For the Ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, the main issue about politics was whether the government was righteous, that is aiming at the common good, or corrupted - “twisted” - that is devoted to the private interests of the rulers. This issue outweighed the question whether the government had to be monarchical, aristocratic or democratic. Modern political thought is more concerned with the issue of sovereignty. Democracy, now the only game in town, is defined as sovereignty of the people. Democratic values also include civic and personal liberties, but the quality of politicians is overlooked. It appears as a contingent by-product of the regime. Yet, professional and moral virtues of politicians are crucial for a good government. Public offices should attract the most valuable citizens, they should have a great prestige, and statesmanship should be something almost sacred - not only practical capacity but dignity as well.
What does this “should” mean today? When I was a child, in the sixties, many people thought that the highest salary in the world was the salary of the President of the United States. True or false, this belief reflected the dignity of politics. Statesmen were expected to match this dignity; journalists addressed them with respect. In France, De Gaulle was the supreme - and probably the last - incarnation of this sacred dimension of politics, still surviving in a democratic society.
De Gaulle had high moral standards. When he gave a private dinner at the presidential residence, he insisted on taking the expenses on his personal money and not on the budget for official receptions. But even by that time and in his own party, bribery and misappropriation of public funds were rampant if not frequent. Many elected or appointed politicians act as if the state was personal property. Today, the more the sacredness of political office faints, the more it is replaced by material benefits: chauffeur-driven limousines, private tables at posh restaurants at public expense, etc. Every new minister insists on changing the colour of the walls and the furniture of his office, often “kindly borrowing” it from castles or museums.
One might wonder: it is wrong for sure, but is it that important? We expect politicians to do their job, to be wise, skilled, have political courage, etc., not to be saints. Some great kings and rulers of the past were men of greed, sometime bribed. What drives politicians is often obscure and complex, layered so to speak. Personal competition among leaders and craving for power appear sometimes futile at first, but reveal significant stakes later. Wise policies may be achieved by people who don’t fit the profile. Among friends of Ukraine, many hope today that dubious, even ridiculous or corrupt politicians might do the right thing to anchor the country to democratic Europe, meanwhile distinguished and brilliant figures failed to achieve the Orange Revolution.
The value of politicians is an unwritten and yet crucial condition of democracy. It is a negative consequence of globalization (and for some countries a tragic one), that politics no longer appeal to the best students, that the elite of a nation is more interested in business than in public service. Even in countries with a long-standing and prestigious habit of public service, United Sates and France for instance, Government Schools are not as attractive as before, students prefer business and law schools. That should certainly be a worry.
But any criticism of current politicians and regrets about the past must be qualified. For two reasons. Firstly, corruption is a systemic fact, more than a matter of morality of individuals. It is a plague when it reaches high levels, but even in countries where corruption is at very high levels, anti-corruption policies may be implemented and succeed. Secondly, the content of political virtue is something elusive. Morality is an imperfect proxy. Political capability is not the same thing as morality. Our politicians are not heroes, they don’t match historical figures? Well, this is too a consequence of democracy. Leaders are today more akin to their constituents, and this is democracy. Would a Churchill, a De Gaulle be popular and find his place in our world? Perhaps, not. I am often angry and disappointed by political leaders in my country, by their impotence and lack of vision, and I know that Ukrainians have more than often good reasons to feel the same. But we should go beyond primary feelings. Politicians – as well as media and citizens - have to invent the ways and means of a more understandable and dignified political sphere that fits in the current democratic spirit. Overcoming systemic corruption is necessary but only half of the way.