The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Common Ground Remains Democracy’s Most Expensive Piece of Real Estate

Readers and viewers seem transfixed with the more extreme political movements across the world. Far from bringing the world closer together, these new developments threaten to disassociate us in ways we haven’t experienced in decades. All eyes are on politics these days.

Yet something else is bubbling beneath the surface that receives little attention but which is effectively cutting off our collective ability to meet the powerful challenges facing our modern world. For over two decades we have watched as hyper-partisanship has ripped the governing capabilities out of our politics, aligning each party into rigid positions that often make compromise and common ground almost impossible to achieve. That inflexibility has now spilled over into the citizenry and the results are eerily similar.

It was almost a year ago that Bill Clinton and journalist David Brooks labeled hyper-partisanship as the “governing cancer of our time” and little that has occurred in the past twelve months alters that reality. Brooks talked about those who “don’t recognize other people … don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions … don’t recognize restraints … want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.” We’ve all been around long enough to see the results of that kind of politics, but can we spot its emergence among citizens?

Repeated studies over the past decade have highlighted just how the different liberal and conservative temperaments in people have caused them to pull further apart from one another, talking past each other in the process.

Intrinsic in all of this has been our penchant to meet only with those of similar feelings to our own, to only befriend or follow those on social media who agree with us. A natural tendency, the results of such social isolation into similar outlooks has come to look more and more like those political parties who sincerely dislike one another and refuse to find that essential common ground that is necessary for progress. The negative effects of this in the political class prompted Irish playwright Sean O’Casey to note: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.” More than a few are now worried that this practice has carried over into how we treat one another as citizens.

While the operating principle in our modern politics has been partisanship, its equivalent in our communities has been polarization. There are good people in our communities who run solid businesses, create loving family environments, volunteer at charities, and pitch in to help their neighbours. The thing is that they might not agree with us on some issues of policy, but do retain many shared values which we hold. While many of these individuals remain silent, they are nevertheless fellow citizens who ride the same buses, have kids who play on the same sports teams as our own, and are just as patriotic as those who hold to different political persuasions.

The reality is, of course, that there are millions of such people around us. But what if our present course continues as citizens retreat from their shared culture of consensus? What happens when we need to come together for the sake of our children over some great universal challenge and discover we can’t?

Perhaps our greatest task as citizens is to show that we are actually capable of establishing a civic culture that eventually accomplishes what our heavily partisan politics lost. But that will require talking with respect, not trashing. It will need understanding, not umbrage, intelligence and not incitement. There’s nothing wrong with protesting; indeed, it’s our right and obligation as citizens. But so is the task of finding news ways of coming together. As Mike Sasso would put it in his Being Human: “Originality is the best form of rebellion.”

Protest we must because that is part and parcel of any healthy society, but added to our desire for change, or principled opposition, must come the willingness to sit down and deliberate together. The reaching out must start happening now before it becomes impossible. It was our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who said that, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should private citizens if we are to attain the country we all seek.

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.

 

Shape Shifters

There’s “nothing orderly” about Donald Trump’s presidency process, wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, going on to add, “Trump always said he liked to be unpredictable.” It’s fitting in its own strange way, since so much of politics globally remains in a state of flux. Citizens, too, remain uncertain in their sentiments – a trait causing political office seekers to cast about wildly in their efforts to find a constituency to elect them.

Call them the “shape-shifters,” of whom Trump is perhaps the most obvious. They are everywhere in politics these days, seeking pockets of voters who might propel them to victory or incumbency and then modifying their language and principles to suit. Such a tendency has been endemic in politics from the beginning, but is increasingly becoming standard practice in a volatile world where vote getting at any cost often comes at the expense of solid policy.

This tendency was helpfully identified by author and journalist Susan Delacourt in her recent book, Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them – a fascinating journey into how our politics is taking us into unknown territory. Amazon’s description of Delacourt’s book posits the danger for modern democracy: “The book explains how parties slice and dice their platforms for different audiences and how they manage the media. The current system divides the country into ‘niche’ markets and abandons the hard political work of knitting together broad consensus or national vision.”

The term “shape-shifter” was first used publicly in 1887 but has now become standard fare. In modern politics this constant morphing has become an essential tool in the endless quest for ascendancy. Everyday, politicians have to shape their message and their image to the multitude of groups and individuals and hope to keep some semblance of policy coherence. Sometimes it can be an impossible task. The pressures seem endless: answering questions regarding climate change, international trade, foreign aid, terrorism, healthcare, pensions, and even the price of gas. One minute the politician is attempting some lofty rhetoric in the House of Commons, and an hour later she is addressing some beleaguered people in a homeless shelter. Constant adaption has become an occupational hazard.

Things were easier when great swaths of voters remained loyal to particular political parties. Those days are gone, and with them the ability to put out a traditional message that gathers the troops. Voters today frequently have entire menus of items that they care about that often blur the lines between party policies. Navigating through such wants while, at the same time, retaining ongoing support can be a tricky thing.

That’s especially true for those seeking leadership. Traditionally, voters have appreciated their leaders when they displayed a positive bent, but if recent elections are anything to go by an increasing number of voters are going for those angry voices that call for change. Discerning this not so subtle change, modern leadership aspirants are taking extreme positions that previously might have proved destabilizing and unacceptable.

The success of Donald Trump has prompted leadership contenders like Kellie Leitch to brandish harsher policies, believing they can carve out enough of the electorate to find a path to victory. Yet many who knew her previously have been surprised at the severity of some of her positions, especially on immigration – as they were with her “snitch line” announcement in the last election. But Leitch isn’t trying to be consistent; she’s shape-shifting in her reach for the crown. She’s hoping that by employing Donald Trump’s tactics she can summon the same kind of groundswell that occurred south of the border.

That Leitch remains silent while her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, blatantly publicizes his willingness to use “fake news” to support her campaign hardly squares with her principled demeanour evidenced in her pre-political professional life. As Maclean’s writer Martin Patriquin put it this past week: “Kouvalis has a history of posting provocative, absurd and often completely false information. He does so, he says, ‘to make the left go nuts.’ “ It is a troubling admission revealing that politics runs the danger of not only promoting shape-shifting personalities, but of debasing facts in the process.

It can be tempting to see such practices as a partisan issue, but these behaviours frequently move across party lines as political ambition squeezes the integrity out of the democratic process. It says something that we, as citizens, are perceived as gullible enough to accept such designed manipulations. As Donald Trump’s inauguration reminds us this week, if voters no longer know what they’re getting, trust in democracy itself becomes the ultimate loser.

Yelling Past One Another

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

“The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency” – Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

Down to You and Me

There is only one way that civil society makes sense, and that’s if we disagree – a lot. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but consider the average coffee shop banter in any local hangout.   You hear friends disagreeing all the time, most often with good-natured humour, but crossing verbal swords nonetheless. If civil society is to work, it must include everyone who wants to take part, and since we are all unique in our opinions and outlook on the world around us, it’s inevitable that there will be just as many points of view as there are people.

A troubling trend in recent years has been the propensity for citizens to expend great energy with those who mostly agree with them, primarily online. It’s natural that human beings seek out likemindedness in others, but if we only end up in separate camps of thought, how can a neighbourhood, a city, a country, even the world, bring all of these constituencies together? Historically, civil society organizations – service clubs, churches, neighbourhood associations, even community-minded businesses – brought together great varieties of people for causes greater than just giving opinions. And to a large degree they worked, not because one viewpoint won out over another, but because people attended to take on a vastly bigger task than merely gathering – supporting charities, building schools (or fighting to keep them open), helping flood victims, holding fundraisers for hospitals or soup kitchens, and so many more worthy initiatives.

It’s important to be civil when in public, but that only serves as the springboard for greater things. To comprehend this better, it’s good to consider how the word civil and polite came about.

Civil originally came from the Latin term civilis, which meant “relating to a citizen” and to his or her ability to move through public life. Politics and polite have similar beginnings. Essentially polite meant “smooth,” denoting the idea not so much of sophistication but the ability to get along well with others. Put all this together and we see that civil society is designed to be populated and empowered by citizens who developed the ability to work together for the community’s good.

It is this precise element that seems to have gone largely missing in our professional politics of the day. Whether it’s due to gross partisanship, animosity, or lack of fitting work experience, the dysfunctional politics on display today can hardly be defined as “smooth” or “civil.” Around much of the world harsh political conflagrations seem to have become the order of the day. With Donald Trump’s inauguration only a few days away, and with the sabre rattling emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, it remains a difficult thing to hold out much hope that the democratic decline in recent decades can be reversed. And as long as citizens themselves remain deeply divided on issues it could be that democracy’s best days are now behind us.

It is up to citizens to see what they make of this – any political success will now depend on their ability to choose and channel their elected representatives towards the great task before us. This isn’t about parties so much anymore but people and it’s unknown if we are up to the task. The old sage Walt Whitman comprehended this truth better than most when he wrote, some ironically, in his By Blue Ontario’s Shore:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,

Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,

Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,

Its Congress is you and me …

Natural and artificial are you and me,

Freedoms, language, poems, employments are you and me,

Past, present, future, are you and me.

 

I dare not shirk any part of myself,

Not any part of America good or bad.

Democracy can only be functional when the great, moving mass of humanity somehow discover a way to bring themselves and their differences to the table and hammer out a future together. Realistically, politics is all about conflict – each person or group or association with their own likes and dislikes. The secret is to manage the tensions – not by merely electing representatives, but being polite and civic ourselves, as citizens. If we can’t accomplish that, then chaos can’t be far off.

 

 

 

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