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The Quintessential Democratic Politician

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By:Claude Polin | April 24, 2017


What follows is an attempt to portray not the typical statesman, as he repeatedly appeared in the course of Western history up to yesterday, but the average professional politician of our times, the man (or woman) whose chosen trade is to govern his (or her) fellow citizens.

Any ruler must somehow be subordinate to the nature of the society he rules.  But in all societies other than democracies, the rulers have some leeway, precisely because as rulers they set the course that the body of citizens must follow.

On the contrary, the democratic politician theoretically has no leeway at all, for the simple reason that he is not supposed to have any.  Indeed, no one can disagree that democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  This obviously implies that in a democracy there is no legitimate ultimate ruler other than those who are supposed not to be ruled: “the people,” as they are usually referred to.  Democracy means the sovereignty of the people.  This is the sacred founding dogma to which all citizens are supposed to defer—so sacred that the very existence of some citizens ruling over others should be a scandal in a democracy, unless the latter be understood as mere slaves obeying the orders of their masters.

That is the principle.  But the disturbing fact—one that should be obvious, although democratically incorrect to mention—is that the people is a nonexistent entity, a purely abstract notion devoid of any constant empirical content, with the result that its definition is arbitrary and subject to constant interpretation.  There is a logical reason for this.

Any unifying of different parts into a whole comes from the subordination of those same parts to something that is beyond them all.  A heap of sand is not an entity, because each grain constitutes a self-contained entity of its own superseded by none other (since they are all the same) and by nothing (since there is no privileged shape for the heap).  In a similar manner, since all individuals in a democracy are supposed to be sovereigns, their uniting basically rests upon an individual consent whose motive is definitely individual.  The underlying philosophy of democracy is that every man is a self-contained (though not self-sufficient) island, a perfect and solitary whole, as Rousseau used to say.  This is why democracies are by nature contractual regimes—i.e., societies which, by definition, have no substance other than a free association that each citizen enters only because he deems it somehow useful to join it.  What, then, can “the people” in a democratic society be, apart from a constantly revocable, mutable, and therefore indefinable or ghostly entity whose cohesion and permanence is the product of the brute force of mere habit?

The same may be said of the so-called will of the people.  It is readily obvious that it is highly improbable that an aggregate of individuals, whose primary right is for each to obey his own free will, may end up having anything resembling a common will.  (Indeed it is enough for the average democrat that the will of the people be equated with the will of the majority; this amounts to confessing that the will of the people is actually the will of the greater number imposed by sheer force upon the smaller one.  It should be added that, taking into account the number of abstentions, a “majority” in Western countries represents at most 30 percent of a constituency.)

Take the example of France.  In 1789 “the people” (individuals enjoying the rights of citizens to the full extent) started at the upper-middle class level; in 1848 it was decided that “the people” would include all male citizens above the age of 21; then in 1945 it grew to include women, and in 1975 young people above age 18.  Today, there is a constant influx of immigrants who become part of “the people” (after five years’ residency), mostly in order to obtain the welfare benefits attached to the passport, though determined to retain their own cultural identity.  And, to top it all, what constitutes the sovereign people may depend on the electoral system.  (In France more than 20 percent of the voting people don’t get represented at all.)  How more arbitrary could the definition of the people be?

Most modern Americans have forgotten the incontrovertible fact that they were originally white Europeans, Protestants and Catholics, a core around which the new immigrants could fuse, at least to some extent.  Unaware of the nature of earlier immigration, Americans today believe they will be the first nation to be an endlessly metamorphic entity, relying on a miracle to retain some sort of identity, despite a constant influx of heterogeneous components.  As is the case in France, one may wonder who “the people” of the United States of America actually are.

Only by keeping in mind these two basic factors—the sovereignty of the people as a principle and the indeterminate nature of the people as a fact—can one understand the predicament confronting the typical politician in a democracy.  His universe is two-sided, and like a ball in a pinball machine he ceaselessly rebounds from one wall to the other: On one hand, he is the repository of the sovereignty of an elusive sovereign, which makes him the de facto sovereign; on the other, only “the people” are supposed to be sovereign, which makes him a de jure usurper.

The standard representative of “the people” is not supposed to be anything but the mirror image of the people’s sovereign will, its passive executive officer.  But since nobody knows, including himself, exactly who “the people” are or what may actually be the common will of their indeterminate aggregate, the people and their will end up being embodied in their only visible manifestation, which is the elected politician himself and his particular will.  “The people” are merely whatever their representatives may be.  The political world is an inverted one: “The people” become the subjects of those who are supposed to be the servants of “the people,” while the representatives, who are supposed to bow to the voice  of “the people,” become their masters.

And masters they are.  Having inherited the sovereignty of “the people,” theirs is a natural propensity to arbitrary power, to feeling entitled not only to make whatever decisions they please, but to consider these decisions wise, since they are said to be “the people’s.”  And theirs is a jealous power, resentful of any other that might challenge them.  Moreover, where only the popular will is a legitimate one, it naturally should have a say in whatever matter it pleases—hence the tendency of all politicians ceaselessly to invade and legislate the private lives of ordinary citizens.  There is a built-in totalitarian streak in the democratic politician’s mentality.  By the same logic, since the centralization of power is only natural to democracies, because the people are the only decisionmakers, and no man can have two heads, it would be a true miracle if the collective body of politicians were not to take advantage of such a proclivity, and another miracle if each of them didn’t claim to embody the will of the people better than the others.  (Democracy is the natural breeding ground for all sorts of Robespierres.)  And finally, why shouldn’t they all unashamedly enjoy wielding their illegitimate but lawful power?  Since they are the people’s de facto will, there is no higher authority.  Whatever they do, they are irresponsible, blameless, generally beyond any court’s reach; their persons are sacred and immune to prosecution—and their own constituency cannot help being hard put to indict those it is supposed to have selected to represent them.

On the flip side, “the people,” whose sovereignty the democratic politician is supposed to reflect, is but an indeterminate entity.  The politician is doomed to choose (or strike a balance) between catering to a more determinate but smaller fraction of the people, on the one hand, and pleasing a larger one—a potential majority that is a multiple, heterogeneous, and changing aggregate—on the other.  In both cases, while he is arrogant as the embodiment of the sovereign people, he must also be a particularly fickle, spineless, and all in all servile species of man, because he is always after available votes.  He is in the position of a servant eager to please but with so many masters that he doesn’t know exactly which one he should obey first, like a weathervane spinning with the strongest wind—which is why so many politicians are devoid of personality and rather bland or mediocre men who play the strongman only when they feel enough people are expecting them to do so.

There is a point at which politicians become so obsequious as to lose all personal substance and distinguishable characteristics.  There is nothing more hollow or shallow than a politician’s speech, since the vaguer his words, the greater his chances of reaching the requisite number of voters.  Hence, for instance, there is no word he loves more than change: He is the messiah who, if elected, will change everything.  (The politicians of the French Revolution, democrats if there ever were any, did not beat around the bush: They kept proclaiming they were in the process of creating the world and man anew—and, of course, making them perfect.)  Another favorite catchphrase of today’s politician is social justice: In a democratic society discontent runs high—after all, citizens expect to be kings but never are—so his standard stance is that of the white knight who will right all wrongs.  Still another of his standard expressions is tax the wealthy: The usual politician is the new Robin Hood preying upon the (supposed) rich to give to the (supposed) poor; taxes and welfare payments sum up the standard platform.

All in all, the democratic politician is doomed to be a whore whose main and almost exclusive concern is not to have a single thought of his own, but to be alluring to the greatest number of potential clients.  (Those who strive to be truthful don’t get elected or remain marginal.)  Panem et circenses—the old trick is more than ever a modern one, except that today’s Caesars take part in the show themselves, to the point of, more often than not, being unashamed to play the contortionists.

Summing up these first two points, I’m drawn to the conclusion that the democratic politician’s essence is that of an oxymoronic creature, a skittish, jumpy despot.

I want to add a third equally flattering touch to this portrait.  Politicians in our democracies are supposedly vested with some competence for the often prestigious functions they fulfill: An election is a selection, and though the people are not embarrassed to admit they are unable to govern themselves (since they are willing to elect rulers), they are called upon to designate by whom they should be ruled.  But even supposing “the people” to be an identifiable entity, how the heck could they comprehend a quality that they themselves admittedly do not possess?  Moreover, if the people are only a heterogeneous aggregate, who is he (or she) to know what is good for them all—for the whole—since, by definition, there cannot be anything common to them all?  And again, how could a democratic society constitute a whole?  Is it not a system in which every citizen is entitled to pursue his own private aims—be it at the expense of his neighbors—and not be subordinate to any restraint that would hinder his effort to attain them?  There can be statesmen only when there is a state: When there is none, there is no common good, and there cannot be any competence for serving that good.  The only skill a representative may legitimately claim is to be an efficient tool—a technocrat.  But the real issue is to determine wisely the end to be pursued for the sake of the whole, and such an end cannot exist if there is no whole.  What competence could a politician then have in a democracy?

This suggests there is a fourth trait typical of the democratic representative.  If he is not chosen for his statesmanship, then there is no reason why he should be chosen at all.  Which means that if he is actually designated, it must be because he has been artificially presented as the self-evident candidate—in other words, because the whole process of the designation of leaders in a democracy is a contrived operation.  A representative in a democracy has to be the product of an electoral machine.  As a matter of fact, what else makes sense?  How could any given individual, inside a huge aggregate whose members are all supposed to have equal standing, possibly stand out enough to be noticed by all, if not because he is raised on the shoulders of some whose particular job is to prop him up?  (This is, by the way, precisely the essential function of a political party.)

But then, if this is indeed the case, it means that all the pallbearers must have a special interest in supporting their candidate.  It could be argued they are men devoted to the well-being, the power, and the glory of the whole—to the national interest—but again one must then presuppose that there actually exists a whole, a nation.  If not, the only logical inference is that all members of the electoral machine are geared to private interests—usually presented, of course, not as selfish ones but as the very embodiment of the true public ones.  A representative in a democratic system is basically an investment made by political entrepreneurs (the electoral machine is a costly one always looking for more funding), whether investing their personal money or acting as brokers for sponsors, but in both cases expecting dividends.  This makes the politician a salesman for sale, chosen for his ability to attract audiences by his smile, his looks, his joviality, or his talent for team-playing and play-acting according to the mood of his spectators.  If a politician represents not the public interest but a particular one (his party’s), either he does so out of personal choice but still strives to present a particular interest as a general one, or he does not care and merely gets paid for defending it.  In either case he is a politician in order to make a living, if not a fortune—unless it is merely for the perks and the limelight.  Politics is not an altruistic business, but one that pays better than many others without being mentally demanding.

The stage does not accommodate an indefinite number of actors.  Hence, the politician’s principal activity—his fifth feature—is to stay in business (to be reelected).  Which again boils down to one activity: ruining his competitors.  He must, on the one hand, prevent outsiders from setting up shop.  (Politics is an exclusive club, discouraging new memberships; the voters are always presented only the members of the club, and Mr. Smith seldom goes to Washington.)  On the other hand, he must saw off the board on which his colleague is standing (which is why politicians hate the clean ones, an endangered species on whom they have no hold).

To conclude, I feel tempted to ask the famous question imagined by the French socialist aristocrat C.H. de Saint-Simon about the political elites of the 1820’s: What would happen if they all suddenly died?  The answer could be this: nothing, except that the country would fare better, because the actual working portion of the population would be left to manage its own affairs to the best of its ability.  Unfortunately, it is too much to hope for, mainly for a paradoxical reason: While the masses are often wont to criticize the political class (or to worship it, but only until they realize the hollowness of its promises), they nevertheless keep an undying faith in democracy (the worst of all regimes, apart from all the others).  This is a common affliction—dyspeptic people yearn for water—but a nonetheless incurable one: What other system offers the average citizen, if not actual sovereignty, at least an ability to demand to be treated as a sovereign?  It seems as if most citizens think, I may hate or despise this particular politician, but, all things considered, ultimately I have a say in his being or remaining where he is.

Then what can I say, except “Nolite confidere in principibus”?


From the November 2014 issue of Chronicles.


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