What is it we deserve?

“Every nation gets the government it deserves”.
– Joseph de Maistre, 1811

I’m sure we all recognize the quotation above, even if the form might have been altered slightly to fit the occasion. Most importantly, it’s necessary to consider this statement as it applies to democracies. I would hate to think that the author of the original could have foreseen a Pol Pot, a Stalin, or a Hitler and still imagined that his assertion was absolute. At the same time – very much in line with the general theme of my blog – the division between government and the governed is at best a blurred line, often even in the most exceptional circumstance. History has shown very clearly that Hitler was the popular choice when he initially assumed power. Generally, though, I want to believe that the despotism evident in so many places in the world isn’t what most people would choose. Am I being a starry-eyed optimist for holding to that? Perhaps.

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Still, here in Canada, the adage, by and large, holds. No matter how much is ascribed to “tactics”, in the end, those elected are the ones who have garnered the most votes on election day. Dirty tricks notwithstanding (since they have a way of being discovered if anyone is dumb enough to try them in the first place), Canadians can have confidence that the results on election day are a valid expression of the “will of the electorate” on a given day. Sure, voices might object based upon the first-past-the-post system, poor turnouts at the polls and other considerations but, as far as the process goes, few would deny that the results themselves are valid and verifiable. Such is the nature of a democratic election in Canada.

Once that day is passed, however, we all have to live with the result for the four or so years of an electoral term. Ordinarily it doesn’t take long for the knives and hatchets to come out. Letters to the editor in local papers, articles in national ones, analysis across a variety of mediums all tend toward the negative. Other than the few partisan stalwarts who regularly contribute to the local paper, few kind words are forthcoming for a government in power. If you think about it, that dynamic reveals a rather curious reality: governments elected by virtue of their being the most popular on the day of the election almost invariably decline in popularity within a brief time. Indeed, time and again the previously popular choice eventually becomes the reviled or, at the very least, the dismissed.

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A simple explanation of this phenomenon would hold that parties fail to live up to their promise (and their promises). This demand for absolute adherence has always struck me as being at least as unrealistic as so many of the promises that go unfulfilled. When we consider again the notion of getting the government we deserve, I think we need to recognize that, if we are looking to play the blame game, we have no one to blame but ourselves. I’ve been involved in enough elections (and paid attention to many more) to know that certain contradictory realities occur virtually every time.

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First, consider the predominance of “change” as a popular theme. I cannot think of an election I have been involved in personally that did not have change in some slogan, approach or appeal along the way. Whether it is parties or individuals, those seeking to oust whoever is currently in government are going to promise some kind of radical departure from whatever is current. As for those in power at the time, even alongside a “stay the course” message, some enhancement of what is currently in place will be promised. All of which makes perfect sense since the objective of every politician and party is to win. When dissatisfaction dominates the messaging of virtually every news medium, who wouldn’t want something else?

But then the election is over and the time comes for the implementation of some of those changes. Offsetting the ever-present demand for change is the equally pervasive resistance to that same change. A commonly acknowledged truth about people’s demand for change says that change is welcome as long as it doesn’t affect them. And so, with a guaranteed chorus of discontent growing apace, governments proceed to make changes where they can, thus fulfilling portions of an election platform while guaranteeing that general popularity will decline.

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Second, repeatedly, around election time, calls are heard for parties to be straightforward and up front, to avoid promises of any kind and just – to use the parlance so popular these days – “be open and transparent”. Needless to say, that one doesn’t get much traction. Without going into detail, I would state simply that on the few occasions when parties choose such an approach, they are seldom, if ever, rewarded. However much they claim otherwise, the electorate at large isn’t looking for a description of what is; they want a vision of what COULD be, no matter how many times those elected based upon the presentation of such a vision fail to deliver.

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I think what de Maistre actually captured in his comment about our receiving our just deserts was a truth about all of us. Human beings are inherently complex and contradictory so it shouldn’t come as a great surprise when our political system – especially a democratic one – reflects those characteristics. In my opinion, the greatest disservice done to politics today arises from the persistent negativity so much the focus of media. Yes, ours is an imperfect system populated by flawed people. But the system itself has delivered a quality of life second to none in the world. Surely a scurvy politician or two deserves some of the credit.