The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: progressive centre

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.

Democracy Without Conscience Can Only Lead To Chaos

This post can also be read at Huffington Post here

It’s likely time most of us agreed that we collectively have noidea where democracy is going. And if numerous polls are correct, living in such a situation is creating increased insecurity and tensions among citizens around the world.

It’s at times like the present when Vaclav Havel, former independence activist, playwright, and president of Czechoslovakia, might have something to offer us, despite the fact that he died some six years ago. It wasn’t by accident that the New York Times called him the “global ambassador for conscience.”

He, too, lived in a world of turbulence. With the Soviet Union breaking apart, no one was quite sure what would arise to take its place. In such times voices of conscience can become signposts for leading us out of our collective confusion. Or as Canadian author Louise Penny put it: “Don’t mistake dramatics for conscience.” There is a difference between the frenetic actions of the present democracy and the gentle pull of conscience.

In our modern world everyone seems to have an answer for everything, and the more opinions there are the more confounding everything is becoming. That was happening in Havel’s world as well, but he took a step back and urged his nation to consider what was happening around them: “We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved.” In recent years we have journeyed down a political path where policies were supported by evidence gathering, science, focus groups, and research. All these things made it seem like the answers to our problems were there, but that we just had to have the best policies to find and implement them.

It didn’t work that way, of course, since all that looking at the world as some great puzzle got us increased unemployment, environmental catastrophe, a yawning gap between rich and poor, overt racism, terrorism, and costly regional conflicts. Whatever the problem, solutions, even researched ones, were never going to be enough. More important than all of these was the abiding need for a better understanding of humanity. That’s why Havel reminded his own citizens: “None of us are just victims; we are also its co-creators.” These were tough words, but then again, the times were tough, too. He would go on to add: “Freedom and democracy require participation and therefore responsible action from us all.”

And while it is true that we see emerging democratic participation at the grassroots level in most democratic countries, it frequently leads to more contention than compromise, to more heat than light. Somewhere in all the debate, protest, anger, confusion, participation and populism, we must find a way of bringing it all together in a way that can move us into a more equitable future. Havel watched political opinions ripping his country apart, so he cautioned:

“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level, to engage our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”

His question was one for the ages, including our own. And it came from an honest place within his being as he watched anger dominating collaboration and absolutism among various factions replace tolerance and understanding. To counter that growing trend, Havel threw out a direct challenge: “There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another … I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honour one another, just as we are.” In a world of rigid ideologies that can only lead to autocracy and cultish bigotry, this call to a deeper respect for humanity couldn’t come soon enough.

We need not fear the distinctions that exist within our citizenry if all are prepared to accept those differences while building on our far greater commonalities. And to the politicians among us comes one of Havel’s final observations:

“A politician must become a person again — one who can think and act outside of his party. He must learn to trust in the soul of humanity again. Without this, politics itself cannot be overcome.”

All this is ours for the making, but only if we take the time to consider where we are headed, who we are electing to office, and what our own part could be in bridging those divides that are presently ripping us apart.

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

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