The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Liberalism

History’s Revenge

 

It all seems so long ago, yet in reality it was less than 30 years since that remarkable time in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and capitalism appeared poised to launch the world into a new, more equitable era. My wife, Jane, was there and wrote Lincoln’s famous words on the wall: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   British journalist Timothy Garton Ash famously called those remarkable few days “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”

Almost two million East Germans crossed over to the West in the next few days. Communist regimes began falling like dominoes – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Two years later the Soviet Union was disbanded. Numerous conflicts ended and the number of refugees decreased as a result. More nations became democratic and it felt as if a whole new world was in the process of being born.

What happened? That was just a generation ago. Now we’re talking walls, travel bans, dismantling trade deals, more refugees, multiple threats to economies, the possible breaking down of climate change efforts, rising terrorism, a confused international order, and significant anger at different levels. As the good folks at Freedom House reminded us not too long ago, the democracy we have believed in is undergoing more threats and decline than at anytime in the past quarter of a century.

It’s likely that during that headier time we sat back and delighted in watching democracy and capitalism wend their way through traditionally autocratic regions when we should have been using all the momentum to also reform our own institutions in the developed and affluent world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the real question was if democracy and capitalism were up to the challenge of this new world? It should have been repeatedly asked, but the West, in trying to export these twin ideas to the newly liberated nations, was too busy to consider upgrading its own beleaguered political and economic infrastructures.

Now it’s our turn, as political, social and financial upheaval threaten the established order in ways that surprise us. Did we honestly ever consider that the banning of millions of Muslims from America was actually going to happen, or even doable? Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over and prosperity just around the corner for everyone? It’s tough to address such queries because they are still being played out. We have yet to see if the growing pushback against extremist forces will be sufficient to reduce the overall danger to the planet.

What we are witnessing is history’s revenge. It’s what happens when people place history’s hard gotten gains on cruise control. By always assuming that economic and social progress was a natural development we overlooked the steep sacrifices paid to provide such opportunities. Power had morphed and we weren’t on top of it. For former German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer it was as though the emperor had lost his clothes. As he told author Moises Naim: “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places.”

And now we are discovering the same thing. It’s neither universal nor total, but the trend towards political and financial dysfunction is clear, leaving social damage in its wake. Canada is in the fortunate position of perhaps shaping these effects, but only if we form a united front against those leaders and movements that would seek to reintroduce the demons of history that we once thought vanquished. Making room for racism, xenophobia, online bigotry, and outright hatred will quickly strip us of the moral sinew required to steer a more principled course into the future.

To that must be added the urgency of defeating inequality, and creating effective environmental legislation, a sense of solidarity among all Canadian citizens, and the belief that the strides we have made in the past must be continually guarded against decay. Civil society must begin the hard work of softening the rough edges of a more violent world.

Those more troubling aspects of history are now biting back, restless to release their havoc upon a confused and alarmed world that had once hoped for something better. To survive the troubling years ahead the secret isn’t so much to put the genie back into the bottle, but to create equitable institutions and systems that better the entire world and not merely the few.

 

2016: The End of History – As We Knew It

This post can be viewed as a National Newswatch column here.

Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man emerged in 1992 – a well-crafted reasoning as to why liberal democracy of the Western variety had become the greatest form of human government. Though a fascinating read, for many who had travelled extensively there was the sense that the author’s predictions weren’t matching what was occurring in the developing world. In those regions, politics and globalization were taking unusual twists and turns of a highly unpredictable nature. Ultimately, The End of History, though a well-meaning offering, just wasn’t in-sync with humanity’s complexity.

It has taken a few decades to understand that liberal democracy itself is hardly as vibrant or dominant as we once believed, and it’s likely that 2016 was the year where we began to seriously doubt our own confidence in the financial and political systems of our present era. In reality, the previously more stable countries around the globe are falling into crisis. Canada is enjoying relative stability, but one shouldn’t presume it’s guaranteed. That will depend on us.

It’s a tough time to be a politician. Voters are looking to their elected leaders to deal effectively with growing inequality, stagnating living standards, unemployment and underemployment, surging immigration, vigilante terrorism, climate change, and the lack of effective social policies. That’s a lot, and we are quickly reaching the stage where we wonder if our leaders can actually deliver on what we expect. It’s a crisis of governance to be sure, but it is impacting democracy itself in unpredictable ways.

Wasn’t globalization and the reformatting of the world economy supposed to benefit those liberal democracies best suited to take advantage of investments and innovation? Instead we are witnessing the shift of power and influence from the developed to the developing world. In Western democracies, the safe path of progress no longer instills a sense of trust. We still have countless economic and political advantages in the West, but the competition from across the globe is now fierce. Nothing is sure any longer, and if any time in recent history taught us that truth it was 2016.

Whether we think of it or not, the inroads of modern technology and the emergence of billions of new low-wage workers into the global economy have placed us in the predicament of having far more capacity than we do demand, and in the process the average Western worker is being squeezed or made redundant altogether. To a significant degree, the pain felt in this grip helped to propel Donald Trump to victory.

The feeling of disconnectedness among citizens is tearing apart our historic sense of order and institutional progress. The advent of social media has meant that nothing is for sure anymore. It has proved largely successful at driving voters into verbally armed camps of ideology as opposed to better equipping them for integrated debate and consensus. What could have been an effective revolution of ideas and innovation has descended instead into a maelstrom of barbs, attacks, and hate speech. No one partaking of social media in these past 12 months could remain ignorant of this trend.

The last year has also felt the rumbles of nation states no longer willing to play ball with the traditional global patterns of getting along. Russia, Syria, Iran, numerous European nations, China, and even Israel in its recent war of words with the U.S., are in the process of expanding their reach in ways that break standard global protocols. It’s not just terrorist organizations that flaunt international norms; now entire nation states are flirting with the practice. 2016 was the Year of the Rogue.

It seems tragic that in the face of such imposing challenges the divisions in Western societies are exacerbated by dysfunction in both the partisanship of politics and the separations within the citizenry. These are times when our attentions must be focused on overcoming our differences by identifying our commonalities.

One thing is for certain: leaders can no longer proceed in their various agendas without the support of citizens. It is no longer enough to engage only during election seasons. Populism has risen so quickly, and with such turbulence, that established political orders around the globe have been served notice – power is no longer the playground of the privileged. If by the end of 2017 elected officials fail to mobilize power and finance for the betterment of average citizens instead of the wealthy or the political parties, then history itself will transform into something no one can fully predict. So far, it is difficult to feel assured.

Years ago political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote of a “third wave” of democracy that would spring up around the world, driven in large part by grassroots populism. Since the 1970s, the number of electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, went from 45 to over 123 of the 192 countries today. Democracy is everywhere, but it’s more like turbulent cauldron than any kind of organized movement among the citizens of the world. Neither political nor financial leaders have yet shown the capacity to collectively shape these movements. 2017 might well be their final chance before the dam breaks, ushering in a different world.

Refugees: Are Solutions Possible?

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THE FACES OF GOVERNMENTAL LEADERS flashing across our screens from the United Nations in New York in these last few days caused many to think it was just another gathering where prime ministers and presidents, ministers and bureaucratic head honchos were merely networking at the opening of the new UN season. For those listening to the delegations on television, however, it became pretty clear that the world’s nations were coming together to confront perhaps the greatest challenge of the last decade: refugees.

We learned some fascinating new statistics. In 2015 alone, some 20 million documented cases of refugees moving across the planet were posing challenges everywhere. Add up the totals of refugees for the last few years and it comes to 65 million people. We knew the number was many and the solutions few. Escaping persecution and seeking asylum presents so many challenges to the receiving countries, the international response mechanisms, and ultimately to the refugee families themselves. And so the world opted to come together in New York this month for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The media spent a lot of time focusing on the former, but often overlooked was the sheer rise in mobility going on around the world for those migrating in search of opportunity.

The summit learned that by the end of 2015, some 244 million people were living in a country other than where they were born – a total up from 173 million in 2000, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

All of this is saying something, but I’m not sure we fully know what it is. Is the world increasingly on the move because of economic decline or greater economic growth – or both? Is it a sign that the world is coming together, or breaking apart? Could it be that we are becoming more of a world community as a result of all this movement, or is it more likely that there are now tears in the fabric of humanity that reveal millions of individuals and families lurching for security and prosperity in only a few prosperous nations?

All of this likely means that we aren’t prepared and that the UN conference was the first real attempt at assessing and shaping a tidal wave of humanity that might soon redefine how we function as a planet, as individual nations, and as citizens.

And it’s not all challenge and gloom. The conference was informed that in just one year – 2015 – migrants sent home $432 billion to developing countries to help their families with challenges like food security, education, new business ventures, and healthcare. That is a huge amount of money, triple the totals of foreign aid sent through Official Development Assistance.

I watched many of the speeches from the lectern this week and found myself thankful to see the world come together to face the challenge. But many present in the sessions got the impression that this is clearly a work in progress and that we’re only at the beginning of it. And complicating it all is the growing insecurity in places like the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the vast border regions around Russia. Should these get more out of hand, it will be inevitable that millions more will be cut loose from their cultural homelands and begin making plans to find peace and prosperity elsewhere.

While acknowledging the increasing scope of the refugee challenge, this week’s meetings decided to take some concrete action in at least attempting to build a coordinated response around the migration problem. Another summit is to be held at the United Nations in 2018 specifically on that issue.

Can there be breakthroughs? Are solutions possible? If we’re talking about assisting countries to accept more refugees and migrants, then perhaps more can be accomplished, but only to a point. If the real problem is the decline of nation states through economic turbulence and regional conflicts, how might the tap of human migration be stopped, or at least lessened? If many of these problems can’t be solved at the source, then just developing broader responses to the outflow of humanity from these regions can only go so far. Some of the problems, like an imploding Syria or an exploding Russia, remain unsolvable at present and keep real solutions from being easily discovered.

We aren’t talking about the fate of millions of people in search of hope, but, ultimately, about the condition and welfare of the planet itself. So many refugees is primarily a clue to all of humanity that something is seriously wrong in our world and unless we apply ourselves to the sources of such conflicts, the sea of desperate human souls will only become more desperate.

Canada Through Obama’s Eyes

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WHAT IS CANADA’S PURPOSE?  ONE YEAR AGO today that answer might have been a little more muddled than today. As the world around us tumbled about, challenging our traditional set of norms and understandings, our country had seemed, for a number of years at least, to be more minimalist than meaningful, more reductionist than radical.

Today, however, there seems to be some stirrings among us as to our potentials and usefulness to the human condition. Listening to Barack Obama speak in Parliament this week about how the important human values aren’t American or Canadian, but universal principles sounded more like something from the 1950s or 1960s than the modern era. What was truly wonderful about his speech was watching the emotional collective countenance of all the political parties present; it wasn’t just Liberals cheering an eloquent president, but everyone in the Chamber. It was almost as if, for a brief moment at least, we were united as to our unique place in the world and our purpose within it. People of all political persuasions stood as one at the altar of a progressive humanity.

At the core of every country’s ideals is a deep yearning for identity, for who we are, what we mean, and why we exist. That’s not true for a great many Canadians, of course, who neither have the inclination or the freedom to spend much time in considering such things. Some are too busy fighting off the rigors of life such as poverty, mental illness, and other pressures to consider the value of a nation.

And yet President’s Obama’s address in Parliament this week nevertheless reminded us that whether we care about it or not, Canada perhaps now carries a pivotal role in world affairs that it didn’t even seek or understand only a few months ago. With the threat of rampant ideology south of the border emerging in a presidential run by Donald Trump, the threat of continual divisiveness in the European Union, Britain’s own threat to destiny due to Brexit, and the imperious reach of Putin’s Russia, Canada appears more and more like a peaceful isle in a troubled sea.

But we are more than mere bystanders, as Obama reminded us. We are an experimental people, in the middle of testing again the ability of the collective spirit to become more inclusive and our politics to maybe become more respectful again. Recent elections in our indigenous communities, provinces and the federal domain were demonstrations that a large portion of this country seeks to be more open than closed, more sustainable that wasteful, and likely more global in reach than local.

This is the Canada that Obama looked out upon this week. Surrounded by numerous forms of political leanings in the House, he was clearly buoyed by a collective multipartisan spirit unlike anything he had experienced in Washington or can be seen in Europe at present. Always with an eye on the global community, for a few moments he looked at the world through the lens of a nation that is interested in creating a more fair and inclusive human community, and he liked what he saw.

This isn’t about Justin Trudeau and a Liberal government alone, but a collection of political impulses that nevertheless has proved unwilling to tear their country apart in ways that are seen elsewhere. And it is about a citizenry that is more interested in playing its part in the drama. The House wasn’t merely respectful to a visiting dignitary, but to a call of national identity that isn’t so much nationalistic in flavor as it is progressive in outlook.

Whatever the fate of the world in an era of ISIS and strident nationalism, of economic dominance and Internet hatred, Canada displayed again this week its propensity for being a better friend to the nations, a firmer supporter of gender equity and aboriginal justice, a noble force for the better angels of our human nature. We appear to be willingly open to the concept that one nation can contain the diversity of many cultures, but that all of these forces join together to form a collective identity of how to live at peace with one another – surely something the world requires now more than ever.

An American president looked out on a vast land this week and saw it as capable of transcending traditional boundaries of culture and community, and organizing itself so as to be a source of hope to a world that too frequently seeks to divide itself along such lines, sometimes violently.

It appears as though the Canada that Obama witnessed this week is increasingly the Canada that we see ourselves. It remains a noble vision and perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory we are prepared to struggle for it. Happy Canada Day.

Stillborn Democracy

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This post can also be viewed at National Newswatch here.

HIS ELECTION CAMPAIGN SIGNED UP MILLIONS of new voters, partly by the ingenious use of modern communications technology. Being young and vibrant, it was only a natural development that younger generations flocked to his campaign. He had a telegenic wife and young kids. Rather than following the historic pattern of saying that he and his party were the right prescription to get the country moving again, he asked his nation to believe in itself once more, to build optimism into its future outlook, and to engage itself in a new kind of politics. And he won in a fashion that appeared to usher in a new age of collaboration and political accomplishment.

No, this wasn’t Justin Trudeau but Barack Obama, back in 2008 – a remarkable season when Americans responded to the new president’s call of “Yes We Can” by stating “Yes We Will.” It was a fascinating evolution in politics that wasn’t only historic in its implications, but freeing in its spirit.

What happened? Despite his numerous successes, the Obama momentum stalled not too long after it commenced and never reached its expectations. The obvious reason was that the opposition forces circled the wagons and disrupted the momentum from its inception. Or as Obama operative, David Axelrod pungently put it: “For seven years, the GOP establishment knowingly and cynically rode the anti-Obama tiger, feeding the beast with a steady diet of red meat.”

None of this is new to us; it has been playing out in our newsfeeds since 2009 and the political dysfunction resulted in the chaos we now witness in the Republican primaries. Bill Clinton claimed there was a key but overriding reality that undercut everything else: “We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.” Few observations better describe what is currently running rampant through American politics. People are confused and angry, giving a level of credence to Charles Bukowski’s view that, “The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

The question is whether it’s becoming increasingly true in Canada? Judging by the last few parliamentary sessions, there is cause for some concern. The hyper-partisanship of recent years has made it increasingly difficult to forge a consensus, to achieve compromise, or to take all Canadians into account rather than merely catering to party supporters.

Barack Obama believed he could work across party lines when first elected – an assumption prone to naïveté in hindsight. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be, because the goal of collaboration was rigged from the outset. Democracy and politics ended up being two different things: the one, the will of the people, the other, the wickedness of partisanship.

Trudeau’s recent election win provided intriguing insights into the Canadian mindset. One of the lessons was that, though progressivism was clearly on the upswing as a societal force, opposition remained obstinate. We shouldn’t allow the Liberal’s majority mandate to gloss over the sobering reminder that millions of Canadians voted otherwise. This is democracy, after all, and healthy dissent is a good thing.

Mindful of the political chaos south of the border, Canada could nevertheless run the danger of replicating a form of dysfunctional politics through the use of blinded opposition. We won’t get far as long as citizens or their representatives view compromise of any kind as tantamount to surrender. It is nothing of the kind. It is rather the acknowledgement that the people have voted and there is the responsibility of respecting that reality by contributing to healthy government and a vibrant society. Far from being an option, such compromise is the only way modern societies, with all their complexities, can survive.

The Liberal Party’s electoral victory, sweeping enough to provide a majority, has served to raise the expectations of its friends.  Anti-poverty activists, environmentalists, Indigenous advocates, free traders, researchers, electoral reformers, gender champions – these and so many others will have to temper their euphoria with the understanding that any government must delicately balance the interests of all Canadians in ways that are manageable.

As the recent parliamentary sessions have shown, dysfunctional politics is as near as a government that only rewards its friends, or an opposition that cares only for overthrowing the powers that be through the practice of cheap politics.

Only a few months prior to his assassination, President John Kennedy, mused on the future of democracy, saying, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Opinions are important because they reflect the views of citizens. They are damning when they are spiced with a bigotry that can’t hear or respect contrary views. The success of Trudeau’s mandate, and of democracy itself, will depend on that distinction.

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