A little humility would go a long way in today's politics

While I’m giving advice to politicians (and just try to stop me), might I recommend humility? As a partisan tactic, I mean.

OK, so pride is a deadly sin and humility might be good for the soul, if you have not sold yours or simply misplaced it. And fortunately in my job, I have to worry more about whether my advice is good than whether it’s palatable. Still, with one covetous eye on being listened to, let me sugar-coat this bitter pill by noting that the constant offensive braying in the political fray is turning voters off in ways you could exploit.

Now I quote Chesterton: “What makes the ordinary political partisan spiritually unconvincing is, not so much that he points out that his opponent is spotted, as that he implies that he himself is spotless.” I have never shared the widespread distaste, real or feigned, for negative political ads; as things stand, there is usually more truth in the bad things politicians say about their opponents than in the good things they say about themselves. But candidates could improve our choices, and their chances, by thinking a bit harder about spottiness including their own. We might even get better government.

In Wednesday’s City section, the Citizen editorially lamented the lack of discernable difference between the parties in the looming Ontario election, defying readers to guess from which platform they had plucked certain bromides about health care. The homogeneous paste on offer in campaigns is in part the result of too much focus-group guidance and too little principle. But it also derives from the undetected, rampant sin of pride.

A couple of weeks back, I furnished a reading list to give aspiring politicians some grasp of the issues behind the issues. But they are unlikely to pile such books on the bedside table as long as they genuinely believe the main problem in public life is that their opponents are callous bums and the remedy for almost anything that ails us is to elect their shining selves.

Might I single out Dalton McGuinty for a minute here? Oh good. Imagine if he were still in opposition, campaigning against a premier who’d made exactly the promises he made from not raising taxes to closing coal-fired plants, then broken them with the same smarmy air of rectitude. He’d be outraged. He’d thunder about hypocrisy and public trust. And he’d be right.

The question then becomes, why isn’t he the least bit ashamed now? How does he preserve not merely the facade but, I am persuaded, the sublime inner certitude that he is splendidly spotless?

OK, that’s not the question. I don’t care how he does it. I just want to know how we can stop electing politicians like that. John Tory doesn’t strike me as humbly focused on avoiding political temptation. And Howard Hampton appears to believe that belligerent self-righteousness is the answer to any policy problem (which, given his other resources, might be the safe choice). So how do we get people who acknowledge that there are powerful reasons why governments, of all stripes, tend to make similar bad decisions, and then explain in their campaign speeches and literature what they will do to avoid these errors?

In part the secret is that we must be willing to vote for those who confess to sin, who admit they too would be tempted by what has manifestly long tempted everyone holding the office they seek, from pandering to middle-class voters to seeking short-term gain, glossing over genuine governing difficulties and blithely waving off the laws of economics. But we can’t vote for them unless they run.

So my direct advice to politicians is: Stand up and say you know all problems will not disappear just because you’re the great you. Admit you’ve studied policy and have ideas on how to do things that go beyond preening before the mirror then uttering fatuous banalities while sneering at your wretched and uncaring adversaries.

If you’re not going to rely on superior personal qualities, you may have to fall back on superior understanding of the issues. And for many of you that would be a long drop indeed. But look on the bright side. It would make you more electable.

Cynics have long said sincerity is the key to politics and when you can fake it, you’re golden. The trouble is, everyone’s faking it now. Or worse. Public life is crowded with sincerely sanctimonious prats. But wake up and smell the opportunity. We voters are tired of egomaniacs who substitute imaginary rectitude for genuine policy.

So start faking humility. Who knows, you might develop a taste for it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson