The Epistle of Q — Chapter Ninety-Eight

We really do get the governments we deserve…

  • Two days ago the Penticton City Council, in a close vote (4-3), decided to give a developer an extension on a tax break even though the rules said no.
  • Yesterday I learned from one of the major polling firms that the Liberal Party of Canada hasn’t missed a beat even though their leader has been (once again) found in violation of the Code of Ethics he is supposed to adhere to.
  • The other day I heard someone wondering why the USA would elect the President they currently have.

What surprises me most about all this? Nothing…

I’m not longer surprised, disappointed yes but not surprised.

Long before President Trump was elected I came to realize that the American federal election was a crap shoot. All one has to do is watch the documentary, American Idealist, and realize how close the world could have come to never having Richard Nixon as USA President and thus likely being out of the Vietnam War in 1969 (1970 at the latest). And in the subsequent elections it didn’t matter who was running, with the possible exception of George Bush Sr. along with Jimmy Carter, there was something dark in the successful candidate’s past or present.

But it’s not for me to spend a great deal of your time in this Epistle, reflecting on the foibles of the USA electorate. We really aren’t any better here. Like the Americans, we elected as our Prime Minister a rich son who inherited most of his initial wealth – never really had a full time job, likes himself a great deal and tends to hang out in a limited circle of friends who protect him from the larger world. Moreover the leaders of the opposition parties are all ridiculed in one way or another in the mainstream media as being inadequately colourful and charismatic.

But that isn’t my main point today either. Rather I want to point out that politicians get elected by us. In fact we have the opportunity, for a small membership fee, to participate in the selection of party leaders as well as the local candidates in both the federal and provincial parliaments. Even more importantly, we can get fairly close to the entire process at the municipal level, no matter how large or small our urban community happens to be. If we aren’t interested in running for office, we at least can involve ourselves in the campaign of a Councillor if the mayoralty race is too large for our liking. So the political process is not something esoteric or far removed from each of our lives.

Therefore I think it is important that we own up to the fact that we get the governments we deserve. Why are there attack ads? Because we respond to them. Why do we get governments that make us cynical or annoyed? Because we elect people who are cynical and annoying. If we want a bit more insight, let me give you a perspective from one who spends a good deal of time teaching ethical reasoning. You can go elsewhere on this web-site and read a more comprehensive explanation of stage theory and moral reasoning (Kohlberg through the Sinclair Prism) but let me shorten the explanation for the purposes of this conversation.

Eighty percent [80%] of the adult population reasons at either Stage Three or Four (or some combination thereof). Stage Four is all about rules and norms – what are the expected behaviours and what does the book say are the ways of trying to determine if a person is reasoning at this level? Stage Three is all about image – what will my friends say about this behaviour or what will my hero think of me are a couple of ways to ascertain if a person is reasoning at this level? Some people manage to get beyond this to deal with ethical dilemmas in terms of the Golden Rule – we say these folk are at Stage Five. And there are those who never get beyond Stage Two (you scratch my back, I’ll then scratch yours) or even Stage One (fear – scared of punishment, or not). There are only a very rare number that get to Stage Six (totally principled ethical reasoning) so we won’t really concern ourselves with those Saints!!

But what has this to do with the electoral process? Well most politicians operate at either Stage Three (always concerned about their image, their polling numbers, the extent to which they are liked, etc.) or Stage Two (trying to make a deal – and not just buying Greenland – more often, if you vote for me, I’ll then do this for you). I say this because there are very few Stage Five or even Stage Four people who get nominated, let alone elected. The former are considered too kind, too willing to listen to multiple viewpoints, too willing to seek collaboration to be desirable elected officials (if they are, they usually get kicked out of caucus or off the team). The latter are unlikely to be very successful because they are forever reminding their colleagues about the rules, or about the norms that should be governing their behaviour.

This week I’ve seen this at play so many times that it simply reminded me that we get what we deserve. The Council members who said that the rules weren’t important and the developers deserved a break, basically wanted to be liked by those developers. Or, perhaps they had already entered into a deal and this was their form of back-scratching. I hate to think that they were afraid of being punished, perhaps at the poles. The Prime Minister who wouldn’t apologize but stuck to the script that he was defending jobs even though he doesn’t defend jobs in the resources sectors west of the Ottawa river is basically playing to his base or perhaps is afraid of losing the financial support of SNC or something in between. But there’s nothing is the reasons he gives that gets him anywhere near Stage Four. Much the same as the President cancelling a trip to Denmark because the Prime Minister there said the Greenland is not for sale – no deal, no trip – or maybe he didn’t feel he was liked enough.

Sunny Ways are much akin to Make America Great Again. It plays to people’s dreams of being in a likeable place. America was not un-great in 2016 nor was Canada all that cloudy and dark. But most of us who may think rules are the way to go when making critical choices, will quickly settle on a likeable solution. And if we don’t get that, then we are looking for a deal. Certainly pursuing the Golden Rule is far from the minds of most voters. And until it is, we ought to quit complaining about the state of government. When I was younger I was very excited when Bob Stanfield was elected to lead a national party in Canada – it actually convinced me to change political allegiances. His campaign was solid, straightforward and based somewhere between Stage 4 and 5 in its ethical reasoning. He didn’t win the first time but he almost did the second, except that most people thought he was a bit boring, not exciting enough. What should that have to do with being a leader who would constantly have to make critical choices, who would have to reason through ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma? Contrast that with the behaviour of the federal Liberal caucus who ignored their own rules and allowed their leader (the Prime Minister of Canada) to expel from caucus and the party two people, one whose only fault was attempting to stand on principle, the other trying to defend the rule of law. Here was a straight out ethical dilemma and the reasoning behind solving it was perhaps at Stage Two – accept my decision (scratch my back) and I’ll let you all stay in caucus (scratch your back). Of course, if I was closer to the action I might find that it was more Stage One – accept my decision because I am more powerful than you and you don’t want to see the punishment I will mete out.

And guess what? It’s working. Read the letters to the editor in the Globe + Mail and many are defending the PM. Follow any provincial premier and see if any consistently rise above Stage Three. Look at your own municipal government and see how often official community plans are set aside for one developer or another. And then ask yourself – how will you work to raise the level of ethical reasoning in government? What can be done to strive for Stage Four being the constant baseline, let alone Stage Five? And, ask your neighbours what they think about all this? I’m afraid the consensus will be that this is reality, this is politics, this is the way it is.

And we wonder why the young are cynical about what they see? And we wonder why we are no different than our neighbours to the south? And we wonder why so many don’t seem to really care about social norms let alone the laws that are supposed to be the underpinning of our society? We get the leadership we deserve, because we all too often like our backs scratched!