Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Paradox of Power

This is a continuation of a previous post, The Problem of Power.

“Politicians fascinate because they constitute such a paradox;
they are an elite that accomplishes mediocrity for the public good. ”
George Will, American political writer

“It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own.”
Herbert Hoover, former American president

Albert Einstein: “We can never solve our significant problems from the same level of thinking we were at when we created the problems.”
Photo Background: Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin, published in the USA in 1920.
Source: The Scientific Monthly 10: 4 (1920), p. 418 

One of the paradoxes of power is that it is often the person with the most aggressive naked pursuit of power who gains it, and not necessarily the person who is best to lead an organization, company or nation. This results in a lot of misery, particularly in the political arena. Federal leaders often draft legislation that benefit the few but affect the many, often to the detriment of a populace that does not have the time or patience to decode legislative measures.

And the dividing lines are no longer between Left and Right, despite the rhetoric and meaning the political parties attach to their differences. Such distinctions are meaningless today for the ordinary man and woman on the street. The real divide is between minority elites and majority populists. The major parties hardly speak for the needs of the people, rather they speak to the people, a distinction that is as important and it is telling.

A great part of the problem is that there is too much spin politics and not enough consideration for the majority of citizens and their needs. As George Will, an American political writer, puts it: “A politician's words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience.”

Such pithily illustrates a problem that dominates American and Canadian politics. Decisions flow in response to special interests, in particular the moneyed elites. The mainstream media is often not much help, either, for reasons that I am not privy to. So citizens are left to their own devices to try to figure things out.

Which is not such a bad an idea for democracy, if you think about it. The people are the democracy, not the political parties and the elites that run them. In a democracy, such politicians are supposed to represent the people's interests, not of the few, but of the many.

The good news is that there are many wonderfully written and thoughtful blogs in the blogosphere that contribute to the political and social discussion of democracy, freedom and individual dignity. But writers and essayists, as important as they are, do not hold the keys to power. Those are held by our political masters who are supposed to, in an ideal world, represent and put forward our best interests. In other words, to do good.

Am I disappointed in the way things are today? Yes, as are are many thoughtful people regardless of political affiliation. Polls always rank politicians as a group at the bottom third of professions they trust, often lumping them together with used-car salesmen, whose sales tactics are well-known. In the U.S., for example, only one in five people (22%) trust politicians, following a descending trend since 2001. More so, there has been a continual slip downward since the 1960s, when a majority of American had faith in their government.

Of course, there are fine individual politicians, notably at the local level, but higher up, they often become swallowed up in the maw of Big-League Power Politics.

Do I have optimism that things will eventually get better for democracies? Of course, since most writers are by nature optimistic. But it will take some doing—sustained letter-writing, peaceful protests, and countless newspaper articles and television programs— by ordinary citizens to awaken the leaders to the things that really matter for most people.

Which brings us back to the the paradox of power. Among the skills that are considered by management and political consultants as necessary for leaders are decisiveness, toughness, deal-making, building consensus and getting the job done. How wonderful it would be for democracy if we could add to the list "being averse to the egotism or trappings of power."

That being the case, in thinking about American politics, I often wonder if George Washington or Abrahan Lincoln would make the cut for a leadership hopeful in today's political culture.

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