Politics is not so much about sweeping conspiracies or grand policy debates. Rather, at its very core, politics is rooted in its humanity.
It was in March of 2015 that the New York Times first broke the story that Hillary Clinton had been using a private email server, igniting a furor that would eventually help sink her bid for the presidency of the United States.
Opponents pounced, calling her behaviour irresponsible, unreasonable and borderline treasonous. Pundits pored over the contents of the emails, fixated on uncovering any angle that could fill column inches or justify a CNN chyron blaring ‘Breaking News.’ Donald Trump led thousands of people chanting ‘Lock her up!’, claiming that her transgression had compromised American safety.
For decades, conspiracy theories and rumours have swirled around the Clintons. At various times, they have been accused of being responsible for 48 different murders, of having a fake marriage based on political ambition, of regularly using body doubles, and of acting as agents for foreign governments in return for cash. The rumours and theories have generated tens of millions of clicks in strange corners of the Internet.
In turn, those clicks have fueled the outrage of citizens who were positive that the nation was being taken advantage of by two Machiavellian political actors the likes of which had not been seen since Kevin Spacey was president in House of Cards.
So it must have surprised many when the tens of thousands of emails that were released revealed what all those who work in politics know: politics is not so much about sweeping conspiracies involving Russian spies, or about grand policy debates.
Rather, at its very core, politics is rooted in its humanity. It features less than perfect people making less than perfect decisions. It is, first and foremost, an exercise centred around the small, and often petty, dramas of human life.
The so-called scandalous Hillary Clinton emails were actually emails filled with pressing issues like compliments on her favourite coat, how to turn on NPR while on Long Island, and repeated requests for cold iced tea.
It’s tempting to apply a filter of nefarious intent to the things politicians do. The stakes of the decisions they make, of course, can be enormous; the ramifications with us for decades.
But any political staffer will tell you that rather than the fantastical House of Cards, life in politics is eerily similar to Veep, the brilliant, cynical comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the powerless-yet-overreaching vice president of the United States. As her ever-weary chief of staff once sighed: ‘We all know the White House would work so much better if there wasn’t a president; but there is, so we work around that.’
The reality of politics is a lot like that.
There has been much ink spilled in Canada about various governments having a deep-seated need to remake the nation in their image. If one was to believe Twitter, one would have thought Stephen Harper’s government was part of a secret world order.
But ask a former politician and they will tell you that any grand plan they had prior to gaining public office came to a screeching halt hours after they are sworn in, replaced by the all-consuming need to keep the trains running on time. Strategic thinking takes a back seat to just keeping your head above water and your government out of scandal.
And, just when you think you’ve finally reached a point where you can begin to plan, calamity strikes. A forgetful bureaucrat leaves confidential documents lying at the entrance of the department. A staffer falls for a reporter and accidentally spills the beans on a big story. A natural disaster or a terrorist attack takes place.
Politics is fraught with that sort of unpredictable but powerful distraction.
And then there is just the sheer volume of information that comes your way. On the one hand, there’s more information than any person, or even team of people, can reasonably keep up with but on the other often less than the media knows. To wit, Hillary’s concerned email to a staffer questioning whether a cabinet meeting was taking place and why she hadn’t been invited (she had read about it on Twitter to her dismay).
None of this is to say that politicians enter office without a plan, or without ideological principles that guide them in the decisions they are confronted with every day. Over a long period of time, a governing ethos can indeed begin to turn the enormous ship we call government.
But government is run first and foremost by flawed people just like us. The next time a dramatic shift in government policy occurs, and opponents take to social media to decry the strategic principles behind it, take a moment to recall Clinton’s aide who, the hacked emails revealed, spent three painstaking hours one Saturday afternoon trying to teach the erstwhile President of the United States how to use a fax machine.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.