There once was a time when true leaders of great stature dominated politics. Some were good, many more were not, but at least we can say that they were neither small, nor banal, nor mediocre. I met many of these explosive personalities of great influence. I remember hearing passionate debates and speeches in the halls of parliament or on the radio, words capable of moving crowds. The whole nation would tune in to watch De Gaulle. Even those who didn’t support him were transported by these one man shows. The same goes for the dubious and questionable leaders, like Nasser, who could connect with millions from a balcony. I myself, who disagreed with him profoundly, was moved by this wordsmith, without being able to understand a single Arab word.
Today, when I see a politician about to open his or her mouth, I change the channel. I don’t even think of going to a session of the Assembly. Today’s politicians bore me terribly. They deliver the same cookie cutter words that never ring true. Who believes them? The same promises made before every election and forgotten the following day. Of course nobody believes them, and this is the great drama of our time. Yet the politicians continue, taking the people for fools and the fools for granted. In every country, in every class, among all the parties, everyone has disengaged from these mediocre politicians. “Prison for the mediocre” ordered the king in Montherlant’s The Dead Queen. If that were the case today, I doubt any politician would be free.
People of value, of integrity, men and women who want to help and move society forward are no longer attracted to politics. This is due to the fact that politicians of this type wouldn’t have any power. A former French minister, one who was not part of this political world and who had good intentions, once confessed to me that he wouldn’t be able to achieve even ten percent of his policy program. The influence of the unions, the orders from above, and the sway of civil servants were all too great.
Now, those who enter the political realm have the illusion of gaining power for themselves, of enriching their own lives.
I once asked a Mexican friend of mine why the presidential mandate of his country was only 4 years. “Because that is all the time is take to make a fortune.”
Entering political life with these poor motives leads naturally to poor politics. The politicians are detached from the everyday realities of their people, they live in a bubble. Their motivation is maintaining their lifestyles, enhancing their material wellbeing. They go through the political motions, day in and day out, without any meaningful opinions, without reflection, without any great or transformative ideas.
I remember Margaret Thatcher, a carryover from a greater political era, who I had the opportunity to meet. She was principled; she had an idea of England, and pursued it thoroughly, with all her effort. She had views, guiding principles, and was inflexible and yet modest. She traveled with ten people, whereas Mitterrand took no less than one hundred. After a long night of work, she would cook for her closest advisors in a small kitchen she had installed on the top floor of 10 Downing Street. A detail that has nothing to do with politics, or perhaps is the base of politics in a way, Thatcher knew how to be a woman; she maintained her femininity.
Like her or not, she was an exception in this era. And as she disappeared so too did the great, charismatic leaders from the political world. A world now flooded with a sea of mediocrity from which no true leaders rise. Politics are stagnant, unmoving, boring. Spirits are no longer lifted and directed.
I remember that epoch of political giants, great men and tyrants alike. They are all gone, replaced by little imps.
The uniform mediocrity of our time is clear when we examine the watered down programs of our political parties, which are now nearly the same except for the extremes. So, as politicians cannot attack these programs, as they are too similar to their own, they resort to cheap, petty personal attacks, a multiplication of scandals, some moral, but most often economic. Corruption is the new order of the day.
And yet, despite all this smoke and mirrors, the people are not as dumb as the politicians would like. The people understand politicians are bought and sold, and either incapable or impotent or corrupt. Politics is completely shortsighted, if it sees anything at all. Politicians play to the weaknesses and desires of the people to win vote, then once elected return to their comfortable indifference. And the people know this, and they know who are responsible for these crises that wreak havoc on their lives. This understandable contempt the people have for politicians is evolving, turning towards hatred. Today, we don’t vote for a politician, we vote against another.