FRIDAY, MARCH 16: We’re slithering inexorably towards the next election, so it’s time to issue my standard election campaign warning to voters: Beware of the reptiles.
Of course, we should be wary of politicians and their slithering sidekicks between elections too.
Most of them may be very good people determined to accomplish good things for Bermuda. But they are constantly led astray by democracy’s great flaw. That is the need — and insatiable desire — to win elections.
This flaw doesn’t make democracy a waste of time: As Winston Churchill famously remarked, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
We in Bermuda need to do a far better job dealing with democracy’s unpleasant side-effect.
Right now, impending elections frequently turn politicians into self-serving truth-benders. Visionary government is sacrificed to short-sighted leadership thinking only of clearing the next election hurdle.
How much of Bermuda’s debt could be avoided if the Government didn’t felt the need to be generous before elections? How much debt could be avoided if Government was petrified of losing votes if it cut back on expenses?
How much racial distrust and animosity could be avoided if campaign strategists didn’t feel that inflaming it helped solidify election support?
Indeed, how much negative stereotyping generally would fall by the wayside if nobody thought there were votes in it?
Politicians, when their guard is down, will tell you they do this kind of stuff because they need to. It’s what the other guys are doing, they say, and if they don’t respond in kind it hurts their election chances.
And if they don’t win the election, the reasoning goes, even worse things will happen with the other party in charge. The wrong reptiles might be in charge.
They’ll never actually tell you specifically that the ends justify the means. Politicians know that we’re all taught from childhood that the ends do not justify the means. But that’s what they’re telling themselves.
There is, of course, a limit to what political campaigns think they can get away with before too many voters think they’re being irresponsible, slanderous or just plain ridiculous. At a certain point, they lose more votes than they gain. And here lies the best counter-measure to democracy’s biggest flaw. Voters can undermine it by recognizing what is going on as an election draws near, and take it for what it’s worth.
We need to be be quicker to reject the half-truths and manipulations. We need to acknowledge the long-term damage — to ourselves and to our country — of short-term promises and claims.
Most importantly, we need to recognize and examine our own biases, and the stereotypes that all of us are prone to.
This is exactly what politicians and their campaign workers depend on. An insinuation here, a half-truth there, an implication somewhere else, all feed on the lingering prejudices we already hold. We end up believing pre-election half-truths and deceptions because we believe they could be true, or wish they were. We end up embracing too many pre-election promises and predictions because they offer what we really want, not because they are realistic.
Even manipulators like the American right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh only succeed by playing on the prejudices their listeners already harbour. Which is encouraging in a way. Democracy might lead politicians to shamelessly plumb the depths to beat their rivals in an election. But it’s very hard for them to do unless we let them. The choice is ours.
“In world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”
— Douglas Adams, in ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish’.