The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: progressive centre

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.

The Sacrificial Bond

An old sage once observed that, “the greatest sacrifice is when you sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of someone else.” The modern age isn’t so sure of that principle anymore. The term “sacrifice” summons up thoughts of loss, pain, foregoing of resources, even life itself. Our daily lives cater more to the concept of self-improvement and our economic choices frequently reflect that reality. We aim too low.

It remains one of the great ironies of modern life that our heroes are frequently those whose lives barely resemble ours. When Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai visited Ottawa this past week, it was something like a spiritual event. We understood what she had given up in order to raise her voice for the cause of others. Shot in the head for taking a stand, she somehow survived and the power of her sacrificial life humbled young and old, politician and citizen alike.

I recently asked some of my friends who their heroes were. They came from various age groups but their responses were revealing, and strikingly similar: Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Romeo Dallaire, Malala, and pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. There was little mention of leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill and Melinda Gates, though there remains much appreciation for their efforts. Something about the remarkable price paid by people like Mandela, or even Jesus Christ, provides a higher, more refined, definition of sacrifice.

There are various types of sacrifice, of course, ranging from the giving of gifts to a mother’s remarkable devotion, and these things matter to a great enough degree that they benefit society even when largely unacknowledged. But there is a special place we reserve for those who risked it all for the betterment of humanity. Even most of those – soldiers dying in war, for example – remain anonymous. Yet every year we acknowledge what it all means and that we somehow benefitted for the path of devotion that they walked.

The underlying principle of great sacrifice is that the persons paying the cost place greater value on the recipient than themselves. We acknowledge that. But there is more. Somehow that height of a person’s sacrifice creates an intimate bond between giver and receiver. It spans the centuries and doesn’t even require acquaintance with the person. We see it every Remembrance Day, when an entire nation bows its collective head in profound acknowledgement of the men and women who gave their lives so that our lives stood a chance to continue. In effect, it is a bond, a promise if you will, that we will continue to acknowledge what has been done and what we owe.

The greatest effect of this bond is that it protects the relationship and keeps the act of sacrifice sacred over time. Intriguingly, the relationship becomes reciprocal – we honour one another, not out of duty, but from honest devotion. It can last a lifetime, or lifetimes, as the legacy endures.

These words a being written on Easter Sunday morning – an enduring annual celebration on how death ultimately provides life. Billions over the millennia have acknowledged the ultimate sacrifice without ever having known Jesus Christ. It remains an act of ultimate humanity that people can love and appreciate someone they have never known.

The only real hope for our age is that we get beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, to reach for greater things, the bigger life, the enlarged spirit, so that humanity itself can survive. For this we require examples, living and dead, of those who transcended daily concerns in order to give our humanity a fighting chance to prevail. It is the quality of their lives, their essence of doing ultimate good, that reminds us that there is always more that can be done, more people that can be helped, more hope for the world. It is as Martin Luther King Jr. observed and lived:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Thank God such people still strive in our world. Would to God that there were more of them.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

The Authoritarians

Perhaps more interesting than the subject of exactly where Donald Trump came from to seize the ultimate prize of the American political system is to wonder where were all the people who came out of obscurity to vote for him. The same way that nobody really gave Trump a chance early in U.S. election cycle, the same forces failed almost completely to spot the millions who would emerge to eventually put him into the Oval Office. It’s called populism, and in its own way it’s kind of crazy.

A few years ago, the term “populism” was rarely heard, let alone capable of overthrowing entire governments. But now that it’s here, everyone is jumping on board and talking about how it could realign politics and democracy to work with the average citizen. That’s merely wishful thinking and deserves more consideration.

As Trump surged towards the White House, a CBS News piece talked of a huge wave of populism propelling the billionaire to victory. It also sounded kind of heroic in a way – the people rising up to overthrow the elites and take their country back. It seemed sentimentally revolutionary. But then an exit poll on Election Day by the same CBS News discovered that in South Carolina, 75% of Republican voters wanted to ban Muslims entirely from the United States. A few hours later, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) press release reported that a full one-third of Trump voters supported banning gays and lesbians from the country. More shockingly, 20% said Abraham Lincoln was wrong in his efforts and shouldn’t have freed the slaves. If this was populism, it was hardly what people were expecting. It must be acknowledged that millions of Trump supporters are neither racist or bigots; they are merely looking for change and a better chance at life.

It’s assumed that this new emergence of populism is based on the desire to get rid of the elites in charge of democratic regimes around the world. That’s too simplistic, as two American researchers – Jonathan Weiler and Marc Heatherington – unearthed to their surprise. Following a number of experiments, tests and data analysis, they discovered that most of the great disruption in American politics was not merely the byproduct of partisanship, money, or outright political manipulation, but the presence and emergence of one electoral group that nobody had really counted on – authoritarians.

In other words, much of populism is looking for leaders to take charge, and right now it tends to be more the neo-liberal elites they are after. They want the strong man, or woman, who will just seize the reigns of government and begin casting off the effects of all those Left and Centre-Left political experiments that have been going on in this past half-century. And neither is it merely an American phenomenon.

Back in 1880 to 1900, when the word “populism” rose to ascendancy, it was significant enough that it threw the traditional political system into disarray. Citizens rebelled, insisting on economic equality. That sounds pretty good, but as Conservative author Peter Viereck wrote of that time, underneath all the economic desire for fairness, “seethed a mania of xenophobia, Jew-baiting, and thought-controlling lynch-spirit.” And then when famed “populist” George Wallace ran for office he used the slogan “Trust the People.” The problem was that he was a white supremacist and avowed racist at the time, yet he received a huge following, not regardless, but because of his stance.

This brings us back to the study of Weiler and Heatherington. They looked hard into their data and concluded that the Republicans, initially campaigning on the traditional planks of law and order and family values, unwittingly drew, through Trump’s candidacy, a huge group of voters who were both Democrat and Republican, or neither, and who had a hankering for authoritative values. Where traditional Republican candidates brought out the usual Republican followers, Donald Trump drew from disenchanted voters that just hadn’t appeared on the radar of partisans or pollsters. The two co-authors reasoned that, “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.” As the report concluded:

“This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which ‘activate’ authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.”

So when we’re talking about “populism,” we are talking of a phenomenon that has no real definition or identity, other than average citizens scrambling for change – the very thing that makes the term so acceptable for activists who believe in democracy. It is only over time that societies in places like America, Germany, Denmark, or even Canada, discover grassroots populism might also bring on grassroots bigotry, prejudice, and deep division within the citizenry itself. This is the shadow side of populism that every nation must guard itself against, as Holland proved in its remarkable election this week.

The Dangers of Coping

They arrived in a manila package at our Calgary home one day, sometime in 1956. Our family gathered around as Dad pulled out the architectural drawings and laid them on the table. They were plans for how to construct and stock a bomb shelter in case of an atomic war. A large silver siren located on top of a long white pole occasionally reminded us of that fact, as occasionally it would emit a practice wail in preparation for the real thing.

For an entire generation of Canadians, none of this is strange. The Cold War was actually heating up and the threat to human existence always seemed to hang precariously in the balance. Popular music and movies were always there to remind us of the threat. The euphoria of the end of the great global conflict in 1945 didn’t last long, as both the Soviet Union and the United States made their fearful moves for world domination. But the decades following took on something of a standoff between the superpowers until the Soviet Union collapsed some 25 years ago. The era of a renewed internationalism began, along with a boost in confidence for a more peaceful future.

Suddenly the term “Cold War” has made a rapid comeback. Even before the recent American election, USA Today spoke of, “A New Cold War?” and CNN ran as one of its headlines: “Cold War-style conflict.” This past week, the Toronto Star reported of apocalypse survival food kits being sold by Costco Canada. This country, which has historically been one of the key boosters of internationalism, is now looking on in mild alarm as nationalism not only flourishes south of the border and in key European states, but is subtly emerging in various Canadian contexts, including the Conservative leadership race.

This country is finding itself impinged in the vice between nationalism and internationalism. Trump’s bewildering sense of American identity represents just as much a challenge to Justin Trudeau as Vladimir Putin’s rampant militarism. This isn’t just about nuclear weapons, but cyber warfare and the flagrantly hostile actions of Russia over other nations. In such a context, peacekeeping and good intentions seem somehow underwhelming. As Robert Legvold, political scientist and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, sees it, “we have entered a second Cold War, only perhaps more dangerous because of the unstable global environment and the more modern challenges of cyber warfare and terrorism.”

The Cold War might be returning for another round of global freezing, but this time it’s different. Where the United States and its partners made direct military interventions in places like Vietnam, Korea, even Bosnia, you’ll see nothing similar in Crimea or the Ukraine, where Russia roams with menace. And as China brandishes its might in the South China Sea, we seem to have entered a period of great uncertainty where Canada, like other nations, must reassess the manner of its own engagement in such a turbulent world.

With a fractured Western coalition and a surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic that is frequently isolationist in nature, Canada is seeking to walk a fine line between playing a global role for progress and keeping its own domestic house from fracturing. Of the two, the latter is more subtle and likely more dangerous.

Former American diplomat George Kennan, who wrote much of the book on how to contain the old Soviet Union, threw out a warning that Canada, like every other nation, must abide by if the present world isn’t to fall into a new era of threat and darkness: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Communism isn’t the greatest threat to peace in this new Cold War, nor is it Putin. Rather, it is the embedded nationalism that threatens to turn peaceful and tolerant nations into narrow and irreconcilable ones.

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