demands minds that are sharp and inquisitive and not chained to ideology at the expense of reason. A four-year-old who’s heard a slogan on TV can repeat it ad infinitum, but you wouldn’t consider putting him in charge of the Ministry of Finance. You wouldn’t even put him in charge of a lemonade stand.
So let’s set our standards higher – if we do not demand more from candidates, if we continue to let them get away with pandering, pat answers to complex questions, if we continue to vote by picking the least of the worst – we should not be surprised when it turns out that the people we’ve elected are completely unsuited to handle the complex questions that will arise in the course of governing. Because whacking the puppy with the newspaper after the fact isn’t going to do much to clean up the steaming pile lying in the middle of the floor. Better yet, instead get a cat – they are smart enough to know to use the litter box in the first place.