Leisure Reflections No 45: Being a Politician in a Democracy: No Work like It
Louise Platt / July 28, 2017
By Bob Stebbins. University of Calgary
As a sociologist with a long-standing interest in work and leisure, I have wondered from time to time how to describe high-level politicians at work in democratic societies. Fresh off my initial study of amateurs in the mid-1970s, I became intrigued with James Q. Wilson’s The Amateur Democrat when it first came to my attention. Since I planned additional research across the range of amateurism, why not study this manifestation of it? I mentioned my intentions to a colleague in political science, who very quickly responded with a snort: “there is no such thing!” (as an amateur politician).
Wilson wrote about local politicians, whereas my colleague had especially the higher-level regional and national varieties in mind. Nonetheless, his response set me to thinking about the nature of politics and politicians in modern times, in particular whether they could be considered amateurs, professionals, volunteers, or some other type of worker or leisure participant. My answer to this question is expressed in the subtitle of this article. But how did I get there? Let us first examine why other conceivable criteria fail to define the remunerated democratic politician and then explore what this worker, who in census terminology is “not elsewhere classified,” means to the conscientious voter.
My almost singular devotion to the study of the nature of work and leisure continues to this day, and it has led me into and through a veritable forest of differentiating criteria (Stebbins, 2017). First, note that our high-level politicians are not amateurs, for they are paid enough to earn a substantial part of, if not all of, a livelihood. Amateurs I have learned through research do sometimes receive some money for their activities (e.g., prizes in sport, prizes and sales in art, fees in science and entertainment), but in amounts too paltry to constitute a living, however Spartan.
Second, and somewhat more central to my argument, is that these politicians are not professionals, which is a quintessential feature of amateurism. That is, these politicians are paid, which makes them professional like all other paid workers – plumbers, shop keepers, sales people, governmental employees, and so on. But the politicians are not liberal professionals, the ones who serve as models for like-minded amateurs and, for some of the latter, the ones whom they aspire to become. Meanwhile, the “liberal professions” are, according to the European Union’s Directive on Recognition of Professional Qualifications (2005/36/EC): “those practiced on the basis of relevant professional qualifications in a personal, responsible and professionally independent capacity by those providing intellectual and conceptual services in the interest of the client and the public.” The liberal professionals exercise a calling; theirs is a vocation. Their clients are served by physicians, lawyers, architects, teachers, and the like, whereas their publics are served by, for example, musicians, actors, writers, and painters.
Max Weber (1946) set out in his essay on politics as a vocation (first delivered as a lecture in 1920), that high-level politicians are guided by one of two ethics. One is the “ethic of responsibility,” or the desire to work politically for the good of the community. This implies the presence of substantial altruism, where among the serious leisure volunteers who express it, self-interest is a secondary motive.
How do professional politicians fit in this picture, focusing here only on those whose political activities are full-time or close to it and who are sufficiently remunerated to find in them a living, whether passable or substantial? First, the modern Western politician seems to be driven very often by Weber’s other ethic, namely, the “ethic of conviction.” Fired by this mentality, its proponents strive to preserve their moral purity, though with little or no regard for the broader consequences of this approach. That is, their beliefs and related actions as they impinge, sometimes negatively, on the well-being of significant parts the larger society. Politicians acting this way are not altruistic, nor are they serving society as liberal professionals profess to do. Put otherwise, theirs — the first — is no altruistic calling, rather it is an interest-based pursuit, a drive to work for one’s own narrow concerns and those one’s special group.
That democratic politicians of the ethics-of-conviction kind lack altruism (except for one’s special group), is sufficient to attest that such enthusiasts are not volunteers. As critical, volunteering is unremunerated activity, whereas high-level politics is not. Nonetheless, some political volunteers (e.g., those serving political parties, candidates for office, governmental functions) might acquire enough of a taste for the political career to aspire to having their own.
In support of the argument that the modern democratic politician is more and more unlikely to be an amateur is the fact that this person’s career line leading to this role tends not to originate in an academic field. In other words, politics is not a practical application of a field like political science, though some politicians may have an educational background there, in economics or social work, or somewhat more probably, in management, law, or even medicine. Even in the last three on this list, their applied components are not directed toward developing the skills politicians need to do their job. In fact, formal training to be a politician is rare, a lack that led Arjen Berkvens (2009) to develop a unique ,144-page political skills manual.
But do the politicians of conviction even want formal political training, which in the above-mentioned manual consists of, among other things, learning how to debate, lobby, form a coalition, go about fund raising, and develop policy. In their (typically unbending) conviction they assume there is nothing to debate, no compromises to be made in building a coalition or entering into negotiations or, given this rigidity, nothing to learn about the art of opposition. These are skills that only those politicians guided by the ethic of responsibility have need for. But, in fact, lack of training notwithstanding, politicians of all stripes do in this respect eventually loosen up to some extent. This seems to happen in the heat of battle, however, and not because of formal principles learned in advance. And such compromise may be accompanied by feelings of guilt for having deviated from deeply-held principles.
Many a voter in today’s democratic politics is in a quandry. The politician’s unique work role leaves little valid ground for inferring that person’s competence to serve in government in a way the voter would like. The criteria the latter might use, discussed earlier in this article, fail to link convincingly with the kind of people he or she wants to have as a political representative. Thus, a candidate who is by attitude a liberal professional cannot get anywhere thinking that way in an occupation that is only professional in the remunerative sense. Or a candidate known for altruistic volunteer work in the community will find it tough going among legislative colleagues under the influence of the ethic of conviction in its illiberal form.
More generally, the voter of today in many Western democracies is living in an age of widespread political greed, selfishness, dishonesty, and even meanness that is especially prevalent among those driven by the ethic of conviction dressed in illiberal clothes. The political parties have been tainted by this antidemocratic spirit, though not equally so. Nevertheless, voters cannot count on any particular party to be largely free of it, and to be dominantly oriented instead by the ethic of responsibility. But were the majority of a party’s voters inclined toward this ethic, voting for candidates would be much simpler: cast one’s ballot for those in the party with a background most closely aligned publicly with that ethic.
In brief, this article, though it has deepened understanding of the modern politician as a person and an occupation, has also complicated the voters’ lot by calling into question what were once reasonably reliable criteria for selecting “good” people for office. These voters, if they take their citizenly duties seriously, will have to spend significantly more time than in the past learning about the political scene (think liberal arts hobby, Stebbins, 1994).
 This quotation is taken from: Official Journal of the European Union. Directive 2005/36/ec of the European parliament and of the council of 7 September 2005 on the recognition of professional qualifications 30.9.2005, p. L 255/27, no. 43. The liberal profession, which is not a common term in English, is a translation of the French la profession libérale. This distinction is critical, when juxtaposed against the remunerative definition given above, for it suggests two dramatically different orientations to work. What is more, the liberal professions have their roots in serious leisure (Stebbins, 2004/2014, Chap. 5).
Berkvens, A. (2009). Becoming a better politician: Political skills manual. Amsterdam, NL: Alfred Mozer Stichting — International Foundation for Social Democracy. Available at: http://effectivetraining.org (English manual), retrieved 13 January 2017.
Stebbins, R. A. (1994). The liberal arts hobbies: A neglected subtype of serious leisure. Loisir et Société/Society and Leisure, 16, 173-186.
Stebbins, R. A. (2004/2014). Between work and leisure: The common ground of two separate worlds. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers (paperback edition with new Preface, 2014).
Stebbins, R. A. (2017). From humility to hubris among scholars and politicians: Exploring expressions of self-esteem and achievement. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.
Weber, M. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. In H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills (trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Leisure Reflections No. 46
On “The Literature Review in Leisure Research”