H L Mencken declared, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”
Recently released from the monkey cage, I can readily see why non-politicos might agree. I mean how else to explain that our Parliament now requires New Zealand businesses to buy – often from overseas – the right to puff out the plant food carbon dioxide. Parliament thinks such payments stop the planet cooking. Stated bluntly, it’s absurd.
New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme has every appearance of a circus run by monkeys.
I should admit that I once agreed with Mencken. No more. I am older, wiser. I have been deep inside. I have seen policy-making up close and personal. I know in mind-numbing detail the decision loops and policy hoops. I have been over them, through them, under them, around them. I have had them knock me out of the park.
I now know running the circus from the monkey cage would be easier, more rational and more straightforward.
Our parliamentary democracy flounders chartless and directionless on the great ocean of public opinion. The waves and the buffeting are continuous. The only certitude is change and no one really knows why, how or in what direction.
Sure, plenty of political commentators and advisers make a living pretending to know what’s happening but they’re five-year olds staring at the monkeys trying to predict the circus.
Public opinion is powerful. To lead and drive policy, governments must maintain their election-day popularity. The public polls determine their policy mandate, not their previous election-day result.
That’s the way prime ministers see it. That’s the way journalists reporting politics see it. And so that’s the way it is.
Public opinion is not forged on understanding but rather a hazy partisan grasp of the day’s headlines. The media don’t report the news but rather beat it to pump life into it. The news’ purpose is to get people to see advertisements.
A good political scandal lavished with juice brings more viewers, listeners, and readers than a recitation of the Operating Deficit Before Gains and Losses.
Facts and truth don’t matter. Besides, journalists have art degrees. Facts and truth for them are just dumb people›s self-interested opinion.
To a journalist, something is only true if announced on high by an august body like the UN, the New Zealand Medical Association, or the Royal Society.
Political news doesn’t rub up against the real world. It rubs up against another form of politics. It’s then moulded by the commercial imperative that beats up political spin and tittle tattle into the major political story of the day.
That’s what makes politics exciting. Running the circus from the monkey cage is a helluva challenge. And the particular circus is the biggest circus in town. It provided me the levers, the buttons and the switches to sort out Auckland’s dysfunctional councils, something that had been talked about for decades. That’s a circus that can’t be beat.
There’s also nothing to compare to getting caught up in the high wires way above the crowd, with everyone looking up, mouths agape, wondering whether you will crash and burn.
Democracy’s plus is that it’s the funniest of all forms of government. The old Politburo didn’t provide a lot of laughs. And no one dies. I crashed to earth. I am still here. Brighter than ever. Political tumbles in the Soviet Union were fatal.
But wouldn’t it be nice if there was at least a wink or a nod to political principle. Focus group politics is insipid. John Key adopts Helen Clark’s policies. David Shearer adopts John Key’s political style.
Popular opinion is boring, bland and stupid. And our politics caters to it. Perfectly.