Following the pasty tax, the cutting of the 50p rate and the donations-for-dinners scandal, people have started to ask, more earnestly, a question that was always at the back of their minds: does this Cabinet of millionaires get what it is like to be me? (That's "me" as in you, obviously – no-one cares whether they get what it is like to be me.)
Now my instinctive reaction to such a question is to say: who cares? I honestly couldn't give a fig whether my rulers get what it is like to be you (or, heaven forfend, me). Even asking such a question suggests a mawkish Rousseauian perversion of priorities, as if it would be okay for a ruler to introduce authoritarian measures, screw the economy and declare war on innocent countries provided she understood how we would all feel about such things. As far as I'm concerned, I'm perfectly content if my rulers have no empathy whatever. More than that, I honestly could not care less whether they positively enjoyed the thought of poor grannies shivering in their houses as their tax and heating bills rose, got a thrill out of watching British armoured vehicles being blown up by IEDs or had a shape fetish for windmills. My rulers' feelings are a matter of supreme indifference to me. I care about what they do, not what they feel. I want to know their policies and what arguments they offer to defend them. I don't care about their emotional intelligence.
My guess is that this misguided idea that our rulers should empathise with us is something to do with a desire to be able to trust politicians. We want rule by men, not law. We want to be able to say: You are in charge; do as you will. Of course we understand that is risky. But we hope to mitigate the risk at least in respect of your being well-meaning but lacking empathy – when you hurt us we at least want to know that you didn't do it without understanding that you had.
The problem with that is…well…that it's a disastrous and absurd idea that ignores just about every lesson that history has to offer. You should never trust any ruler with anything about anything. Ever. At all. When Tony Blair says "It'll be fine to grant us these wide-ranging terrorism powers because we shall be very circumspect in their use and focus them only upon the most dangerous criminals that threaten the very existence of our society. Our intentions are good, and I'm a pretty straight kind of guy." – when he says that, you should expect that the next thing that will happen is that these "terrorism-only" powers will be used to extradite financiers and spy on folks that aren't putting enough trash in the recycling. (Obviously these are hypothetical examples and would never happen in practice…Oh, wait…) And when Nick Clegg says "It'll be fine to grant us the power to read through all your emails because we shall make sure that our doing so is subject to strong tests" you should assume that (a) later governments won't feel bound by those same strong tests; and (b) as soon as it proves inconvenient the strong tests won't be so strong; and (c) once powers are there it will seem absurd to everyone not to use them. (Obviously this is a hypothetical example and our oh-so-liberal government would never propose such an unconscionable violation of English liberties and the principle of privacy…Oh, wait…)
However, there's a little snag in my case around here, and it relates to that concept of "rulers". It is indeed my view that elections are about us choosing our rulers. But the "rulers" in question are not the politicians per se. Instead, the rulers are the collective that the elected politicians bring with them. They are you Dear Reader. (Not me, again – as it happens, and mercifully for us all, people like me are "rulers" pretty much regardless of who gets elected. But that's another story…) You should not care at all whether you and people like you (let alone I and people like me), individually or collectively, get what it is like to be X, Y, or Z. But politicians are simply the front men, the political face and voice, of an underlying team of personnel and ideas that come with them.
And that's where the snag comes in. Because although I don't care whether my rulers (you, at the moment, in cooperation with some Lib Dems, for reasons that escape rational interpretation) have any empathy, I suppose I concede that one important role of the politicians in the process is indeed to give some kind of case/expression of the ideas and sentiments of The People. They certainly aren't supposed to know how to do anything of any use to anyone; and relatively few of them exist to express any philosophy or ideas. So if they don't give expression to our hopes and fears and desires – if they don't empathise with us – what are they for?
Perhaps once upon a time we hoped for something else from our politicians. Though never rulers, maybe rather than mere empathisers or (even worse) condensors of opinion polls (or The Public Will) they were once supposed to have a role as leaders – at least as leaders of our faction; hopefully as leaders of the country?
Of course, these days that sort of idea seems at least as mawkish as the thought they should be empathisers, and adds to that the vice of naivete.
So perhaps it does matter if our senior politicians can't empathise with you – or at least it matters if they can't empathise and won't lead. Ho, hum. I guess you went to the wrong shop if you were hoping to purchase either of those qualities.