In many corners of the globe, calling out the tyrannical practices of an over-zealous executive, corrupt judicial or archaic legislature is crucial for progress, peace and prosperity. In the most mature democracies of the developed world (“Western world” belongs on the Rolodex of anachronisms), we’ve all but forgotten what it means to worry about the sanctity our fundamental institutions. The pillars of our governments stand true and inviolable, and yet, for some reason, public discontent lingers. There is certainly plenty to complain about, and push-back is important, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume things really aren’t all that bad and could certainly be much worse. Why on Earth does everybody seem so damned anti-establishment? It is in times of crisis such as these when we should be coming together, not breaking apart. I believe it’s high time someone dared to stand up for (not to) the big man… He (or She) is having a rough time of it too.
Every generation clings to its own reasons for grumbling about the state of affairs. Rebelling against the old-fashioned, prohibitive and plainly “uncool” system of the elders has long been a hallmark of youth. Shouting in the street, gonna to take on the world someday: the teenage imperative to defy mum and dad matures into the young adult’s desire to change their future for the better (c.f. 1968 and 1989). The parents themselves, they can’t get no satisfaction either. Thanklessly toiling away, they deserve and need a bureaucratic scapegoat for the woes of the present: increasing debt, stagnating wages, falling purchasing power… Anarchistic children too? Surely it wasn’t this hard for their parents? Therein lurks your grandparent’s favourite n-word: nostalgia. The spectacles donned in middle-age (that’s not mockery, eyesight issues are on the rise) turn rose-coloured as the twilight years loom and more time is spent peering back than gazing forward. Yesterday, all their troubles seemed so far away, and as the bad fades from memory a longing for the good old days of yonder takes its place (despite the past sounding like a terrifying place to live what with the threat of nuclear annihilation and no seatbelts). Add to all that the phenomena that unites all demographics in the ultimate “us against them”: belittling the little man may be beneath most, but punching up has long proven to be an effective and socially acceptable bonding mechanism. By design, who is further “up” than our politicians? Thank God politics is always there for when the weather has the audacity to be “nice”. An abstraction largely shrouded in mystery (perhaps, I’ll admit, by design), with a dash of buzzwords here and a splash of regurgitated headlines there, common ground with the common man is easy to find. Spurred on by a divisive media and egged on by equally embittered peers, truly anything goes in a cathartic exasperation of criticism and insults. Do our politicians really deserve this onslaught?
Perhaps our quarrel isn’t with what they represent, but how they “do politics”. It’s not uncommon to hear that you must be a very specific type of person to become a politician. Not untrue. From there, no doubt someone will wisely supply the adage that those who yearn to rule therein display exactly the quality that should deny them the job (a paradox often traced back to a quote by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): the leadership Catch-22. Perhaps. Megalomania, self-aggrandisement, ego satiation, financial gain, exacting revenge… The list goes on, often heartily illustrated by real-world archetypes (we all know one/the one) until someone declares all politicians rotten scumbags who have no idea what they’re doing. That I can’t abide. There may be an above average prevalence of these proclivities at the top relative to the saintly citizenry, but some form of self-delusion or self-interest isn’t a symptom for the entire class. Many operate under honourable precepts and have a genuine ambition to improve the lives of their citizens, be that by combatting inequality, upgrading the education system or revitalising health services. Some degree of bewildering self-belief and disconnect from the inexhaustible opinions of others is necessary. Lamenting that they are not “like us” is to this end futile, akin to complaining that the pilot isn’t sitting back in Economy class with the majority of the passengers. The real mystery is why anyone would be bonkers enough to undertake such a seemingly impossible job in the first place. Politics is a mind-bogglingly complex game in which your fate becomes inextricably tied to the judgement of the masses. History shows that far from emerging intact, most reputations end up in tatters. Every leader at some point in his/her tenure has been awarded the label of “worst ever” by some group or another. A similar treatment is applied on a regular basis to their policies. The humdrum of habitual concerns such as deficits, migration and supranational alliances… All have paled in comparison to our current crisis. Squeezed between a rock and a hard place, governments must dispense with all clutter and direct all attention towards resolving this entirely novel calamity. Respond too quickly and you’re vilified for whipping up a panic, being too strict, too intrusive, and too domineering. Don’t respond speedily enough and you’re berated for burying your head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the severity of the situation, misleading and neglecting your duty. A daily briefing is too chaotic, a weekly strategy update is too lethargic. Mailing a letter to every household is antiquated, uploading selfie video messages is too hip. Without the slightest preparation, policymakers must now strike a bullseye on a moving target. Being “prepared” would have required copious funding; would you have consented to siphoning tax revenue into an improbable epidemic reserve? Some policies are ill-advised, some criticism is deserved, but unless you fundamentally believe that our politicians do not have our best interests at heart, some slack must also be extended given the circumstances.
We take for granted the fact that it is safe to assume that our government isn’t automatically trying to screw us over. Billions worldwide don’t share the privilege of electing their rulers. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried” said someone evidently far less historically significant than Winston Churchill. By way of a disclaimer, I am in no way deluding myself that overreach has never occurred: 9/11 was undeniably exploited by as a vehicle to advance an Orwellian surveillance agenda, the ensuing “war on terror” saw countless human rights abuses swept under the rug in the name of the greater good, and petrodollars regularly undermine environmentalist aspirations. I don’t seek to acquit of these crimes, I merely wish to indict the knee-jerk presumption of governmental guilt. Being aware of these excesses, of shady cabals with sinister secret agendas, does not mean malevolence reigns. It’s tricky to distinguish someone speaking truth to power when everyone is constantly speaking. It has become next to impossible to acknowledge that a member of the other side has done something not entirely awful without being cannibalised by your own. Conspiracy theories now spread like wildfire through social media, stoked by click-bait and engagement algorithms. The unopinionated are unprofitable. The sense of comradeship and belonging to an exclusive club of the enlightened means any attempt to discredit only reinforces the echo chamber. The unopinionated are unpopular. Listening to reason is boring. Either out of mistrust, stubbornness or as a braggadocious display of sangfroid, some choose to ignore vital social distancing measures. Others plunge headstrong the other way and stockpile essentials, depriving those who really need them. These people clearly don’t see the picture beyond the place they occupy in it (much like those opposed to vaccination), in the name of their own free-will. Hyper-individuality makes altruism an afterthought and any authoritative body a shackling enemy. Perhaps then, what’s needed is an individual, just like us, refreshingly free-thinking, forceful yet considerate, to see us through this darkest hour and restore our faith in the system and each other.
Now more than ever, we must trust our governments. We must because somebody has to take charge, someone has to have a plan and see the job through, in this catastrophe and all the others. We must because to not do so is to undermine the entire democratic edifice in which we live. Tearing down the house with a head full of lofty ideas without any concrete solutions is hardly constructive, if not destructive. There is a system of checks and balances, and the increasing fluidity of information makes it ever more prompt, pointed and potent. In wartime (shrewdly much alluded to at the moment), iron-willed leaders were lauded as we put aside our differences, rallied around them, pulled together and put on a brave face as one to stare down the menace. By all means question, scoff, pressure, urge and scowl, but, when necessary, accept that maybe you don’t know best, swallow your pride, shut up and do as you’re told.