To be engaged in politics, at its heart, is to care about what is beyond oneself, family and close circle of friends. In thinking about the affairs of wider society we are necessarily engaging in a partly self-less act of empathy. By adding our voice and concern to the broader debate we often benefit people other than ourselves. The more politically engaged you get, the more you concern yourself with broader identity groups that encompass more people, and thus the more people you are being active on behalf of. This rises from the narrow confines of one’s family and friends, up to the level of local community, and beyond to larger categories like one’s nation, faith and humanity as a whole.
It seems clear to me that being politically proactive (not necessarily ideological or partisan) and taking at least some interest in the affairs of society is almost a necessary component of a well-rounded and noble character. After all, all it takes for evil to take hold is for “good men to stay silent”. And women, presumably.
It is easy to care for yourself and your family, and though that ought to have great importance, it is far more difficult (and thus more laudable) to care for someone with whom you have little in common, and who you have never met. Empathy with refugees fleeing warzones, for example, or minority groups you are not a part of, is an honourable affair.
Whilst it is a potentially bold and contentious view, surely whether or not one follows the general affairs of one’s nation is surely not simply a matter of interests and hobbies, as for example following interests in business, medicine or technology might be. That is not to say those fields cannot be noble pursuits (far from it), but to follow affairs can be to satisfy one’s interests and for entertainment, or it can be to position oneself to make a positive contribution in broader debate and democratic processes. How many people actually follow the news for this purpose, however, is debatable.
Thus, it would seem natural (ignoring how the real world actually works for a moment) that entering the actual field of politics is also a noble thing. You are taking up the work of representing constituents and the general public – a great responsibility. Ultimately, most MPs could be making far more money working in the City of London and as part of a career in politics subject themselves to greater levels of scrutiny in their private lives than almost anyone has to deal with.
The Real World
How, then, has politics descended into something that is really rather grizzly? “Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” There is nothing glamorous about the way most politicians exercise power, from the MPs expenses scandal to the stupendous daily allowances for the House of Lords, and the perpetual banter-factory that is Prime Minister’s Questions (“accountability”). Even in a mature democracy we still can’t seem to shake the unimpressive reality that those who exercise political power are often not quite the knights in shining armour we wish them to be.
A significant reason for this must be the elephant in the room; power. Whilst activism seldom has connotations of this, the actual pursuit of politics as a profession often can aggrandize one’s own sense of power, which has tempted all since time immemorial. And leads to less than ethical behaviour.
Perhaps we can concede that whilst the practice of politics is a necessary evil, political activism and engagement undertaken by ordinary people for the purpose of bettering society is indeed a desirable and moral act.