“that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.” - Samuel Johnson The Rambler, Number 4.
The US take on English is salted with inexplicable quirks, but when choosing their autumnal noun the locals knew exactly what they were doing. The fall is a term that prosaically and poetically describes a season characterised by natural defoliation and original sin. For as sure as the desiccated leaves will drop, somewhere, often everywhere in America, electoral billboards will rise, political pamphlets will unfurl and white-toothed candidates will promote themselves for public office.
In New York they line subway egresses like professional beggars canvassing your vote. The locals are inured, but for an out-of-towner, the initial reaction is one of pity. You’ll wish you had the legal status to vote for them all. But if you take the time to talk with them and flick over their glossy handbills, you will be troubled to learn that most of these people have been in political office before - often repeatedly - and given the opportunity, all of them intend to remain there for the bulk of their natural lives. They are career politicians.
It’s a phenomenon that both characterises, and claws at the face of democracy. The founding fathers got together for the express purpose of constraining over exuberant authority. They dreamed of government of the people, not a people.
No one who helped invent or inculcate the democratic process ever championed the notion of the career politician. Unfortunately, just as no gardener tills and sews a pumpkin patch with the intention of growing weeds, it’s the inevitable result. Despite their genius, the founding fathers failed to constitutionalise a pesticide to combat the constant legislator. Perhaps they thought dire warnings would suffice. Just as the Lord warned Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge, Thomas Jefferson cautioned that “once a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”
The modern embodiments of this rottenness, when confronted with their sin, tend to puff themselves up with lungfuls of pride and boast of the ‘benefits’ of their ‘political experience’. At least when confronted with their nakedness, Adam and Eve had the decency to blush with shame.
To attempt a proxy Alford plea, it has always been difficult to the point of impossibility to enter public office without really setting your mind to it. Creating the profile to garner the public tick necessitates the expenditure of so much time and money that it has become the sole preserve of those who can make campaigning and reigning into a full-time business. Once you’ve managed to mount that pony, there no incentive but to cling on.
In scouring recent history for examples of other means of attaining elected office, I have to resort to citing farce: Robbie Coltraine's unwitting ascent to the head of the Catholic church in The Pope Must Die; Eddie Murphy scamming his way into congress in The Distinguished Gentleman; and the continued political relevance of the New Zealand First Party.
The first two are the clearly fictional, the latter curiously not. Interestingly, what both the films have in common, besides low levels of critical approbation, is a plot that revolves around the central character being mistaken for a career politician (/ cardinal) with a similar name. Even in the realm of fantasy it seems that creative minds cannot envisage government as being of the people, but by the established.
In the real world, New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters has devised a clever way to exploit New Zealand’s electoral system to use his personal popularity as collateral for several extra seats in parliament. He fills these via a candidate selection policy that is rumoured to be analogous to tossing sticks of dynamite into a stagnant pond and scooping into office whatever floats up stunned. It’s not pretty, nor are his methods replicable in any standardised way.
While humanity generally takes pride in emulating and surpassing its every prior achievement, the most fashion-forward member of the pantheon of civic virtue remains Cincinnatus, in his ancient, dusty toga. . He was a private citizen, in the midst of ploughing his fields when his compatriots called on him to accept dictatorial powers in order to right the ship of state. After making short work of a pack of uppity neighbours, whom he put down like a sack of feral cats, he resigned his office, and returned to his farm to pick up where he left off. The end. Despite the admiration accorded to the story, it has yet to spawn a homage.
So much of the hypocrisy, ineffectuality, and intransigent injustice blamed on modern democracy is rooted in the requirement for career politicians, and those who aspire to become them, to press flesh, grease donor channels, and choke down what seems to me to be the mangiest rat of all: the need to join one of a limited number of political parties and somehow alloy your own concerns with its stubborn dictates.
More worryingly for democracy, the necessity to be reëlected obliges even the most admired official to devote a significant percentage of his time in office to raising funds for the next campaign, and sucking up to whomsoever may disburse them. An enlightening episode of This American Life puts a representative representative’s reëlection tab at ten to fifteen-thousand dollars for every day of his two-year term. With apologies to Johnson, the knowledge required to thrive in this political world will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.
I can fix this bug through one significant upgrade aimed at the establishment of a true and better functioning democracy.
This is my modest proposal: Public office, steeped in the principles of public rule and civic duty, ought not to be earned by birth or achievement, but should be thrust upon citizens by way of ballot conscription.
It’s an idea with precedents in execution, if not in scale. Many countries press-gang citizens into jury duty, a few retain compulsory military service. This is a similar ‘call-up’ system that will result in a more perfect, more literal government of the people, by the people and for the people.
The electoral roll will record each citizen’s current age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic allegiance and physical address. Because we live in a glorious and unabashedly capitalist society, I suggest that we also record the occupation to which each citizen feels most passionately aligned. Before the start of each electoral term a computer programme randomly selects a proportional group of citizens over the age of eighteen to create a parliament truly representative of the wider whole.
Elections would be built up and televised with all the fanfare of a jackpot lottery. The new parliament is formed, and haggles briefly amongst itself to discover the members most suited to head the necessary ministries. They adhere to the system by which bills are to be proposed, considered, voted for and passed into law. I suggest a term of office of three years, in which case a citizen could be called up twice in her lifetime.
An upper house, a governor-general, president or other form of parliamentary oversight? No thanks. A strong fourth estate? One, please. Our new politicians will be well-paid, their actions publicly scrutinised and they will be as answerable to their families, friends, neighbours, personal vanity and the vox populi as ever before, perhaps more so, because they’ll be subsumed by thoughts of what they can achieve in their short allotted time, rather than consumed by compromises geared towards maintaining office. Of course they won’t know exactly what do do from the outset, who does? It’s an open secret that the first six months of every new job is spent masking your incompetence while you scramble to get the knack.
I refute that this would place any greater strain on the judiciary or civil service, most of whom already spend the greater part of their careers bemoaning the political monkeys to whom they have to fling cerebral peanuts.
It will be questioned whether a parliament thus composed could ever get anything done? Here I have to direct a barb at the question itself, as I think it arises from a subcutaneous anti-democratic layer of fat that has always been a part of the body politic. We love the idea of democracy, but like doting parents confronted with the reality of handing the car keys to our beloved teenager, we struggle to muster the faith to actually let her drive.
This will not be a victimless coup. The first against the wall will be the concept of career trajectory. People will be plucked from their normal lives at the worst possible time - soon after parenthood, just when a business is finally getting traction, or right at the point you intended to retire. Some will be summoned to the lesser glory of local council, others will never represent their fellows in any way at all. Too bad. Like those heroic volunteers who set aside their plans to fight the fascists in Europe, it’s a necessary sacrifice we’ll gladly make to live in the land of the free.
For those that would lament the demise of the political class, I commend your giant hearts. You lovely lugs. You want people to be useful and happy in their chosen careers for as long as they draw breath, but I ask: ‘do you weep for the coopers?’ The fashioning of barrels was once an impressive and time-honoured craft, often imparted through intergenerational lines. Unfortunately, it was simply usurped by time and technology, and its practitioners forced to learn another trade.
For those that will argue ‘we’re not ready’, I have a warning: Flip back a few pages in your missal. You’ll find you’re preaching from the same tatty and apocryphal book that says that Africans, Asians, Arabs and Antarcticans ‘aren’t ready’ for democracy, and that the women of days gone by were fit for little more than fucking and boiling tea. You’re wrong. But I know that changing your minds will be as arduous as animating lumps of clay into a charming feature film. Today I begin to craft my Chicken Run.
Like a medieval mason breaking ground on a magnificent cathedral, I don’t expect to live to see this idea sanctified, but I’m happy to put foot to spade regardless.
 Jefferson to T. Coxe, 1799.
 Well, kind of. He loved Rome, but loathed its people, which is extremely unhelpful in terms of the point I’m about to make, but in the interests of full disclosure, I feel obliged to bury the admission here.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.