Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
by Michael IgnatieffIgnatieff-fireashes

While it is a cliché that history is written by the winners, Ignatieff rightly notes that the best works on politics come from the failures and losers. Thucydides, Cicero, Machiavelli, Weber, Mill, Burke. And now, at least for a few years we can add Ignatieff. While his book won’t long remain amongst such hallowed companions, it should serve readers today as an equally important part of their engagement with politics.

It is reassuring and refreshing to see a man who failed so badly at politics still believe so whole-heartedly in the virtue of politics. Not just engaging as a pastime, but on the need for capable men and women to come down from the stands and onto the field. While many successful politicians leave notes in their memoirs about the importance of serving the people and simply spending time talking to them in their worlds, Ignatieff seems to have learned above all to actively celebrate this service as the core essence of politics. He may be a failure, but he is not a bitter one.

Circumstance and timing gave him a rapid shot – 5 years from entry to opposition leader, election loser and a clean exit through losing his seat – to have a brief but thorough engagement with political life. In turn, we get fascinating insights into the exhausting nature of modern political life and important discussions of how political language works. A highlight is the discussion of standing, earning the right to be heard as perhaps the central challenge of modern politics.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel failure inhibits Ignatieff as well. He has such a concern to not appear the bitter loser (probably because he isn’t) that you have to regularly remind yourself he actually lost the election. In turn, some major issues are not discussed.

Most notably of all, for a book that is a paean to centrist-liberal politics, we get no examination of whether there is a future for centrist-liberal politics. Ignatieff had many handicaps as a candidate, but he combined intellect, personal history (via his father) and fervent belief in his cause. He proudly waved the banner of centrist-liberal politics and yet was easily dismantled on the battlefield by his opponents.

Ignatieff uses the fact that his opponents never attacked his ideas or policies to sidestep any serious engagement with why those policies and ideas did not resonate with voters. He may attack the cynicism or antagonism of his opponents, but he never quite turns to why his own view might not have worked. It almost doesn’t seem to come up. Yet he can’t have escaped noticing how increasingly discredited the supposed hallowed ground of centrist-liberalism has become. Nor its failure not just in Canada but in the US, Australia, UK and around the world. Maybe, hopefully, this is a discussion for future work.

The book also has a confused message about the voters. On the one hand they are decent honourable people who make no mistakes at the polls and hold the soul of the country in their hard-working hands. Yadda yadda. And yet, Ignatieff can’t help but note – as any serious observer of politics does – that the voters pay little attention to politics, seem to reward many partisan attributes they claim to dislike, and don’t help support a system of representative politics that still serves them very well. Unfortunately because Ignatieff doesn’t pin the blame for his failure on his own outdated ideas, he can’t in turn confront the behaviour of voters lest he look like making excuses for his failures. But no serving politician or media figure can say these things either.

One final verbal tic is worth noting. Whenever Ignatieff reaches for an example of politics’ dispiriting or inspiring nature, he almost inevitably talks of America. From Madison to Obama, the names of US leaders litter this book. This was somewhat disappointing given I had hoped to learn a little bit about Canadian politics from the book, but perhaps Ignatieff knows his audience well. US political history has become the common currency of those interested in politics worldwide today. We cannot help but pay attention to the events of the high court, and in the 21st century that castle still resides in Washington D.C. That said, for a man who was accused by his political opponents of being too American, it does seem to somewhat prove their point.

This book has rightly been on the reading lists of most political junkies. It should be. It deserves to be read by anyone who considers themselves interested by politics. It is one of the finest examinations of modern politics by someone who has served time as a wise commentator in the stands and as a bloodied contestant on the battleground. There’s still much more that could have been said, but there are enough wise lessons from this honourable failure to make this short tome a must read.