The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Democracy in a Box

Those of us in the affluent West hold to the belief that certain political realities remain sacrosanct. Rule of law, political representation, will of the people, elections, civic duty – these have become so entrenched in our thoughts that we believe them immutable. And situated at the peak is that one great word that encompasses them all – democracy. For all its many flaws, it remains our preferred method of government.

The problem is that none of that is certain anymore, as the decades have introduced complexities that confound even the most stable governments. When Alan Moore, in his V is for Vendetta, wrote that, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people,” it was assumed that only one of these could exist in a single moment. But we are now learning that our modern democracy is furthering both at the same time. Rampant populism is only the most recent example of how the great democratic experiment of the last two centuries has slipped its moorings and sailed into troubled waters.

The term democracy can now mean many things, not all of them true to its original intent of citizens being granted certain rights regardless of who is in power. Indeed, the protection of these liberties by way of constitutions, civil rights, and separate branches of government was democracy’s greatest responsibility.

Yet while most countries call themselves democratic today, a good number of them use force and coercion to keep their people in submission to their autocratic rule. By delinking government from its responsibility to the individuality of its citizens, these rulers – most of them ironically elected – have taken democracy off in new directions for which it wasn’t intended. For a century, Western governments attempted, often crudely, to persuade less-developed nations to extend more liberties to their people. Leaders of those receiving nations most often justified their need for Western resources in order to free their nations from the more brutal practices of history. They then used those tools designed to enhance democracy and drove their people back into the shadows of a despotic past.

Efforts to export democracy to struggling nations were frequently mixed with ulterior motives and an almost complete lack of understanding of a region’s history. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Sudan, Rwanda, are but some of the more recent examples of naïve foreign policy run amok.

Troubling as these developments were, Western governments necessarily drew a certain comfort by comparing their advanced democratic institutions with the perceived crude efforts of those they were attempting to assist in other corners of the world.

Now such comparisons are often moot. It remains a very difficult thing to assert you have the political and economic solutions the developing world needs when you tolerate growing poverty levels, increases in violence, gender inequality, and the blind disregard of your own indigenous people. This becomes a democratic nightmare when it is your own citizens that express their disenchantment in huge number. Political instability becomes the present companion in every election and politicians adopt the torturous process of trying to be all things to all people, while ending up as bland versions of their former principled selves.

Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past week revealed just how confounding this whole democracy definition has become. The sight of a constitution-avoiding Western leader leveraging military and economic deals with a Saudi leadership that has turned civic oppression into something of an art only further blurs the lines between true democracy and it’s many modern pretenders. The result is confusion and hypocrisy. Or as the Washington Post reported: “Trump has preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.” So much for democracy’s moral high ground.

You can’t just unpack democracy as if it’s a “one-size-fits-all” bromide. It remains the most arduous political task in the world today, involving dedicated effort by citizens and those they elect. Professing democracy while denying people their democratic rights shouldn’t be fooling anybody. Voting has little effect when your only emotion towards the political order is one of fear. Mark Twain wasn’t just joking when he said, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” The essence of democracy is turning that vote into the most powerful political act by a liberated and protected people.

 

Mine, Yours, Ours

Photo credit: Sasin Tipchai

For all our talk concerning the ability for our communities to enjoy both prosperity and well-being we have proved remarkably one-sided in that approach by consistently allowing prosperity to become the benchmark for the welfare of our communities. Growth and all our rampant belief in its ability to provide a better future is quickly forcing us into a corner, where our desires are no longer affordable and our resources are rapidly dwindling in the process.

What else did we expect? In a world where wealth moves ever upward and the planet comes closer to living on life-support, the results of our mad dash to material nirvana are evident for all who wish to see and acknowledge them. As the New Yorker reminded us recently, we live in a world where only 2% of the world’s income is possessed by the bottom one-fifth of global population. If this practice persists, then it’s inevitable that something has to give. In most cases it’s the poor themselves. Looked at through another lens, the picture becomes even more revealing. A Credit Suisse report recently noted that the world’s 1% presently own more than half of the world’s wealth. That same report reminds us that while the growth of the world economy has doubled in the past quarter-century, the heavy cost for that expansion has been the 60% deterioration of the world’s ecosystems during that same period.

What has been the cause of this great global irony? In a word, inequality. It’s everywhere – between nations, between citizens, within nations, between communities in a fashion that keeps them endlessly competitive, and within those very same cities. It’s affecting everything and leaving us increasingly unsure an insecure in the process.

Is there another way, maybe a better one? Definitely – more than one in fact. But such innovations aren’t likely to find vast public support – at least for a time. Yet around the world communities are striving to find a balance between what we want and what the planet needs, and some have achieved success. They have built into the very sinews of their communities the idea of prosperity that needs to have sustainable lifestyles, individually and collectively.

Prosperity shouldn’t just be about money, economics, and luxury. Somehow we have to get into our minds that there is only so much in the way of resources to go around and that if an abundance of those resources deplete the planet or go to a minority of people at the expense of others, then “prosperity” might be the wrong word. Indeed, prosperity should be about shared living and not just success in isolated existence. Good health, adequate education, mutual respect, meaningful work, community responsibility and heightened citizenship – these, along with a healthy environmental ecosystem, need to be migrated into our very understanding of what prosperity really is and what it involves.

In a report by Professor Tim Jackson for the United Kingdom Sustainable Development Commission that I’ve be rereading while here in Britain this week, emerged a rather bold concept that could conceivably become the only way our planet and its people can survive. Jackson talks about “prosperity without growth” and, given our modern penchant for everything material, it forms a revolutionary statement. It makes sense of another of Jackson’s observations has merit: “the same old, same old, is not longer working.”

If he is correct – and many communities are banking on it – the only way we can survive while perhaps achieving prosperity at the same time is to build sharing economies. In other words, where we used to just collect and collect for our own individual pleasures or purposes, we can learn to share our resources with one another in any way that gives us meaningful and comfortable lives without impoverishing large portions of the human race or depleting the planet’s limited supply of natural resources.

Jackson, and others, favour the phrase “regenerative human culture” as a means for conveying their ideas. If in order to prosper we have to strip the planet at the same time, then eventually everything becomes a lose-lose scenario. But if we learn to collaborate and share the blessings we already have, then society can renew itself, spread the wealth, and heal the planet at the same time. It’s about using what we already have as opposed to inventing ever-new products for us to acquire. The website Global Transition to a New Economy has numerous revealing examples of such an economy action. The idea is simpler than its implementation, but the point is that it is doable. Prosperity for all is created by all of us through collaboration and not so much competition. The initiative SolidarityNYC put the challenge clearly:

Rather than isolating us from one another, shared economies foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice.

Share more while using less. Include others instead of retaining everything in isolation. Try being collaborative instead of competitive. All these are possible but not yet popular. There is much to learn from in our present economic practices, but they never were sufficient as long as they created winners and losers, poverty and wealth, environmental degradation and the a throwaway generation. Shared economies are more than an idea at present. In time they will become the only way ahead.

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

“Human” Leadership

Sharad Vivek Sagar put the irony out there for all to consider: “If the UN has not failed in maintaining world peace or bilateral relations between nations, it has definitely not succeeded either.”

From the beginning, the United Nations has had it proponents and detractors, but as the world becomes more infused with non-state actors like terrorist organizations, corporations, and large non-governmental organizations (NGOs), its work has grown increasingly complex and, at times, confounding. We require it now more than ever, yet its effectiveness remains in question.=

It is perhaps for such a time, then, that new UN Secretary General António Guterres is best to lead the world body. His selection for the post wasn’t without controversy, but the amount of wisdom gained from his UN experience over recent years is cumulative and impressive. He understands politics, having served as the former Prime Minister of Portugal. Then from 2005 – 2016 he was placed in charge of perhaps the organization’s most problematic file as the lead for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

During his past tenure at the UNHCR he oversaw crisis after crisis regarding refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East – numbering in the millions. While he had to provide basic survival resources to the world’s most marginalized, he also sought to explore and understand the origins of the refugee problem itself by developing policies, meeting with groups like Doctors Without Borders, the International Organization for Migration, and countless NGOs. But he went further, attempting to draw the clear link between human mobilization and climate change. Most of his term was spent, not in the corridors of power, but at the intersections where refugees met with destitution and international response.

“In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being,”

Guterres felt his responsibilities to refugee families across a variety of sectors – food security, safety from violence, travel documentation, screening, and basic access to water and medical assistance – but his ultimate goal was clear and unequivocal: finding a secure place for every refugee. That never proved easy and a great portion of refugees had to be helped in UN humanitarian camps instead of in secure environments made available by other nations. That’s a tough job when so many advanced nations were considering closing their borders to future migrations as a result of security fears.

In a very real sense, the arrival of Guterres at the top of the UN structure has come at a pivotal time, as the “refugee dilemma” has become a top drawer policy issue in both Europe and the United States. While the world faces many deep and abiding challenges, like climate change, economic reform, nuclear threats, regional conflicts, and the ever-present threat of terrorism, the sheer human fallout in the form of millions of migrants crossing the globe represents perhaps the greatest immediate challenge facing the world. Guterres knows the refugee system through an intimate practical knowledge that only comes with being responsible for such a huge file. The reality that someone of this calibre is now leading the entire United Nations organization means that, for the rest of his term at least, that a human face, in the form of countless refugees, will now be the United Nation’s calling card to a distracted world.

“In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being,” Aysha Taryam reminds us. Far better to have someone with an extensive workable knowledge of the world’s most oppressed to lift the human face up for our attention out of the mass of crippled humanity.

Catch and Release

This post was originally published at National Newswatch here.

Author Chris Gould, in his Aristotle: Politics, Ethics and Desirability, made the rather sage observation that, “the best promises forever seem to be made by amnesiacs.”  Politics has frequently been measured as the distance between what a politician promises and what is ultimately delivered. As voters themselves move all over the political map, those seeking their approval make ever more outlandish vows in order to secure their trust, and often fail to complete them.

The more this goes on – the over promising and under delivering – the more that essential ingredient of trust slips away from our democracy. We have reached a stage in the modern era life where politics itself has escaped the very democratic system it was supposed to guard and empower.  The generation that endured the deep disillusionment of Watergate and lost faith in democracy’s institutions, its ideals and its pragmatic ability to find commonality, never recovered.

Canadians. who endured years of Senate scandal, eventually grew to distrust and ignore the Upper Chamber, with many calling for its abolition. Even Justin Trudeau’s efforts to reform the Senate have so far failed to restore it to a place of respect, and perhaps more importantly, effectiveness. Trust has yet to be rebuilt.

Europe is currently walking a perilous tightrope as old institutions fall into disfavour, political leaders make outlandish claims, and citizens themselves collectively retreat from the comity that once spoke of a more hopeful future. Current French elections are only the most recent example of the creeping era of democratic distrust.

Throughout democracy’s history were numerous unorthodox figures and statements that frequently served to spice up debate and make the news more interesting. But many of today’s current leaders are, like Nixon, willing to undermine the very integrity of constitutions and revered political practice in order to achieve their ends. For them it is not enough to win; they must trounce the system, drain the swamp, get the voters to detest government itself, if they are to retain their popularity. In Harvard University Law Professor’s Jack Goldsmith’s view, it is now becoming the normal for a political leader to claim that “lawful is awful.”

All of this willingness to push beyond the limits of law and common sense has left the average citizen with the sense that nothing is politically sacred anymore – not common purpose, compromise, personal integrity, even law itself. The goal posts keep moving. The rules keep morphing. The characters keep changing. Yet, in all of it, little seems to be getting done. For all the talk of democratic reform, little changes. Lofty statements on the need to radically challenge the encroachment of climate change remain largely empty. Poverty remains stubbornly present and damning. Calls for political parties to cooperate on our greatest challenges have yet to successfully tear down the walls of animosity between them.

It’s the political equivalent of catch and release: use whatever bait it takes to hook the fish, but once it’s in the boat, toss it back into the water. Do or say whatever it takes to get the vote, even if it means undermining democracy itself, and then govern as though the only thing that matters is political survival.

Founding figures in both the United States and Canada launched their precarious experiments in democracy in the belief that only a commitment to high standards of human behaviour and respect, along with maintaining the abiding trust of citizens, could guarantee the success of their efforts.   It is becoming more evident that we are failing in that quest across the board – politicians for making promises that they sensibly can’t make, and citizens for continuing to vote for those moving more and more to the extremes. Abraham Lincoln understood this well enough to say:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Politicians around the world are going to have to work exceedingly hard to regain the trust of the voters and that will mean making sensible promises and working in collaboration to achieve them. And citizens must begin the process of finding and building on the common ground that was once the most expensive piece of public real estate, but one we are increasingly in danger of losing.

%d bloggers like this: