When I got involved in my first election campaign in 1991, there was still a certain level of respect attached to being a TD or senator. It was a big deal, and it is certainly the area where I witnessed one of the biggest changes I saw in my time involved in politics. By the time I ran myself in the 1999 local elections, being a candidate was an open invitation to rudeness from a large minority. People would say things to you they’d never say to any other stranger, or just close a door in your face. I know, from talking to people who have canvassed and run for other parties, that this is now a common occurrence.
You say this to people not involved in politics and you get a “well, duh!” response. Politicians are held in slightly higher esteem than criminals. Why is that?
If you ask the non-political, they will give you the “They’re all liars/crooks” position, but that’s lazy, and when you question people about it, they don’t really believe it themselves. Even in these cynical times, nearly everyone can name a politican they admire. So what causes the contempt?
There are, to my mind, two factors at play:
1. The change from political positions to brand positioning. The idea in most democracies is that parties each offer a different vision, and the public choose the vision. But since the 1960s and the entry of Don Draper types into political organisation, parties have gone from being political platforms to marketing/pandering to voters. Ths is fine if you are selling Coke, because people can make a final call by sampling the product, and deciding whether they actually like the taste or not. But government is different. It’s like a can of Coke that changes flavours and size and cost according to the prevailing resources available at the time. Parties know this, and so instead go for the big sell, constantly over-promising or making the voter feel that they have been offered something (a return to more nostalgic times, for example) which is impossible to deliver. Is it any wonder voters get disenchanted?
2. A new permanent political class. It was bad enough having political dynasties dominating the political system. What’s worse is that we have now expanded that political class to people who aspire to the same thing that the dynasties want: a permanent career in politics. Despite the fact that we had the biggest shake-up in parliamentary membership in living memory in the 2011 election, isn’t it frightening how quickly this Dail has started resembling the old one? Most of our TDs are powerless, and seem quite happy about it. Why? Because they want to not actually pass specific pieces of legislation, but remain TDs, and the public know it too.
I don’t know what the solution is, and so much of this stuff is tied into our culture as a people. But I would suggest that if, say, 20% of the Dail was made up of randomly selected voters who served for a single year, it would introduce an element of wild card into our political establishment. Would it cause chaos? Probably not, because all the other parties would be forced to combine to stop the crazier stuff proposed. So what? It would introduce real people into the Leinster Hothouse, and it would cause trouble. The government would find it harder to get legislation through. Some of them would be embarrassing. Some would be crooks. Some would be thoughtful.
But it would achieve two things: The first would be that over a period of years ordinary citizens would suddenly find themselves or people they knew called up to participate in a meaningful way. Secondly, every January would be a fascinating time for politics as the new batch came in, and that would not be a bad thing in itself. Is it a mad idea? Possibly. But I’ll bet that the great majority of people who call it mad are aspiring members of the permanent political class themselves.