A risk of politics is not just becoming big-headed, but getting caught out thinking you’re better than the voters.
You hang out with important people. You get recognised in public. You are involved in decisions you think make a difference to society.
The key difference from standard celebrity is that your position is owed very directly to the public vote.
So you can come undone quickly if you show any sign of a self-importance or disregard for individual citizens that is unwarranted.
In fact, it’s arguable that what politicians need to realise is that what they may read as their celebrity is actually closer to notoriety.
A recent example was the furor over the actions of backbench New Zealand MP Aaron Gilmore at a restaurant. It is claimed that he acted rudely toward service staff. It is claimed that he uttered the beautifully ironic and iconic line: don’t you know who I am?
Even if fueled by alcohol and hijinks, voters probably find the apparent arrogance unforgivable. In egalitarian nations such as New Zealand and Australia, politicians cannot for one moment act as if they think they are better than anyone else. As a rule of thumb, the more senior you are, the more humble you should appear.
That said, politicians of strong purpose, humour, success, or intelligence can get away with arrogance and lack of humility.
Politicians can be rude toward, or disregard the opinions of, groups of people among their voters. They can even sometimes pick out individual citizens to round upon.
It’s a subtle business though. The one thing voters won’t abide is a politician displaying a belief that they are better or more important than, the rest of us.
Some other examples of public revile for a politician’s attitude toward members of the public.
- UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown overheard fuming about a street encounter brow-beating he got from a elderly lady.
- NZ Prime Minister David Lange hand-writing on a letter to a constituent that she was a “shrew”.
- UK Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell calling a policeman a “pleb” for making him dismount his bicycle.
- A US State Senator telling someone at a public meeting to “be quiet” because “I am the Senator. You are a citizen.”
An interesting thing to note is that some situations can be recovered when the beliefs or conduct of the citizen involved is revealed to be less than innocent.
For example, policemen in the Mitchell case was subsequently revealed to have embellished and been behind the deliberate publicising of their record of the incident. This went some way toward rehabilitating Mitchell’s reputation.