Redefining Politics for a Better World
Today, as many people do, I think politics is sickening. It exhausts me, depletes me of energy, and makes me lose patience. The irrationality, pettiness, and vapidity of politics repulse me at the highest level. Yet I’m a deeply political person. Not a single day passes when I don’t think about politics and its implications—something I do not mind at all.
How can that be?
La politique; le politique
My being political despite my disdain for politics comes from a careful distinction. I trace the line between the political game and political philosophy—a line so often blurred these days in the English-speaking world. But French, my mother tongue, has a beautiful way of expressing this nuance.
In French, “ la politique” is a feminine noun, and it stands for the game politicians play to obtain and retain power. But “ le politique,” which is masculine, stands for the realm of political ideas and philosophy. In other words, engaging with “ la politique” is completely different from engaging with “ le politique.”
“ La politique” is emotional; “ le politique “ is logical.
“ La politique” is social; “ le politique “ is intellectual.
“ La politique” is an art; “ le politique “ is a science.
“ La politique” is power; “ le politique “ is influence.
“ La politique” is people; “ le politique “ is ideas.
“ La politique” is entertainment; “ le politique “ is wisdom.
“ La politique” is illusion; “ le politique “ is reality.
I am not interested in “ la politique” as much as I am in “ le politique.” Although, as long as we live in a democratic society, we will need “ la politique,” we undoubtedly need more “ le politique “ in the equation.
In fact, without a return to “ le politique,” democracy will collapse, as Plato predicted ( “The tyrant comes about by presenting himself as a champion of the people against the class of the few people who are wealthy (565d-566a).”
The Vapidity of Politics
When we look at modern politics, we see very little “ le politique “ in politicians’ discourse. Policies are never argued on the basis of their morality or philosophical soundness.
For instance, listen to Canadian Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance defend the Canadian government’s spending and deficits, and you will hear nothing but platitudes about “being there for Canadians when they need it,” with no mention of whether their policies are economically sound on the long run.
The same goes for Joe Biden, who decided to forgive $10,000 to $20,000 of student loans for Americans making below $125,000 and who received Pell Grants. No one could articulate a coherent, intellectually sound justification for the fairness (and even efficacy) of the plan—especially the economic implications.
This is not an exclusively liberal problem, though. Donald Trump’s presidency was the quintessential embodiment of “ la politique “—lots of theater and little substance. While he did have deeper thinkers than himself surrounding him, these “adults in the room” were often single-minded ideologues, who prefer being right to doing right.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the last two Conservative leaders have done a comically poor job of bringing “ le politique” back to the stage—a shame, frankly, given that their predecessor, Stephen Harper, actually embodied “ le politique “ and that Trudeau had little to show in that department.
The Conservative Party of Canada, however, seems to have learned its lesson; it recently elected its leader Pierre Poilievre, who, despite attacking Trudeau and other conservative candidates, ran on a campaign based on philosophy and ideas (though it can be argued that he, too, is a fan of political theater.)
An Ethics of Politics
To be fair, the public isn’t asking for “ le politique.” If anything, it wants the politics of spectacle. Some friends of mine admitted to wishing for Trump to come back in 2024 for the sheer theater of it. (I think they underestimate the danger of a civil war). Some also find Canadian politics much more interesting now that Poilievre is at its center (I do, too, I must admit).
However, the fact that the public isn’t asking for “ le politique” does not mean our politicians shouldn’t bring it forward. The political arena may be a reflection of the public consciousness, but politicians can and should shape the public consciousness—through “ le politique.” The problem with democracy, as Plato knew, is that
The democratic individual comes to pursue all sorts of bodily desires excessively (558d-559d) and allows his appetitive part to rule his soul. He comes about when his bad education allows him to transition from desiring money to desiring bodily and material goods (559d-e). The democratic individual has no shame and no self-discipline (560d)… Tyranny arises out of democracy when the desire for freedom to do what one wants becomes extreme (562b-c).
Catering to the democratic individual, though a lofty ideal, is the demise of any society; it brings political discourse down to the common denominator and strips it of its substance. Some may argue that “ le politique “ is an elitist ideal out of touch with the common people, but that could not be further from the truth.
“Le politique,” in fact, is the most democratic ideal possible because it makes democracy possible. “An educated citizenry,” Jefferson said, “is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” But to analyze information and make good judgments from them, education is needed—especially political education, “ le politique.”
Instead of bringing politics down to the level of the people, we need to bring the people up to the level of politics—” le politique,” though, not “ la politique.” We need politicians who lead by example with “ le politique “ and who show the people we can have healthy, intellectual debate over the best way of governing our country.
Unfortunately, the last time a major Canadian party elected intellectuals as leaders, as in the cases of Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, things did not exactly go well. Under Ignatieff’s leadership, the Liberals did worse than Canada’s third party, the NDP. After Dion replaced him, discord broke inside the party, and Dion was forced out.
Perhaps it is simply the temper of our times…
There used to be a time when politics was more intellectual. Canada’s most influential and popular prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, provides the best case study. Though his legacy is mixed, especially in Alberta and Quebec, where he was seen as a threat to local identity and sovereignty, Pierre Trudeau was undeniably a man of ideas.
In the United States, Barrack Obama’s election was significant not only because he was the first African-American president, but also because he represented a return to a more intellectual type of leader. George W. Bush certainly wasn’t an intellectual (his father was a bit more intellectually minded), and while Clinton and Reagan were intelligent, charming men, it’s fair to say that even Clinton is no Obama as far as intellect goes.
Rise and Fall Through Politics
The current state of politics may be depressing, but what of the past? While there is little value in glorifying the past, especially as we seek to move away from the horrible things we’ve committed, we must acknowledge that the politicians of our past embodied “ le politique.” They were more than intellectuals; they were actual philosophers.
For example, the United States’ founding fathers were men of letters and ideas. They not only built the United States based on “ le politique,” but they also cautioned against the dangers of “ la politique “ through the U.S. constitution. Deeply intellectual and rational, America’s founding fathers had studied history and the rise and fall of civilizations; the past informed their outlook on both the present and future.
But it is an unfortunate fact that America’s founding fathers have long been forgotten. They have been forgotten not as people but as ideas. Americans still admire their founding fathers, using them in “ la politique,” but they have never been so far from embodying their values—” le politique “. Washington and Jefferson likely would have shaken their head seeing Trump.
There is no denying that the founding fathers weren’t perfect. They may have been intellectuals, but they were also slave owners at a time when other nations had abolished slavery. What if we could combine today’s ideals for justice and fairness with our past intellectual tradition?
Politics, and as a result our world, would get a lot better very fast.
“La politique,” the petty political games, the nonsense, and the irrationality, is threatening democracy and our way of life. Unless we wish for Plato’s foresight to come true and see our system turn into tyranny, we must bring back “ le politique “ into our discourse. It certainly won’t be easy, it may well feel like swimming against the current, but we have no choice.
The first step is to recognize this distinction between “ le” and “ la” politique and to make it a conscious thought in every conversation we have. When we ignore “ le politique,” we give in to “ la politique” and allow ourselves and others to become cynical. And that is why things have gone so wrong—because too many people disengage from politics because “ la politique “ is all they know.
Let’s redefine politics.
Let’s bring “le politique” back.