The Shame of Shame

Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Scott Reid has an interesting piece on shame as it relates to the current degraded state of Canadian politics. His observations are apt, but I believe that further context is required to discuss shame as it relates to our contemporary political situation. I would argue that shame is primarily the responsibility, not of politicians, but of voters.

Reid states that “we need to restore shame to its central and valued place in our politics. Because shame works. And without it, not much else can.” He is correct in his argument that shame is a central mechanism of the functioning of our democracy, or in fact any democracy, because a shared sense of values are a necessary basis for any political consensus. At its core, any political system relies on the good will of its citizens (whether voluntarily given, e.g. in a democracy, or coerced, e.g. in a dictatorship). But I would argue shame still plays a central role in the functioning of our democracy and in our elections. It’s not that shame has gone away, or that there has been a “deliberate and gradual extinction of shame” from our political conversation; rather, shame is something that voters experience as opposed to politicians. We are responsible for the people that we trust enough to elect, and when they abuse that trust it is us, as voters, who should feel ashamed. When politicians resign in shame, it is for abusing that trust. They may feel ashamed for their actions, but the act of resigning is to spare us further shame.

I would argue two factors make this less common: hyper-partisanship and the move away from voter responsibility. In the first case, as politics becomes more and more partisan, we identify more strongly with politicians who share our partisan affiliations, and therefore are less likely to view their actions as shameful. In the second case, since we have been taught more and more to expect politicians to do things for us, rather than on our behalf, we feel less and less responsible for their actions, and therefore, less likely to be ashamed of ourselves (and thus them). Ironically, telling politicians that they should be ashamed, rather than voters, is likely only to exacerbate the problem, rather than alleviate it, because it is only perceived as an attack on the tribe.

It is only when both of these are overcome that shame can function in contemporary politics. As an example, I’d point to the 2008 election in the United States, where even Republicans were campaigning against George Bush. They were ashamed. Republican voters were ashamed. In the following midterm, Democrats were ashamed of having squandered their power, and they lost. Likewise in Canada, after the Sponsorship Scandal, Liberals were ashamed of their party and their leadership. When conservative voters finally abandon Harper, it will likely be out of shame as well. Personal shame. Rather than tell Rob Ford he should be ashamed, we should be asking Ford Nation if this is who they want representing them.

If we want to combat this growing lack of shamelessness of our politicians, we need only to look in the mirror (partisans especially). We are responsible for the politicians we elect and they will only improve if we demand it. If we want to change the system we can’t be so afraid to blame voters that we absolve them of any responsibility whatsoever.

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