Friday, February 17, 2012

Promises, Promises

Politics & Society

Everyone's a millionaire where promises are concerned.
People make promises for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes fail at it. As important as a promise is, so is how one responds when unable to keep a commitment. Some respond with arrogance and dismissive behaviour, as if a promise is unimportant. Others with humility and grace, offering profuse apologies and sincere opportunity to make amends. The response, in either case, is telling.

A number of reasons are put forward on why people fail to keep their promises, including:  1) a sincere intent to do so, but forgot about it; 2) an intent to do so, but the situation changed; 3) no intent to do so but wanted to appear otherwise in public; and 4) are career liars, adept in sophism and dissembling, and promises are not taken seriously.

Politicians often fall into the last two categories, which explains why the majority of persons express a lack of trust in politicians, continuing to rank them at the bottom [see here, here and here]. For too many politicians the consequences of lying are minimal if not non-existent. They might lose an election but pop up somewhere else in the political system, as a consultant or lobbyist or other political patronage position, such as an appointed senator in Canada's parliamentary system, a political sinceure for serving the party well.

The helping professions, such as doctors, pharmacists and nurses are top-ranked. My wife is a nurse and is highly ethical, so this will please her, earning her some small satisfaction and recognition while working in an emotionally demanding profession.

As for the level of trust accorded politicians, many persons privately say they distrust politicians, saying it matter-of-factly and dismissively and often with amusement, that used car salesman garner more trust. Yet, this speaks volumes. If we cannot trust our political leaders, then we can't trust our democratic institutions, since politicians hold the levers of power. There is a clear line drawn between faith in our democratic institutions and citizen participation in democracy. That is also dropping.

Such faith is essential to democracy's well-being, a point that one Canadian, Paul Kersaw of  the University of British Columbia, makes in an article in defense of politicians:
 With very little fanfare, the vast majority of elected officials work very long hours — more hours than most of us. This includes giving up a great deal of private time to attend community events and engage constituents. Most politicians are drawn to public service because they genuinely want to make our communities and our country better. Sure, we may disagree with some of their ideas about what constitutes improvement, but this doesn’t require that we disparage the person, or her or his commitment to the job.

There is no doubt we will always need auditors-general, judges, the media and others to scrutinize what politicians do, and how they spend tax dollars on our behalf, just as we must scrutinize activities in the financial sector, among doctors, police officers, teachers, etc. In any profession, the odd bad apple betrays our trust and the authority of their positions.
Such are nice sentiments, and undoubtedly valid, but politicians' decisions affect more people than those of individual doctors, lawyers and teachers. Much more so, and thus explains why politicians, particularly political leaders need be under the harsh lights of scrutiny. Something else is going on in society that can't be explained by political differences of liberal and conservative, left or right.

It's an issue of trust. The result is that, as a group, the public remains unconvinced of the promises made by a large degree, particularly of the presidents, prime ministers and top elected officials. I suspect that politicians at the highest levels have to do a better job of being transparent and honest, or else they will be trusted even less.

With good reason, and it has nothing to do with cynicism and everything to do with bad policy decisions. Many of them. For the majority of persons, the truth remains that politicians are not looking out for the interests of the vast majority of citizens but, rather, the interests of a small minority. The trust will return, slowly, when that equation changes. People want to have faith in democracy, but it is difficult when the leaders themselves do their best to undermine its guiding principles. 

The current situation reminds me of the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), from which we have that memorable line of T.E. Lawrence: "There may be honor among thieves, but there's none in politicians."


  1. Politicians are simultaneously powerful people and the servants of their constituents. Despite their power, they don't have the freedom to be honest.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz,

    If that is indeed the case, that honesty is a liability, then our political system is in bad need of repair.


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