“We get the leaders we deserve”, by David Moscrop.

Link to the article here.

“We get the leaders we deserve”, by David Moscrop. The Ottawa Citizen. Dec 30th, 2011.

On Boxing Day I pulled into a coffee shop off Highway 7, near Peterborough, at 6:45 a.m. I needed to caffeinate and to ruminate for a moment on why I had agreed to accompany my 15-year-old sister to the mall that day.

Three men were seated in a corner booth, wearing neon vests and staring outside towards their trucks. They were huddled over double-doubles and crumpled copies of the day’s newspaper, talking politics.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with politics. It’s that Bob Rae,” said one man.

“Yeah, and the rest of them!” replied another. “Yeah, them too,” finished the first, before punctuating his point with a staccato statement as confident as it was simple: “We. Have. Bad. Leaders.”

When election time rolls around, I have a hard time voting. Sometimes I don’t bother. To many of my politically inclined friends and my graduate student colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Political Science, this is a sacrilege. When accosted by them about my shortcomings as a citizen, I usually reply with the excuse: “I can’t stand the choices. I’d vote if there was a ‘none of the above’ option.”

I’m not much different than the group I ran into at the coffee shop. I’ve studied politics closely for about a decade but sometimes, usually when I’m upset or bewildered by a recent political manoeuvre, my conclusions aren’t much different from theirs: politicians are a bunch of clowns. Sycophants. Corporate hacks. Unimaginative drones.

But whose fault is that?

When UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions held a conference in November asking “Why Don’t More Good People Enter Politics?” a few themes emerged. The conference included former and current politicians and media figures. Some (the politicians) felt the media were too harsh, often looking to score a “gotcha!” story. Many blamed the Canadian political system for its rigidity, its focus on party leaders and centralized power, a focus that comes at the cost of constraining individual members of Parliament. One theme that wasn’t raised — perhaps because it’s bad politics — is the shortcomings of citizens.

Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we get the politicians we deserve. We live in a liberal democracy that is much better at being liberal (exercising individual rights and freedoms, participating in the economy) than democratic (taking part in choosing and pursuing the direction of our collective future). Every several years, some of us vote for a government; in the meantime, most of us don’t play much of a role in constructively contributing to the political life of the country. We do, however, play a role in creating the political culture in which our politicians operate. And it is this political culture that shapes and constrains our leaders.

As citizens we often expect error-free leadership, and we have seemingly omnipresent and omniscient news coverage to patrol the borders of good behaviour — including instantaneous reporting via Facebook and Twitter. But if we expect politicians to be perfect, then they are going to shy away from risky decisions for fear of front-page failure and pervasive social media mockery. And yet creative and risky decisions are part of what makes great leadership, since shaping a new reality requires reforming or destroying an old one. This creativity requires an environment in which citizens are willing to accept failures, since it is often upon these failures that future successes are built. We learn by doing, by using our judgment, by failing, changing, and trying again. We do this by living one of Samuel Beckett’s immortal lines: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Great leadership is, in part, about failing better.

At the same time, many of us are wired-partisan. We cheer for colours — red, blue, orange, or, sometimes, green — but we fail to interrogate the ideas and reasoning behind platforms and policies. We expect our leaders to live up to ideological stereotypes, and we can’t understand who and what they are when they fail to match up to their team colours. Thus we lose leaders who can compromise and evolve, who can use practical wisdom to negotiate complex and changing political and social realities. Stereotypes can’t do this; only humans, who are allowed to think, fail, and change can.

When citizens lack individual democratic capacity, leaders reflect this fact. As citizens we often respond poorly to positions, policies, or outcomes we dislike or do not understand (and have little, if any, part in developing). Respectful and constructive political engagement is sacrificed to invective and partisanship. Positions we do care for, whatever the reason, we support in absolute terms: this is the right way. And if you’re against it, you must be selfish, obtuse, or stupid.

A political culture is created in large part by how the citizens of that society think about politics, and how they engage with one another and their leaders. This culture is like soil from which leaders grow. And, like soil, it can either be fecund, yielding healthy and robust life, or it can be barren, yielding anemic life, if any.

It’s up to citizens to rejuvenate their political culture. And, once done, we can expect better leaders to emerge. Because we get the leaders we deserve.

David Moscrop is a PhD student in political science at the University of British Columbia and founding editor of Thought Out Loud (thoughtoutloud.org).
Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/technology/leaders+deserve/5924806/story.html#ixzz1iQAbo5We

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