Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Politics and principle

As the name of this blog suggests, my political philosophy tries to be about maintaining a balance between idealism ("this is the way things should be") and pragmatism ("this is the way things are likely to be"). But as this blog's tagline also suggests, I find it all too easy to chuck both out the window and give in to my inner cynic. And this week, "resisting the pull of cynicism" has been particularly difficult.

Why resist, I hear some of you asking. In our culture, the cynics are the cool ones. No one ever rolls their eyes at a cynic--and besides, they've got the coolest clothes and all the best music. But cynicism is a profoundly lazy way of looking at politics. Scornfully believing that this whole endeavour is worthless because all public servants are scumbags and only out for personal gain--that's no less simplistic and naive than believing that everything will always turn out all right in the end. It takes a lot more brainpower to see politicians as human beings, each with a complex mixture of noble and self-serving goals, and evaluate each individual political act as it comes along instead of lumping it all into a single pile of suck at the first sign of unpleasantness. After a week like this one, though--after watching a prime minister whose whole campaign was about ethics and cleaning up government not only dismiss his own personal ethics, but blindly defend his poor choices over and over again just like our last prime minister always did--it's taken all my brainpower not to say "well, screw them all, then." And I'm not even a Conservative.

I tried to write a post earlier this week about how heartening it was to see so many of the Blogging Tories put aside partisanship and condemn the acts of David Emerson, Michael Fortier, and most of all, Stephen Harper. But the thing is, it wasn't heartening--it was sad. I feel terrible for all these people who had truly believed something extraordinary was going to happen with this government, many of whom worked long hours in their local campaigns, only to have their hopes crushed on the very first day. And the fact that so many of them are slipping into blind "screw them all" cynicism as the week stretches on only makes it harder to watch.

Enter Garth Turner, blogger and newly elected Member of Parliament for Halton:

I have written here many times over the past few months about my journey to become an MP again, and why I wanted to return to Ottawa. It was not to be a minister with a limo, but, as I explained, to try and empower elected people more, to make them relevant and free, so the voters would also become more empowered. And I campaigned to advance issues my middle class voters are so concerned with – things those families need and want.

But, I arrived as the prime minister was appointing a floor-crossing Liberal and an unelected party official to his cabinet, which seemed to fly in the face of everything I had told voters about accountability and democracy. It also made me question the whole process, after eight months of knocking on doors to win my coveted seat in this magnificent stone building on the banks of the Rideau.

Going from door to door turns a politician into a democrat. At least, it did for me. By the time I got to Parliament Hill, I was infused with the spirit of a new era in government, sated on the belief we would see freedom reign in the Chamber and that the days of subjugation of MPs by the prime minster’s office were numbered. I had swallowed with gusto promises of more free votes, more powerful committees of free-thinking MPs, more listening to the voters, and an elected and responsible Senate.

And, most importantly, I had taken that to the people. Change. The election was about change. I asked people in Halton to embrace the Conservatives as a modern, inclusive, mainstream, principled party of honest people committed to changing the system for the better. Finally. Something worth knocking on doors for in the dark and the cold. Something to believe in. Something to run for. Something on the Hill worth coming back for with a passion.

Sure, I thought the appointment of those two ministers was questionable. And after stating many a time that Belinda Stronach should have sought a by-election after her defection, how could I not say the same obvious thing now? It was simple for my constitutents to understand, and simple for me. I did not seek the microphones out, but when they were under my nose and a clear question was asked, I gave a clear answer.

Everybody who makes up the government should be elected. They should be elected as members of the party that forms the government. Anybody who switches parties should go back to the people. To do otherwise is to place politicians above the people when, actually, it’s the other way around.
If you read the comments on that post, you'll find that he's taking flak not only from his leader and his caucus, but also from many of his readers. But whether you agree with Turner's view of this week's events or not, and whether you agree with his decision to go public or not, you have to admit that his message is a powerful one that will outlast Emerson, Fortier, and even Harper. He's saying that loyalty to the people who gave him their votes is more important than loyalty to the powers that be. He's saying that when gamesmanship conflicts with principle, there's no contest. And most of all, he's saying that despite the beating his worldview has taken this week, he's not going to give in to the pull of cynicism.

This idealistic pragmatist salutes him.


Matt said...

I'm usually not able to resist my inner cynic as well as you are - and years of teaching are wearing away what little resistance I have. But I'm firmly in your camp on this issue. Not only am I pleased to see that Garth Turner has the courage of his convictions, but there seem to be a number of Conservative bloggers who have stuck to their guns on this issue as well. It has to be disillusioning for the true believers who campaigned believing that their party would in fact do things differently.

KevinG said...

Well, you have more respect for him than I think is warranted.

First, I think it's oversimplifying to say he remained loyal to people who voted for him over loyalty to the party. If all those people voted for him on the basis of not wanting floor crossers or appointed Senators then that might make sense. There were lots of reasons for voting for him, many of them had nothing to do with recent events and many are arguably compromised by his actions.

Two, when you're trying to protect the forest there are people who are willing to chain themselves to trees. There are people who work hard, negotiate, badger and advocate to get the logging permits revoked or changed.

Chaining yourself to a tree is a pretty effective opposition tactic. I'm not sure it works so well when you're the government and your new job is to get the logging permits revised.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Sorry to hear that teaching has made resisting the cynicism menace worse! I've actually found the opposite, but I tend to have eensy weensy little classes, so the population I teach to is probably not terribly representative.


Well, we're going to have to agree to disagree. When you've spent months campaigning on the notion that your party's government isn't going to be politics as usual, and you scrape through in a tough race by gaining the confidence of a bunch of people who wouldn't ordinarily vote for your party--and then your party goes and does a bunch of things it's railed at the other guys for doing, I'd say you're absolutely justified in chaining yourself to a tree or two.

That's not where my respect for Turner comes from, though. The Canadian disillusionment with politicians and the political process is a disease that the Liberals infected us with, but the Tories made it that much worse this week. None of the choices Harper made are all that horrendous in and of themselves, but his hypocricy in going against the sum total of what he campaigned on has damaged not just the Conservative Party, but Canadians' already shaky faith in their politicians. To me it's that that's the unforgiveable sin. Turner, on the other hand, seems to have quelled that sentiment, at least somewhat. This means that there are a whole whack of people out there now who yesterday were talking about how politicians are really all just lying scumbags, but today the've got a living, breathing exception to point to.

Turner is presenting himself not as an enemy of Stephen Harper, but as an enemy of political cynicism. And from where I sit, that's going to do a lot more for the long-term success of this country than one more backbencher toeing the party line.

KevinG said...

Well, it's OK to disagree.

Chaining touself to a tree is a dramatic and inspiring thing to do. In the end it changes nothing and requires very little courage.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I can't buy that--I think he's already changed something. Putting a dent in the Canadian electorate's collective cynicism isn't just changing something, it's changing something profound and essential.

KevinG said...


What would have been truly impressive would have been to express his disappointment in a way which didn't marginalize him forever. It would have been impressive to see someone disagree in a functional way -- to leave themselves in a position to do something useful and then do it.

I doubt you'll see that dent in 6 weeks time.

Anyway, as I've said before. I am merely a pragmatist.