Damaging Public Office

“The more frequently a politician contradicts himself the bigger he becomes.” Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The question I have been asking myself for weeks now is: has public office been damaged by the developments of recent years such that politics in the near future will only be dominated by populists?

It is like it always has been: a change of government leaves some government members without a job, from one day to the next. This is a surprise to some of them and they have no way to prepare. Werner Faymann himself is said to have taken a taxi home after his resignation press conference because use of the official car had already been withdrawn from him.

This happened maliciously “thanks” to strong social media involvement. The slow dismantling of Werner Faymann was just like it was one and a half years before when Michael Spindelegger held office and was slowly dismantled in public. There was no one who protected the office itself, to protect it in its dignity and importance before the attacks on the person.

No follow up?

There is no legitimate follow-up for politicians who voluntarily leave office.

Jobs in the private sector are dismissed as jobs for the boys, having NO job is interpreted as being a proven failure, and for engaging entrepreneurial activity you get a dressing down and are accused of using networks that would not have been available to you without your previous job.

This scenario awaits every leading politician who takes public office. It is practically part of the political CV. That is why it is not surprising that fewer and fewer people are willing to voluntarily forego privacy and personal freedom for long periods of time and to immerse themselves knowingly in a kind of image damage operation.

Respect for public office?
In Germany there is a different political culture. Former presidents and former Chancellors are provided with an infrastructure for the period after they leave office. This is offered without malice of the population and out of respect for the fact that these people have given a certain period of their lives to public service. They are used as political observers and analysts for big events without a hint of this merely being jobs for the boys. They are like ambassadors of their country who are handed responsibility for a period of time by the voters. The opinions and the views of these “elder statesman” are desired and sought after. Former American presidents have made this a business model with related community service in the form of foundations.

The populists profit

It is clear nevertheless that tangible policy making is essential and necessary. This is because it has never been so easy – especially through social media – to scrutinize policy and its actors, to take them apart and criticize without much background knowledge. This is a great moment for populists who through their activities paradoxically cause damage to the office to which they aspire. They do this perhaps in the knowledge that they might never be able to fill and shape the public office as their predecessors have done. Therefore the public office itself will systematically be damaged. And not just from its attacker but also by its defenders. The current US election campaign is an example of this. And the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker is still struggling to build a respectful relationship with his office and the European Commission. The reasons for this are varied and often even self-inflicted when you think of TTIP, Russia sanctions, the EU-Turkey Agreement, aid to Greece etc.
The consequence of this is a massive anti-EU stance within the EU population taken by populists.

Austrian presidential election: the most recent Austrian example
The media proclaimed it to be a “partisan campaign.” This has led both sides presenting the Office of the President in the Constitution completely inappropriately and to put it in an improper light. The two candidates have been interviewed on issues that have nothing to do with the office itself. They were pressed into media confrontations that were not only unworthy but also harmed the office.

Political education 4.0
To once again learn how to maintain a respectful relationship with the office requires a massive increase in civic education. At the same it requires training in how to carry out the discourse with political office holders in the social networks. The willingness of politicians to communicate directly with the voters in these networks also requires respectful interaction. Just as politicians need to accept the will of voters and their opinions, so voters need to understand the role of political office and to deal accordingly and respectfully again with the person they are engaging with. This respectful interaction must be carried out in both directions and in all the direct and indirect relationships that exist between each other.