COLUMN: Too many team players in politics

Why do politicians humiliate themselves so?

COLUMN: Too many team players in politics

They could all get good jobs elsewhere.

That’s the thing I keep coming back to when I read of politicians willing to debase themselves at behest of their party leaders.

In Canada and the United States, politicians regularly subject themselves to humiliation, either to curry the favour or avoid the wrath of more-senior politicians. Occasionally, they’ll even call their party leader their boss, even though the electorate is the one with the sole ability to terminate a political career.

This, of course, is most frighteningly obvious in the United States, where Republican leaders have been publicly supporting their president while, behind the scenes, expressing worry that he’ll start a nuclear war. If you’re being generous, you can excuse his cabinet for sticking around in order to prevent catastrophe. But there’s no such benefit of the doubt to be given to members of other branches of government who refrain from speaking out about the danger they believe their country to be in.

The situation there renders somewhat quaint any concerns about groveling Canadian politicians. But it should expose the risks that unprincipled politics creates.

Canadian political parties of all stripes show almost no willingness to let MLAs and MPs deviate from talking points. Sure, a backbencher will occasionally make news for expressing some fringier views on topics far outside the mainstream. But when it comes to serious issues of the day, politicians are expected to regurgitate party dogma. The exclamation mark is for your party’s ideas; the question mark for the other party’s. Mixing up the too is B-A-D.

These are men and women who, by and large, have serious records of public service. They enter office genuinely wanting to improve the lives of constituents, I believe. And yet, a combination of our political system and human nature ends up reducing them to automatons controlled by and for their party leaders.

Imagine you’re a new MLA. You’ve joined a political party, won your election and are now sitting in the legislature. You are a member of a team. That word – “team” – is used a lot in this new place and it sounds good to you. It means support, camaraderie and working towards a common cause. It means winning.

Repeating talking points isn’t a bad thing, but rather what’s expected of the loyal team player you consider yourself to be. “Team player” was even on your first resume.

There’s also power, although that’s not how you think of it. You entered politics to make a difference; whatever your role at the present moment, you aspire to a higher position where you’ll have a greater ability to improve the lives of your constituents. Do lone wolves who can’t be trusted to do as directed get such important jobs? They do not. And so, you follow orders – at least for now, you tell yourself.

You will stand out there, repeating the words given to you by the public relations people. You stay on message. And you bury that nagging thought that suggests that you – an accomplished individual, (with other job prospects!) – are just a cog in a machine.

That machine is working for your constituents. It hasn’t turned against its masters, you tell yourself. If it does, then you’ll speak up.

Then.