Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
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In 2005 Michael Ignatieff left his life as a writer and professor at Harvard University to enter the combative world of politics back home in Canada. By 2008, he was leader of the country's Liberal Party and poised--should the governing Conservatives falter--to become Canada's next Prime Minister. It never happened. Today, after a bruising electoral defeat, Ignatieff is back where he started, writing and teaching what he learned.
What did he take away from this crash course in political success and failure? Did a life of thinking about politics prepare him for the real thing? How did he handle it when his own history as a longtime expatriate became a major political issue? Are cynics right to despair about democratic politics? Are idealists right to hope? Ignatieff blends reflection and analysis to portray today's democratic politics as ruthless, unpredictable, unforgiving, and hyper-adversarial.
Rough as it is, Ignatieff argues, democratic politics is a crucible for compromise, and many of the apparent vices of political life, from inconsistency to the fake smile, follow from the necessity of bridging differences in a pluralist society. A compelling account of modern politics as it really is, the book is also a celebration of the political life in all its wild, exuberant variety.
Then, out of the blue, without consulting anyone but a handful of his loyalists, Dion announced that he had negotiated a secret pact with Jack Layton of the New Democratic Party and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois to defeat the Conservatives and form a coalition to replace them. Normally an election would follow a government defeat in the House, but since there had just been one, the new coalition partners believed they could go to the governor general, the head of state, and seek her permission to form a government of their own.
It is unlike any word game you have ever played. You may fancy yourself as a communicator, but the first time you step up on a political platform, you can have the weird feeling that you have walked into Woody Allen’s film Bananas, in that sequence where the guerilla leader changes the official language of his Latin American country to Swedish. You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count.
Surely there was a way to make some of the wealth stay where it was instead of being sucked down into the big cities. I became the unlikely candidate of the urban–rural divide, the hard geography of opportunity that keeps so many of our brightest people from moving forward unless they move away. It came to me slowly, but I became determined to fight for a country where hope is fairly distributed, where everyone gets a chance to build a life where they stand. These are the ways that doing politics changes the kind of person you are and the beliefs you start with.
We would meet every Wednesday in the magnificent high-ceilinged Railway Committee Room of Parliament, with its gigantic murals of the heroes marching wearily back from the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In opposition, it was easy to identify with these sombre, mud-spattered figures. For two hours, we would deliberate together, with some colleagues talking at the mike while others read newspapers, played with their BlackBerrys or shared whispered gossip and wisecracks. There was the usual quantity of hot air, common to all party meetings, but we all snapped to attention when anyone cut to the chase and proposed something of consequence.
The political professionals who lined up behind me mostly wanted to keep the party the way it was. The minute you enter a political arena, your opponents begin defining you, and if you don’t fight them off, you can lose control of your candidacy. I was now saddled with the label of Establishment candidate and opponents outside the party set about defining me as a George Bush apologist. When I appeared at the University of Ottawa to give a speech early in my leadership campaign, a huge crowd turned out, and right in the middle of my talk, three hooded figures, made up to look like the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, stood up and remained silently standing throughout my speech.