I wrote yesterday about the scourge of the newly-minted career politician, and the damage that this particular breed of “public servant” is doing to the perception of politics in the United States and the United Kingdom.
I received a rather surprising amount of feedback on this piece, both in support and in dissent, so I thought it worth my while to clarify and expand upon my position.
My point was not that all young politicians or wannabe politicians are bad people, or that they are bad for our politics on an individual basis. There are many examples of young MPs or congressmen who do fine work on behalf of their constituencies or districts, and who go above and beyond the call of duty to champion important issues and causes. For evidence we need look only at the work of Labour MP Stella Creasy in her campaign to crack down on illegal loan shark activities in Britain, or Patrick Murphy, US congressman from Florida, who was so incensed by some of the extremist rhetoric coming from the mouth of his then-incumbent representative, Tea Party favourite Allen West, that he switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to run against him.
The point is not that being young and untested in the world makes one automatically unfit for public service. The point is that because the overwhelmingly predominant route into political office now favours people such as this – especially those who find themselves in the fast track to even higher office and power – we end up with a type of uniformity of temperament and experience in our legislatures and executives that can be quite damaging.
Many people remarked, after the death of Margaret Thatcher, that the age of the conviction politician is now over. And this is largely true. Those who remain tend to be the old dinosaurs from the past, and even they are dying out or retiring. Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion” senator from Massachusetts, is dead. Glenda Jackson, my local constituency MP for Hampstead & Kilburn in London, is retiring at the end of this parliament.
There is, at least in the United States, a countervailing force against the move away from conviction politics in the form of the Tea Party. I happen to find their particular convictions rather false and opportunistic (ObamaCare is socialism but MediCare is great, government spending is terrible, but we only just realised this in the Age of Obama…), but there is nonetheless that sense of ideological purpose underlying what those politicians say and the way in which they vote. A better example might be the more principled small government libertarianism of former Texas congressman Ron Paul, and his son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul.
And in the United Kingdom, the UK Independence Party sent shockwaves through the British political establishment after their recent successes in the local council elections in England, largely because they campaigned as the Conservative Party But With Principles, rather than on a continually-triangulating, consensus-seeking David Cameron Tory platform.
I also received feedback from other readers telling me that “hated” is a rather strong word, and that people tend to be indifferent to politics rather than truly hating it. This is a fair point, to a degree – many people are so zoned out and entranced by the world of reality TV and other inane distractions that they just don’t know or care about politics, and are unable to connect the dots and understand how political decisions impact their lives.
But having stood on the main street in my town, campaigning with my hometown MP in the run-up to the 2010 general election, I can also say with absolute certainty that there is a deep contempt, and yes, hatred, that goes well beyond mere indifference to what goes on in Westminster or Washington. As I spoke to members of the public on the street and handed out campaign literature, there were many people who expressed their revulsion against politicians of all parties, and were happy to back up their arguments with a litany of (sometimes rather irrefutable) reasons why.
When I first started work I sat next to a stridently anti-political man at my office, and had terrible trouble convincing him that some politicians were really motivated by the desire to do good, and in fact were not engaged in the devil’s own work. When our argument spread to the wider office, I found myself firmly in the minority.
The fact remains that in both the United Kingdom and the United States, we have gravitated toward a system where the path of least resistance toward high political office favours the young career politician who has no real prior experience in the world, and little intention of ever doing anything else (aside, perhaps from a lucrative lobbying position should they be unlucky enough to lose their seat).
These people are not necessarily worse than the various other breeds of politician in the Westminster/Washington zoo. But too much of any one species tends to upset the ecosystem, and that is exactly where we find ourselves today – with too many carp in the fish pond.