The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: progressive centre

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.

Sleeves Rolled Up

IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS ANY INDICATION, 2016’s end couldn’t come quickly enough. Somehow the last 12 months have left millions with the compelling urge to turn the page and get on with something better.

It’s not difficult to understand why this angst seems so universal. It has been a year of significant challenges and disappointments. Political turbulence, economic stagnation, the frustrations of the middle class, environmental decline — this list could just go on and on with issues that are striking insecurity into the hearts of citizens and leaders alike.

A clue to what was happening occurred partway through 2016 when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks claimed, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” It’s that (at times, toxic) urgency that has added fuel to numerous conflagrations around the globe and prompted people to look back at 2016 as a dark period, despite its numerous bright moments.

Perhaps no other year in recent memory has carried such foreboding undercurrents as what we have just endured. Many wonder whether civilization itself has pivoted towards its own demise in the past 12 months, while others fret that the collective belief in democracy, equality, God, fairness and progress might have been misplaced. The passing of numerous celebrity icons in past months has only added to the sense of gloom.

If there was ever a time for a universal sense of hope to make an appearance, now, on the eve of 2017, would be a good time — or as Alfred Lloyd Tennyson put it, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘it will be happier.’”

Yet if hope is to accomplish its difficult task it will require the hands of the many and not just the manipulations of the few.

“Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.”

Hope is not just an aspiration, but a driving force of nature that takes on the world with a sense of determination, daring to take another chance at getting things right. It’s no mere pious virtue that lures people into its aura in peace and solitude, but a compelling urge to remove those obstacles that keep us from a brighter future. It is the pitting of ourselves against the worst aspects of humanity and believing that we’ll prevail. Hope is the better angels of our nature with their sleeves rolled up.

We have come to one of those turning points in history that will define our future for the better or the worse. Yet there is one key difference — the rise of populism. Across the world, the voices of common people are railing against the power of those of have enjoyed the privileges of their wealth and excess at the expense of others.

But populism can easily become a force for destruction that permits its individual anger to overpower the need for mutual respect and collective collaboration. The rise of the common person is now a global reality, but it must demonstrate the very willingness to understand and provide for others and the planet that our global leaders have so far failed to bring

It is now up to citizens, perhaps more than it has ever been, and we are making that reality increasingly clear to those that govern us. But we must learn to cooperate with our elected representatives in a fashion that diffuses power in equitable fashion. This past year, while giving rise to such a concept, has so far pitted citizens more against each other than fighting the obstacles that threaten our very survival. This is what we must turn around in 2017.

This year ends with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher, whose role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series proved iconic to an entire generation. Though her role in the recent Star Wars: Rogue One lasts less than a minute, her utterance of the last word in the movie serves to remind us that it’s only after endless sacrifice and a sense of collective purpose that such a word could be uttered with any form of confidence.

“Hope,” she says before the credits roll — a fitting conclusion near the end of a troubling year and prior to another 12 months of opportunity to get things right.

Christmas Prep – Endurance

“The sky is not my limit … I am,” wrote T. F. Hodge. It’s a truth we’ve had to continually face throughout our lives. Surprisingly, perhaps Christmas is one such season in life where we come to terms with this reality. In what is supposed to be a season of peace and tranquility, our modern era successfully throws so many challenges our way – visitors, buying presents, official Christmas greetings, parties, preparing dinner, arranging family get-togethers, travelling to see family and friends, finishing work tasks before the holidays – during the holiday season that it’s a wonder we get through it all.

But it’s more than that. Christmas is also about emotional, psychological, and perhaps even spiritual challenges that carry the potential to take far more out of us. Yesterday we attended the memorial service of Sue Mennill, a dear friend. I kept wondering how her loving family would handle this, their first Christmas without her. Ultimately, the holiday season carries far more of these trials than we could ever measure. And yet, somehow, we persevere, and occasionally we overcome some of our greatest challenges.

Each of us has our own personal way of handling the pressures of living. And when they become magnified during the Christmas season, we understand that more is required of our tenacity than ever. Fortunately, the holiday time is also filled with inspirational values and events that help to compensate, but the pressures on us are immense nonetheless.

The original Christmas story was centered around a young woman, pregnant and unwed, who was forced to travel a great distance, and at great physical strain on her body, just because political systems required her and her betrothed to do so. The journey between their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary riding on a donkey, was a full 111 kilometres – all this while she was about to give birth. The strains and challenges she must have faced were likely imposing to a serious degree. Yet somehow she had to endure because she perceived in her trials something that was both noble and inspiring..

Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.
How do we know this? Not too many months before her journey, Mary had uttered one of the most beautiful prayers ever recorded in literature. Called the Magnificat by later generations, this remarkable woman laid out for posterity just how tenacious people can be when they believe in something beyond themselves. Despite the words being proclaimed months before the Bethlehem birth, Mary’s Magnificat forms an intricate part of the original Christmas story because the principles formulated in her words were the reason she endured all that was about to come.

After affirming her belief in her God, she begins telling of how blessed she is despite circumstances fully beyond her control. She was a woman, like so many in history, and even today,, whose options weren’t nearly as wide-ranging as those of her male counterparts. And yet she believed in her capabilities and in her commitment to see it all through despite the obstacles.

Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.

How much she understood of all that was happening around her is difficult to know, Mary nevertheless claimed that because she would see her purpose through to the end that future generations would call her “blessed.” But she doesn’t stop there. While understanding that her world wasn’t as it should be, she nevertheless believed that the great and wealthy would be humbled by their arrogance and that the more common people like herself would be honoured for their basic goodness, belief, and knowledge of the daily struggles of life. If you’re interested, you can read her words here.

Mary had no idea of how her name would become synonymous with goodness and transparency over two millennia, yet somehow she knew that by sticking to her purpose, not just for her unborn child but a better world, that the only way it could unfold would be if she, one woman, could endure her own role in it all for the betterment of humanity. It would be an arduous journey, with its share of humiliation and trial, but this woman’s odyssey to a destination not of her own making 100 kilometres away was of greater significance than that of the wise men of the Christmas story who journeyed many times that distance. They had their riches to sustain them; Mary had her heart and belief. And it was enough.

This Christmas season, each of us will face our own particular choices. There will be easier decisions and then those resolutions where we choose the harder path, the one less travelled, so that others following us will have an easier journey because of our leadership and endurance. It’s not magic, nor miraculous, but remarkably human and often costly. Sometimes there just isn’t an easier way before us if we wish to remain true to ourselves and refine our world in the process. There is only the hard way.

The ancient story reminds us that one poor pregnant woman sitting atop a donkey was enough to not only beautify her world but change it in the process. This is the essence of Christmas – not just celebration but cost, not just presents but purpose, and not just warmth but willingness to carry through to the end. Without the baby Jesus the world would have lost one of its greatest stories, but without Mary, there would have been no Jesus. Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.

Then We Take Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during her speech as part of a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 19, 2015. The reflections are caused by windows at the visitors tribune. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

‘IF I CAN’T DANCE TO IT, IT’S NOT MY REVOLUTION,” Emma Goldman stated. At the moment, millions are gyrating across various electoral maps in response to Donald Trump’s election win. In countries around the world, people are seeing something in it that gives their radical tendencies a new rhythm.

It is these movements – National Front (France), Independence Party (UK), Party of Freedom (Netherlands), Alternative (Germany), Freedom Party (Austria) – that seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater and return us to earlier times and darker periods of nationalism. Every one of those parties rejoiced at Trump’s victory because of the possibilities it represented for their own prospects. Those opportunities are many and will confront Europe with wave after wave of democratic challenges.

When Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, heard of Trump’s victory, she exulted, “this is a great movement across the world.” This wasn’t mere hyperbole, for there’s something going on that is global in scope and troubling in implication. Pen went on to boldly proclaim, “Today the United States, tomorrow France.” It’s a statement reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s famous song, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” With the new president-elect firmly ensconced in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, one naturally looks across at Angela Merkel’s Germany with a certain sense of foreboding – just as Cohen wished to instill in his lyrics.

The German Chancellor has proved to be the enduring bedrock of the European coalition. Since her election 11 years ago, she has been the glue that kept continental leaders believing they could ride out the global economic and social turbulence sweeping the region. Then came her open policies towards Syrian refugees that quickly revealed cultural fissures that proved energetic and surprisingly caustic. With her popularity in decline, a series of terrorist attacks cemented opposition to her policies even further. In run-up elections, her party has suffered some stinging defeats – a troubling omen for the national election in roughly a year’s time. Should the extreme Right prove triumphant, or garner significant gains, the shock waves could prove as disruptive as Trump’s victory.

Prior to Trump’s surprise election, media attention had been primarily focused on the likes of Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Assad, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Coverage regarded the violent tendencies in those regions as the real threat to Western designs. Suddenly in these last few days, we are looking closer to home, where we might worry about the alt-right voices, but where everyone should be concentrating on the disillusionment of the millions of liberal and conservative-minded citizens who are fed up with the political and policy choices offered to them in the last two decades.

In Canada, we are increasingly hearing that we might be susceptible to such forces, but, for the moment at least, that is something of a stretch. As the CBC’s Aaron Wherry observed on Twitter: “I’m suspicious of attempts to link Trump/Brexit with conditions in Canada.” That’s just the thing about such movements: there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula, and Canadians are somewhat difficult to read at the moment.

Yet seasoned observers are confirming that years of revolution are upon us. The secret is to learn how to manage and lead in troubling times so that all benefit and not just a few. We frequently forget just how turbulent and unsettling the world was when John Kennedy took the oath of office. Despite the tendency to overpower others, the young president frequently opted for a more cautious path: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The time has come for the more moderate forces in conservative, socialist, and liberal ranks to learn the lessons from the Trump victory and build a more equitable democratic model that can find broad support. If we fail to learn that lesson, then the latter phrase in Kennedy’s observation might soon sweep over what once was a more hopeful world.

 

Democracy Reset

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In his book At Home, bestselling author Bill Bryson tells of walking through Norfolk, England, with an archeologist friend. Every church they looked at was depressed three feet into the ground – like “a weight sitting on a cushion,” he writes. Bryson assumed it was because of the weight of the structures over the centuries. His friend answered instead that it was because the graveyards around the churches had built up the earth around the structures over many years.

I thought of that observation in considering the fate of democracy in recent years. It was once a vaunted and vaulted political institution that for 400 years had enlightened and empowered the world in most places where it was practiced. Two world wars had convinced most Western nations that more violence was on the way unless power and wealth were spread about more equitably. Global institutions were quickly established as the architecture for international progress.

For a time it worked, until money grew more concentrated in fewer hands and the environment took a pounding. Citizens morphed into consumers and their political representatives transitioned from astute managers to pandering salespersons.

With a global financial system bent on the bottom line and a rapid rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it was inevitable that, despite all the affluence, American family wealth was in short supply. Even though more money was being generated than at any other time in history, large swaths of it didn’t make it to those billions of people who had bought into the democratic dream. Soon enough, infrastructure began to deteriorate, meaningful employment flattened out or disappeared altogether, the natural environment was increasingly on life support, and citizens embraced the troubling response of doubting their leaders for not delivering on their promises.

Now, like those old Norfolk buildings, the great structure of democracy seems to be sinking, not through its weight, but due to the build up of corpses of all those who had once believed in its possibilities. It still looks quaint, grand even, but many of its adherents now stand in doubt.

Regardless of the outcome of the American election, both Republican and Democratic parties had maintained an international system that benefited elite individuals and financial institutions. The parties had become so vengeful towards each other that any real assistance to the average family became a casualty of war. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have maintained that declining political system, and Donald Trump, enriched by avoiding his accountability to his fellow taxpayers, could hardly be expected to adopt the role of a modern-day Robin Hood. Democracy is eroding.

It’s hardly an American phenomenon. What we are witnessing around the world isn’t so much a rise of the Right, but the resurgence of the Wrong. Extremists, racists, ideologues, bigots, anarchists, neo-Nazis – all these and more have surged through the abiding cracks and broken windows of our democracies, and rather than being repelled by voters, are in the process of being embraced in increasing numbers.

Our advance as democracies has been in doubt for some time. Too many people have been left behind. Too many families feel their wealth has flatlined. Too many men and women can’t locate good jobs. Too many people haven’t so much fallen into poverty as remain mired in it. Social justice is a term easily thrown into election campaigns and just as quickly dropped in the years following. Too many feel they are losing control of their country, and that is a serious sentiment, destined to affect any election.

As Canadians, many of us supported Hillary Clinton in the belief that it was time that an obstinate glass barrier was shattered, but we were under no illusion that besides breaking through the ceiling she wouldn’t raise the floor for all Americans. For that to occur, the entire political and financial structures throughout the West will have to be hauled into dry dock and refitted for a more equitable world. It is beyond foolish to believe that Donald Trump will undertake that overhaul.

It is easy for those concerned over the Trump victory to assume that his followers are extremists and racist bigots. They are among his supporters to be sure, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for him were decent, hard working citizens who just felt it was time for a change. Many confessed to holding their collective nose while voting for the billionaire, but they were united in believing that decades of Republican-Democratic leadership had left America out of touch with average people. They have a point, as did the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters who innately understood that Clinton would more than likely support the status quo. A month ago pundits were saying the Republican Party leadership had to change; now they say it’s the Democratic leadership that must transform. The reality is that they both must be reconstructed from the giant fundraising machines they have become.america-decline-22618321

There are lessons from the American election that have nothing to do with bigots or billionaire gropers. Millions who once worshipped at the altar of democracy no longer believe in its efficacy. The only way to restore its effectiveness is for average citizens to defend historic progress at the same time as they speak out against the inequalities that have resulted from a democratic institution that for too long tolerated a growing world of winners and losers.

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