The boiling frog metaphor is often used to describe gradual change that occurs unnoticed. The political dirty trick stories making Canadian political headlines may prompt comments on how the frog of political ethics, not the most attractive part of any democracy, is looking very unhealthy today. Yet even if the worst allegations prove true, and by-elections or criminal charges result, it won't change the temperature or prompt the frog to leave the pot.
The short-term political strategies are predictable. When campaigns use tactics they prefer to hide, they typically give their political masters "plausible deniability" and keep the circle of those "in the know" as small as possible. If a tactic backfires, a staffer takes the public blame. Accept the resignation, insist it was an isolated incident involving a rogue player acting alone, and try to change the political conversation quickly. Opposition politicians, of course, will link the misbehaviour as high up the political food chain as possible, and drag out the scandal. All sides profess disappointment in the decline of political culture and resolve to improve things. Sometimes they mean it.
As Chantal Hebert pointed out in her Toronto Star column on the current scandals, however, the competitive nature of politics and the emerging technologies that make political mischief cheaper and more anonymous are proving too great a temptation. Some deserve greater blame in the cases making the news, but this is ultimately about more than a few political scallywags being caught and punished. It is a logical consequence of the cultural water in which our political frogs, like so many aspects of society, are quietly being boiled.
A few decades ago, Daniel Moynihan wrote a controversial piece in The American Scholar entitled "Defining Deviancy Down." When a society abandons certain shared standards, he argued, behaviour once beyond the pale becomes more difficult to deal with as stigmas surrounding those behaviours disappear.
Two trends in particular have contributed to changing the temperature of our political waters—defining deviancy down—such that behaviours coming to light should surprise no one.
The first trend is the changing nature of political parties. Canada's political parties have been reduced to political marketing machines, highly centralized and controlled. Checks and balances that once existed within local ridings are much less effective, giving shadowy operatives in leaders' offices and central campaign headquarters greater sway. Combined with effective social media and telephone solicitation tolls that make geography less meaningful, restraint on such behaviour rests with fewer people. Since success is almost totally defined by winning and losing, why are we surprised when they use the tools available to them?
The second trend involves an even broader challenge. The goal of politics has always been to gain and maintain power. Since the beginnings of democracy, dubious means have been employed to that end. In a previous era, however, clearer and more broadly shared ethical boundaries governed such behaviour. Listening to the punditry on the current scandals, it seems obscure wording in the Elections Act is being entirely relied on to distinguish an acceptable dirty trick from action that crosses the line and makes government illegitimate. While the law clearly has a role, a functioning democracy cannot rely only on law alone to keep politics respectful. In an era where one can mouth platitudes about "high ethical standards" yet not impose moral judgements on anyone, it is inevitable that standards of behaviour will be defined down.
C.S. Lewis astutely observed regarding modern times, "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful."
The political firestorm will likely continue for a bit as leaders allege and deny who knew what when, and as those investigating piece together whether blame can be laid. The results will be unsatisfying because we have created systems and standards that narrow the political game to disconnected assignments given to individuals. We've spent a generation telling such individuals that if it feels good do it, that there are no moral boundaries unless someone else is hurt. We've constantly reminded them that no one should be imposing their morality on others.
When we create such systems, why are we surprised by the results? The frog is cooked, after all, long before the water boils.