The power of humility in the democratic process

If you are looking for humility, you wouldn’t go hunting in Parliament.

There are displays of humility. Seldom does an MP win a candidacy or an election or promotion without intoning how humbling it is to have won. Democracy requires ritual magnanimity in victory.

But magnanimity stretches only so far. Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 used to crow across the Chamber at Labour and the Alliance: “We’re here and you’re there” (in opposition). The present Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Cullen, did it more cuttingly: “We won. You lost. Eat that.”

That is the obverse of humility: humiliation. It also exhibits that habitual affliction of those who win office: political memory loss. Now it is Peters who is “there”, in opposition. And Cullen had a lot to “eat” in 12 years in opposition.

The Labour caucus needed reminding last week that not so long ago it suffered from its own version of National’s English disease, division and disaffection. The government-supporting parties’ 20 per cent-plus lead over the opposition parties has given Labour MPs flights of fancy of perpetual Labour-led governments.

Yet it is at exactly such moments that humility is most necessary — and, applied with skill, most democratically potent. Instead, such moments encourage hubris, an enemy of democracy.

I have seen a good deal of hubris in emails from the United States over the past month. It takes two forms: the United States is powerful and morally right; and tiddlers like New Zealand need to get in line or else.

That moral rectitude has many cheerleaders. The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor, Daniel Henninger, wrote in his weekly column on 28 March that this is a time when people have been declaring themselves, actively or by default, on one side or the other of a moral line: “Long-term claims to moral standings are at stake.”

Anti-war activists would agree, judging by other emails I have had from the United States, though, of course, the absolute morality they push is totally different.

Morality is slippery ground on which to found a state’s foreign policy. It can even be the very stuff of war. George Bush has made it so.

But Bush has also demonstrated the power of humility — well, at least pretend humility. Whatever his words say, he doesn’t look arrogant and superior. He projects an inner certainty without an overbearing demeanour. It is a powerfully seductive combination and it has seduced a nation, even as it has divided the world.

Jesus projected the same powerful mix: inner certainty and a mostly modest demeanour. It founded one of the world’s great and enduring religions.

On our lowlier stage Sir Edmund Hillary has become a national living treasure by combining determination and grace.

Peters often flashes a boyish “I-didn’t-really-mean-it” grin that draws some of the sting from his words. That is not humility.

Bill English offers a version of humility: the lad from Dipton. He drove himself to some election meetings and his arrival was often not registered for some time. Peters got round in a black Mercedes with two black-suited minders.

English has grit in abundance. But grit is not inner certainty. His sensitivity to all sides of an issue projects what voters see as weakness. Only the strong can be powerfully humble.

Which brings us to the Prime Minister.

There is no doubting she is powerful. She oozes authority. Voters lap it up.

And if you go back far enough in her life you uncover an unpretentious student of politics and believer in social democracy and justice, a policy wonk who cared little for showcase fripperies. She is not automatically arrogant.

But she seems incapable of bringing together the powerful and the unpretentious in herself. It is almost as if she fears a display of humility will demolish the edifice of invincibility.

That is a mistake. Just as weakness is not humility, humility is not weakness. Quite the opposite: inability to express humility can be a sign of inner uncertainty.

When Clark was exposed last year as having signed paintings she didn’t paint for sale at charity auctions, most people treated it as a laughable peccadillo, understandable and forgivable even if wrong — not a voting matter.

But all she would say was that she had made an mistake. She never acknowledged that she also did wrong.

As result, the affair dogged her for weeks.

So, too, with her ill-judged Al Gore comment, perhaps a case of a smidgeon of deeply suppressed anti-Americanism popping out in the heat of war.

Again, forgivable. Except that her comment caused — or is feared to have caused — damage to the relationship with the United States, damage compounded by her refusal to retract.

Someone who understood the power of humility would quickly have conceded the wrong. Two weeks of embarrassing harrassment in the House would have been aborted. Her authority would have been undiminished and the foreign policy damage minimised.

Instead, she has been humiliated. There is another way.