Before You Become a Politician

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IgnatieffNo, this isn’t about me. This is about federal politics. I never had an inclination for higher levels of politics, those other arenas, other battles, nor the lofty separation of politician from the electorate such roles entail. But some of it is relevant to those who want to enter municipal politics; indeed to all levels of politics.

It’s a letter from the former leader of the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff. And a touching letter it is.

After an glorious entrance into politics, hailed as the next Pierre Trudeau, a towering intellectual giant among the pygmies, Ignatieff was eventually elected leader, then battled and buffeted by the political Pulcinellas – both internal and external – so badly he was turned into a caricature (as was his predecessor, Stephane Dion). And in the world of politics, you can survive being loved or hated, but not laughed at. His party failed miserably in the election.

Ignatieff resigned, then shuffled off ignominiously, back to academia. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Still, I had great respect for him, for his intellect, and tremendous empathy for his travails. It’s hard to be a man with honour on that field.

In this letter, posted on The New Republic, he writes to an admirer who asked his advice about entering politics. Ignatieff opens by stating,

All I’d claim is that my thoughts come with what Scott Fitzgerald called “the authority of failure.”

I think as most politicians realize (or come to realize once in office), failure may not always be of your own making in a world of increasingly personal, negative and angry politics where blame is cast about like birdseed on a windy day. Even success can be framed as a failure by opponents, and the message spread by the channels of newspeak: social media, well outside the control of any politician’s spin.

Dissembling, combined with egregious nastiness, has long been a signature component of politics. Ignatieff seems not to have recognized this until he was already swimming with the piranhas:

I had the vocation for politics. What I didn’t have was any aptitude for political combat. I took the attacks personally, which is a great mistake. It’s never personal: It’s just business. It was ever thus. You can prepare yourself for combat by going in as a staffer, watching it from the sidelines, as I did when I was in my twenties, but believe me, when you step in the ring yourself, the first punch always comes as a shock. That’s when you’ll know, as you snap your head back into place, whether your first instinct is fight or flight.

I went into politics thinking that, if I made arguments in good faith, I’d get a hearing. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. In five and a half years in politics up north, no one really bothered to criticize my ideas, such as they were. It was never my message that was the issue. It was always the messenger.

So  the sleeper awakes and is surprised to find tares growing among his carefully-sown wheat. You could argue that a more prepared farmer might have guarded his field better, but it’s artless to think that no field will ever be subject to weeds. They grow regardless of the effort put into cultivation.* But a newly-elected party leader should have heeded Machiavelli’s words, from Ch. 6 of The Prince:

…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Politics have come a long way since Quintus Cicero wrote this advice  in 64 BCE on campaigning for office to his brother, Marcus; advice today that seems naively ignorant and vulnerable. But then, Cicero never trod through the brambled fields of social media:

For those who don’t like you without good cause, try to win them over by being kind to them or doing them a favor or by showing concern for them.

Perhaps as a historian, Michael was more swayed by Cicero than the online trolls. If so, he should have read Polybius first. In the second century BCE, the Greek historian wrote that “the masses are always fickle, filled with lawless desires, unreasoning anger and violent passions.” They were then; two millennia later the masses are still thus today, although their haunts are not the street corners; rather they are the pages and feeds of Facebook and Twitter.

Again, Machiavelli recommended in The Prince (Ch. 14) that leaders have to be first and foremost prepared for combat:

A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study but war and it organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands.

Two years ago I penned my own thoughts on entering municipal politics. In a similar vein, I wrote:

Be prepared to have your integrity questioned, your honesty assaulted, your best efforts at being fair and open ridiculed, your wisdom and experience deprecated, your credibility and reputation eroded.

Be prepared for you and your decisions to be publicly insulted, ridiculed, dismissed and your sanity questioned. Be prepared to be misunderstood, to have simple mistakes or innocent comments turned into public humiliations, to have off-the-cuff remarks hung around you like an albatross. Be prepared for misinformation and disinformation to be used against you, sometimes deliberately, sometimes maliciously.

And you will make mistakes, Trust me. Humans naturally do, but when you are in politics, those mistakes will stay with you.

In his now-famous 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote:

In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.

And, as the late publisher, Ernest Benn wrote, sometimes it doesn’t matter what your intentions are, or even who your opponents are – the result is always a bollocks because that’s the way of the system:

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy

As Cassius said to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Michael Ignatieff can’t blame anyone but himself for not being prepared or for foundering the quicksand. He walked through the door of politics by himself. He could have said no, but he saw the brass ring and it proved irresistible. Power, position, publicity, and, of course, a bullet-proof, gold-plated pension for life are hard to resist. As Bernard once said on Yes Minister,

“No one really understands the true nature of fawning servility until he sees an academic who has glimpsed the prospect of money or personal publicity.”

There’s a certain, poignant nostalgia for days when politics were more civil, more about issues than people, more focused on building up than tearing down. If, of course, those days ever really existed outside the imagination of academics like Ignatieff or idealists like myself. More and more, I’ve come to think they’re more akin to The Music Man: an entertaining fiction about a past that never happened.


* Lenin had a different take on the parable, and a very different approach to the proletariat as well. But Lenin was the consummate politician.

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