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Leah McLaren

The upside of smugness Add to ...

The big story on this side of the pond this week (apart from the fact that no one could cross it) was the degree to which Britain's strongly favoured Conservative Party has slipped dramatically in election polls, conceding ground to the previously hopeless Liberal Democrats. The shift is ostensibly the result of Tory Leader David Cameron's lacklustre performance during a recent televised debate, but any observant person can see that the backlash runs much deeper than that.

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Cameron, a pink-cheeked old Etonian with a substantial private fortune and a prettily knocked-up wife, has long been vaunted as the Next Prime Minister of Britain. He is so well anointed as the next occupant of 10 Downing Street that it's a wonder he has any wrinkles at all. And compared with the grizzled, unsmiling current occupant, Labour PM Gordon Brown, he looks good indeed, but sometimes even a pretty face can work against you. Cameron's charmed youth (he became party leader while still in his 30s), aristocratic lineage (he is a direct descendent of William IV) and smooth manners have combined to saddle the poor chap with a serious political handicap: the curse of the front-runner.

Ironically enough, the Tory leader launched his campaign with a speech in which he promised to reverse the kingdom's "Culture of Entitlement." That dog-whistle phrase has become popular with right-wing politicians in recent years and is generally used to refer to the faceless mass of poor lazy people who sit around watching Jerry Springer when they ought to be out working for a living. It now seems strangely fitting that the same notion - entitlement - is making the British public recoil from the thought of electing someone so obscenely privileged as leader (Michael Ignatieff, please take note).

In Canada, we have some fantastically entitled Conservatives of our own - I'm looking at you, Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis. In the sordid mess of allegations and rumour surrounding the affair, one thing seems clear: Regular Canadians, while disappointed, are not terribly surprised. The alleged misconduct of Jaffer and Guergis fits with the general public perception of politicians as a thoroughly entitled bunch, corrupted by power and willing to use their influence for personal gain. A Canadian Press story dubbed them Canada's "poster couple for political entitlement." And a resident of Guergis's riding recently told CBC Radio that he considered Guergis's behaviour reprehensible, but wasn't particularly surprised in that "she acted like a typical politician."

While I wouldn't go as far, I do think it's interesting - even ironic - that the mantle of entitlement is being pushed back on Conservatives themselves. After years of foisting the label on everyone else, Tories on both sides of the pond are getting a taste of their own rhetorical medicine.

But is entitlement - roughly defined in my dictionary as "an established or recognized right" - really such a bad thing for politicians (or anyone else for that matter) to invoke?

In his book Outliers, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell comes to the conclusion that a sense of entitlement - the kind instilled by education and class advantages - is a more significant determining factor in success than intelligence or talent alone. Middle- and upper-middle-class children, he maintains, are taught by their parents to pursue their own individual preferences, to "actively manage interactions in institutional settings" and to be "open to sharing information and asking for information." These observations lead Gladwell to conclude that a sense of entitlement - the thing we abhor in smug politicians and alleged welfare rip-off artists - is "an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world."

Of course, the line between positive entitlement and arrogance is a fine one, especially when it comes to public figures. We want our democratically elected leaders to be confident enough to take control but humble enough to answer to the public. We want them to be calm but never cavalier. It's a tricky balance, one that has as much to do with the political backdrop as the character of the leaders themselves.

The last American presidential race was a case in point. In that stunning piece of political theatre, both the winners and the losers were defined by their sense of entitlement - especially if you believe the account put forward in Game Change, the gripping campaign-trail tell-all by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

In that account, Sarah Palin was said to have been completely unflustered by the news that she had been plucked from obscurity to run for vice-president. When a John McCain aide asked her during the vetting process if she wasn't just a teeny bit nervous, Palin reportedly replied serenely, "It's God's plan." Well, we saw how that worked out.

On the other hand, Barack Obama was able to make his sense of entitlement work for him, appearing predestined for the presidency because he acted as though leadership was unequivocally his destiny. While McCain lurched about, reacting defensively to media criticisms and impulsively trying to put out fires during the 2008 economic crisis, Obama remained calm. According to Heilemann and Halperin, "the crisis atmosphere created a setting in which his intellect, self-possession and unflappability were seen as leaderly qualities, not as aloofness, arrogance or bloodlessness, as they had sometimes been regarded in the past."

Believing that we are entitled to certain rights as citizens - be it social assistance, efficient air travel or the privilege of running for office - is not in itself a bad thing. On the contrary, such entitlements are fundamental to democracy. The trick is not to take anything for granted.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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