I recently learned of a rumour that an up-and-comer in federal politics, who happens to be an acquaintance, has resorted to some underhanded tactics to eliminate a political rival. According to my informant, they apparently tricked their nemesis into making less-than-savoury comments during what they believed to be a private conversation, which they later shared with people who had the power to end this person’s nascent career. Of course, this probably wouldn’t have happened if my friend didn’t know said nemesis to hold these views already. But when bozos won’t erupt in public, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?
I can’t say how true any of this is, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. If you get involved in politics, you’ll meet people like this every now and then: people who will gladly destroy the reputations of others if it makes their own path to power a little smoother. They might remind you of a certain TV anti-hero who has done much worse. They might even consider him an inspiration, even if their version of his approach is somewhat Disneyfied.
This comparison occurred to me after I heard two-time presidential loser Hillary Clinton compare her own life in politics to a different program, after Democratic consultant Paul Begala asked her to compare it to one of two other programs during an event last week. Over the next few days, this and the story of Canada’s under-Underwood crystallized into a unified theory of political behaviour: Everyone involved thinks they’re in a TV show, and the show they think they’re in perfectly summarizes their attitude toward their profession. Observe:
If the rumour about my acquaintance is true, that puts them squarely in the realistic/optimistic quadrant, or the House of Cards quadrant. People in this corner have what they believe to be a clear-eyed view of what it takes to get ahead in politics (realistic), and are confident that they will reap the rewards of it if they do it well (optimistic). Typically, they highly overestimate their skills as practitioners of the political dark arts and end up humiliating themselves sooner or later, as one does after leaving enough fingerprints. This being Canada in the 2010s, however, it’s doubtful that any of them will come to the fate of Francis Urquhart in the original British House of Cards. (I cite that version because Frank Underwood’s fate doesn’t really count.)
The diametric opposite of the above perspective is where Clinton has placed herself: the idealistic/pessimistic quadrant, or the Game of Thrones quadrant. Having been burned by one Democratic primary, one philandering spouse, and probably countless former surrogates, she had every reason in the world to be pessimistic by 2016. It may seem bizarre to describe one of the coldly calculating Clintons as an idealist, but she was, at the time, about precisely one thing: that Americans cared about qualifications and psychological stability and would reward her for having both, if not for forces operating against her. Most Starks and two Baratheons can tell you how that tends to work out.
The more cheerful version of this can be found in the idealistic/optimistic quadrant, or the West Wing quadrant. This is where many political newcomers begin, and where an unfortunate number stay. They believe that they are working in the service of just causes (idealistic), and that they will convince the electorate to rally behind it in turn (optimistic) with the right combination of messaging and statecraft. Often, it is impossible for them to see bad actors and actions on their own side for who and what they are, leading to the blind loyalty that characterizes a significant portion of the Liberal Party. If their side should suffer for their mistakes, the solution is always to double down, preferably after some stirring music and a Canadian Screen Award-worthy monologue.
And then there are the deep cynics in the realistic/pessimistic quadrant, or the Veep quadrant (or the Thick of It quadrant, for my fellow Britophiles). They know the price of ambition perfectly well (realistic), but after witnessing enough incompetence on top of corruption on top of spite as far as the eye can see, you won’t catch them dead paying it (pessimistic). They expect the worst of both opponents and colleagues, and they usually get it. People they know elsewhere on the spectrum will either join them here eventually or be crushed under the weight of their own stupidity. Having given up on any previous lofty career goals, they remain in politics out of inertia and just try their best to get through the workday with minimal nonsense. Or they run to the private sector while they still have their dignity and their mental health.
Rarely, you’ll meet one of the true neutrals in the Office convergence. For these people, usually nonpartisan civil servants, politics is just a day-to-day job, nothing more and nothing less. They are the strangest of all.
If you are an elected official or you work for one, you may find yourself moving around this spectrum throughout your career. Just remember this: there are far more heroes and badasses in fiction than in reality. If you think you’re one of them, you’re not.
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