We see through the rank opportunists, eventually

The pressures of modern politics grind the petty player down, intimidating them into mere survival mode.


Humans, to feel at ease in the world, need a sense of right order, and it is the business of politics to ensure that one essential dimension of that order, its social frame, remains firm.
Humans, to feel at ease in the world, need a sense of right order, and it is the business of politics to ensure that one essential dimension of that order, its social frame, remains firm.

Politics has commanded centrestage from the start of 2020. Government decisions have become far more serious than the normal steering of the ship of state during tranquil times. The moment is opportune to reflect on the inner logic and necessity.

The political leader is first among equals in a democracy, doing the most important job in the society. Leading philosophers have argued the case, from Plato to Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Today, from the amount of attention given to commentary on politics, including political gossip — in the media, in casual gatherings, in clubs and pubs, in cafes and around dining tables — the wider community is in accord.

Thomas Hobbes put the argument succinctly in 1651. A strong state is essential for the wellbeing of individuals and their communities. When government is either absent or paralytically weak a society will spiral down into anarchy – the state of nature typified by the war of all against all: “In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

This view of the state of nature, which threatens when government ails, is inherently conservative. As are the political instincts of the vast majority of modern citizens, tuned in to the dire consequences of political failure. They know their wellbeing is dependent on good government – prosperity, work, leisure, stable family and pleasant everyday life.

The truth of the Hobbes axiom may still be observed today, even given less extreme effects. With the Covid-19 pandemic, dithering governments in Britain and the US condemned their populations to relatively high infection and mortality rates: Britain had 2000 deaths per million population, the US 1600 and Australia 36.

The citizenry observes its politics in part as theatre – at one and the same time, both deeply serious drama and entertainment.

Politics provides a very public stage on which egos strut and virtue is preached; on which careers soar and reputations are ruined. It offers front-page celebrity, glory, long-lasting fame, and occasionally a people’s gratitude. Its determinations govern the rise and decline of nations, and it is ever-present and everywhere — all day, every day, without a break, and remorselessly onwards, to the degree that its inescapability may become tiresome for both player and onlooker.

Much of government effort is dourly, gruelingly mundane, spent putting out spotfires, problems that keep rising, like pimples from out of nowhere, and need addressing. Rushed action is often required – the quick assembly of facts, soliciting of opinion, followed by a hasty decision and the management of dissent, including a strategy for public relations.

The exercise may change into one of shifting blame, denying responsibility and sitting out difficulties, hoping they will be forgotten, which they usually are.

Cover-up, to the extreme of occasional lying, becomes necessary, and justifiable, as long as the deceit doesn’t become excessive. The weaker the government, the more energy spent in shifting blame.

Public political good

Rationalisation, one of the Freudian defences against feelings of personal guilt, runs riot. The self-interest of the politician is routinely rationalised as public good – “this policy is for the good of the people, not for advancing my career, deflecting attention from my bungle last week, or soliciting votes; I am a good person”.

Groucho Marx satirised the common hypocrisy when he acted the role of politician and proclaimed vehemently at the climax of an election speech before a live audience: “Those are my principles; and if you don’t like them, I’ll change them.”

Politics is the royal theatre for lampoon and caricature – indeed, the source of their comedic life blood. From Aristophanes in classical Athens, to William Hogarth in 18th-century London, and on to cartoonists in the contemporary media, all pen satire – ranging in tone from the bemused to the bitter – exposing deceit, arrogance and hypocrisy.

The more power, the stronger the public need to scrutinise, belittle and tear down. For, wherever there are battles for power – conducted at high-octane pressure – there will be temptations and moral shortcuts, and there will be sex scandals, as mocked in lurid squalor by Hogarth. This is soap opera mayhem with deeply serious real-world consequences.

Some of the worst of human character defects are on public show.

Politics attracts a variety of types, including monumentally self-inflated narcissists, seeking a spotlight under which to strut in puffed-up importance, going on to ruthlessly wield power like a primitive club, while displaying the empathy of a great white shark.

Former prime ministers and rivals Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have become allies of sorts, post-politics.
Former prime ministers and rivals Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have become allies of sorts, post-politics.

There is vicious competition, often between members of the same party. C.D Kemp said that politics is like cricket, in that everyone wants you, as batsman, to fail – the opposition and your own teammates watching on from the dressing room. Ministers promise loyalty to a current leader, while everyone knows that the moment self-interest calls, most will break their pledge with hardly a splutter.

Former leaders, after being ousted from power, may have as their greatest passion putting down in mocking contempt those who succeed them, while sometimes bragging insecurely about their own magnificent achievements — in public displays of envy and rancour that are embarrassing in their transparency.

The motives on display in politics are little different from those driving most people in ordinary, everyday life, at work and play, in family and socialising – people with their own hopes, fears and ambitions, and their own insecurities, hypocrisies and sadistic competitive urges. Those looking on are grossly deluded if they think that they are more innately virtuous than those on stage.

Moreover, the political stage offers little more, in reality, than a magnified opportunity for the general human impulse to dream a life. The difference is that the dream – of personal glory, of influence, of saving the nation and making the world a better place – is subject to more gruelling competitive pressures and entropic drag-weight than in any other work­place.

The pressures usually grind the petty player down, intimidating him or her into mere survival mode, tired and depleted, with hopes tattered and performances lacklustre.

Then there is the dead wood. All major parties carry a lot of flab, their backbenches littered with members who do very little, apart from pocketing large salaries. They provide a contrasting idle extreme to ministers, who tend to work 16-hour days, seven days a week. With little talent or ambition, these backbenchers infect parliament with a pall of inertia.

Politics also provides a public spectacle open to psychopathological projections from the audience. Individuals across class, gender and ethnicity are provided with a public screen onto which to project murderous hatred of authority – a minister is violently denigrated as if they were an intimately known family member intent on personal assault.

The intensity of emotional investment is way out of proportion to the facts. Political leaders stand proxy in the disturbed mind for an authoritarian father or boss, a powerful wife, a favoured brother or sister.

Politicians may be turned on with a good conscience, because they move at an abstract distance; indeed, they are abstractions, like puppets in a Punch and Judy show. Onlookers may go whack without fear of retaliation, enjoying euphoric cathartic release from their own bad characters.

Tribal community

Politics also offers a venue for the playing out of ancient tribal bonds. Large minorities will ally themselves with a political party for life – although today this attach­ment is diminishing. The bond is visceral and not compromised by poor performance, corruption and mediocre representa­tives.

Tribes may become viciously irrational in their hatred of the other side. Their own tribe is supplied with ideological mantras, analogous to church doctrine, giving its believers a trusted cue card for their rants. Nowhere in modern life is there such a monomania of angry self-righteousness and sanctimonious moralising as expressed by both Left and Right extremes of the political divide. Meanwhile, within the tribe, feelings of community, shared belief, and collective affinity make for the warm inner glow of solidarity.

Politics as entertainment is illustrated on election night with the vote count. Elections simulate sporting events.

Bob Brown at a Stop Adani rally in Mackay in 2019.
Bob Brown at a Stop Adani rally in Mackay in 2019.

As the evening plays out, the excitement mounts to the climax, with seats swinging, parties ebbing and flowing, psephologists charting and commentators – drawing on knowledge from exit polls – predicting. The climax provides a unique intersection of entertainment and the making of history.

Adroit political leaders will be able to exploit the theatrical side of their role. Paul Keating scoffed in Australian parliament at Andrew Peacock’s becoming opposition leader for the second time: “the souffle never rises twice”.

He was cleverly picking up on Peacock’s image as a vain dilettante, hinted at in his surname. On the other side of politics, Robert Menzies was once heckled at a campaign rally: “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Lord God himself.” Menzies replied: “Madam, if I were the Lord God, I wouldn’t have you in my electorate.”

Competent government is a beautiful thing to behold. So much militates against it. In the Australian parliamentary system, the range of talents required in a successful leader is dauntingly broad. The leader must hold the party together; keep authority over cabinet and notably master the policy issues that are brought to the table by different ministers; and have the presence and the wit to dominate debate in the house, which functions like a boxing ring, with each side slugging it out trying to land punches – a bland lead performance can demoralise a team.

The leader also requires rapport with the electorate, a capacity to put the government’s case clearly and convincingly; and, above all, he or she needs the inner resources to project an image before the public of composed, intelligent, high competence. Charm helps, so does shrewd practical judgment, and political nous is required in dealing with the relentless challenges.

One sign of competent government is in reduced public attention paid to it – it gets politics out of the media. When the citizenry trusts that civic power is in good hands, it feels free to return to its own everyday affairs.

Good government, finally, needs to plan, to reform and innovate, even if its disposition is conservative. Times change, econo­mies become less productive and efficient without invigoration, bu­reaucracies become sclerotic and societies in stasis may stagnate.

Good government is not exhausted by the struggle for survival, as essential as that Darwinian struggle is. It requires some vision about the nation’s wellbeing and how to plot a path forward.

While vision in politics is dangerous – at the extreme, the idealism of the French Revolution that led to its opposite when put into practice – some vision is required to negotiate the future.

Art of balance

Shakespeare’s King Henry IV lamented: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Sociologist Max Weber described the vocation of politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards”. Machiavelli warned that no one concerned about the state of their own soul should enter these doors. Saints do not belong in politics; further, they are likely to be very bad at the work required. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Edmund Burke’s less polemical formulation was that the art of politics requires balancing principle and circumstance – principles are necessary, but there are situations in which, if they don’t bend to meet the demands of the moment, the branch may break. Ruin can follow.

At the same time, politicians without any principles, or beliefs, have nothing to stabilise them against the surging tempests of their own ambition and no anchor to hold them steady in the rough seas of circumstance. In a modern democracy, the electorate tends to see through rank opportunists, eventually.

Then PM Paul Keating attacks opposition leader John Hewson for re-releasing Fightback during question time in the House of Representatives chamber in Canberra.
Then PM Paul Keating attacks opposition leader John Hewson for re-releasing Fightback during question time in the House of Representatives chamber in Canberra.

The wellbeing of the state may require decisions to be taken that send men into battle, where some will be killed; force economic parameters to be changed, condemning some businesses to bankrupt­cy; and, given budget constraints, limit support for lifesaving drugs, resulting in the shortening of lives. There will be times when, for a leader to stay in power, which is for the longer-term good of the nation, he or she may be required to betray allies, to plot unconscionable stratagems and to smile in public with utter duplicity.

On occasion, a grave decision has to be made, although the cases for and against are opaque. Leadership means the decision has to be made, despite lack of clarity, and once made stuck to, with responsibility taken for consequences. I, and I alone, am to blame is the reflection of political integrity.

Further, extraordinary energy, stamina and nerve are required for political leadership, and it is no surprise that the faces of many leaders age at a startling rate.

The unique pressures and demands of the top office are signalled in the fact that it is never possible to know, in advance, whether a person will be up to the job. The obvious choice, given a vacancy, is usually a successful, experienced No.2 – but there is no guarantee that they will have the capacity to make the large jump to the top level.

Some victors have been underestimated – for example, US Presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. It is more common, however, for a new leader to be over-estimated, by an electorate tired of the old order, keenly aware of its faults, and driven by the very human hope for something better. The hope that springs eternal is a risky sentiment in politics.

Whatever the circumstances, a new leader will need to grow into the office – some do and some don’t. They will probably not themselves know whether they have the requisite capacity and fortitude. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have been overwhelmed by melancholy doubts in the months between election and assuming the presidency.

The opposite is more common, of someone of monumental ego and grandiose vanity, combined with poor self-knowledge, charging into office, taking for granted that they will be great at the job.

Psychic pressure

One extraordinary exception to Machiavelli’s warning about keeping virtue out of politics was Lincoln. He steered the US through its most traumatic period, the 1861-65 civil war.

Lincoln is revered even more for the singular man he was, symbolised in his frame, standing an angular six foot four in height, shabbily dressed, head characteristically bowed, wild unkempt hair, large nose, face gouged with lines, and punctured with deeply melancholy eyes.

Perhaps most extraordinary was the weight Lincoln bore through the years of his presidency, the phenomenal and relentless psychic pressure of four years of struggle. He had to hold his fractious Republican Party together, split as it was between radical abolitionist and moderate conservative wings. He had to hold his cabinet of advisers together, despite constant bickering and explosive rivalries. He had to repeatedly calm his tortured wife.

During the first two years of the war, which went badly for the Union, he had to familiarise himself with military strategy and find competent generals. He was a shrewd judge of human character and competence, and across a broad front. Some of his speeches are among the finest ever penned.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Picture: Kenny Rogers
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Picture: Kenny Rogers

Lincoln would take the big and difficult decisions on his own, often after long deliberation. Once taken, he would never go back on what he had decided. He was famous for his calm and measured affability; and his upbeat cheerfulness even after the worst reverses of fortune. He never bore grudges, and always tried to reconcile and placate. He embodied his own words: “with malice toward none; with charity for all”. The nation came to love him.

The Lincoln example shows that politics is not just the profane slow and hard boring of hard boards; nor just the profane slugging it out to the death in the boxing ring of parliament, although Lincoln himself spent prodigious energy on drilling hardboards and persuading difficult people.

Politics has a metaphysical dimension, as does most else that humans engage in. Lincoln the man lit up the invisible canopy that hovers over the very mundane murk of politics, lit it up like a night sky of stars emerging from behind storm clouds to flicker over the silent eerie gloom of a just abandoned battlefield.

He inspired a nation in its darkest time, lifting it above the sadness and horror of civil war, and putting an end to the evil of slavery. Humans, to feel at ease in the world, need a sense of right order, and it is the business of politics to ensure that one essential dimension of that order, its social frame, remains firm.

John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University.

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