The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: apathy

Election 2015: Caught Between Empathy and Apathy

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EVERYTHING THIS WEEKS SEEMS TO BE ABOUT the upcoming federal election, called much too early and perhaps needed far too late. It’ll all be about the party leaders. Which is not only too bad, but also misguided. It is inevitable that we make each election about the choices before us, but this time around it will be about the choosers: us.

It’s likely that the majority of Canadians sense the country isn’t doing well, but they’ve just lost belief in the hope that politics can turn things around. The polls say that as well, but we don’t require them to convince us. The ineffectiveness of today’s politics was revealed in a recent interview with Dr. Ben Carson, Republican candidate for the American presidency. When asked by the interviewer how he reacts to the observation that he carries no political experience, Carson’s response was prescient:

“If you look at the collective political experience of every body in Congress today it comes out to just under nine thousand years and where has that really gotten us. And in fact there are a number of people who have been in politics for decades and yet you never see them coming up with any solutions.”

That’s 9,000 years of political experience that has resulted in the most partisan and ineffective Congress in decades, perhaps ever. Put this way, no wonder citizens are quickly losing faith. That growing reality caused American author Richard Yates to note, “It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.” We react socially the same way we do when frustrated emotionally – get callous, wash our hands of it all, and, ultimately, lose our sense of optimism.

The problem with this trend is that we are still Canadians, and we have a history of being some of the most compassionate and empathetic people on earth. It wouldn’t take too much political leadership to unleash that social capital, but it just hasn’t shown up in recent years. And how have we handled that as Canadians? We have largely given up and gone about our personal business. Voting feels useless, and political promises? Well on the big issues that challenge us all, it is getting increasingly difficult to believe the ongoing political rhetoric.

There has been a dedicated attempt to tempt Canadians to put their ideals in the cupboard while the government hands them trinkets. Just in time for the election we are promised home renovation tax credits even though fewer Canadians can afford a home. We’re offered small breaks for our kids at the same time as post-secondary education becomes increasingly out of reach for them.

Just to be clear, this is not just about the Conservatives; opposition parties are guilty of failing to address our biggest challenges on a number of occasions. But the government is the government of the day, and that’s the big difference. The big obstacles confronting us are occurring on their watch and frequently created by their policies. They know this but are counting on the ability to buy you off just in time for the election. This isn’t about governing but about managing a boutique store.

For many Canadians this is what they desire: to be bribed for their vote. But for millions of others there are greater things on their mind than income splitting, especially as a growing number of their fellow citizens are descending into the grips of poverty. A few million dollars thrown into our park system doesn’t help them overcome this country’s dismal performance on climate change. The Canada’s Action Plan government commercials have done nothing to prepare us for a future that economists remind us will be increasingly without meaningful jobs. Getting a tax credit for some new kitchen cupboards just doesn’t match up to the challenge of growing homelessness in our nation’s cities. We know we need political collaboration to overcome such obstacles, but in the entire time the PM has been in power he never had a joint meeting with the premiers, not once. How will we adapt to a radically changing world if we can’t even plan a joint approach together? To paraphrase Ben Carson’s observation above: “Where has that gotten us?”

At some point Canadians will have to make a choice between apathy and empathy, and the political system in now so rigged that not to decide is to decide. Writing in his first novel, author Jay Asher, in speaking about bullying, wrote, “A lot of you cared, just not enough.”

This election will be about citizens and how we choose our future. If we remain apathetic, then we will continue to offered a small allowance by the government even as our bigger bills line up. But if we show up, demand empathy and vote, then we choose each other and remind the world again why it once viewed us a compassionate and prosperous nation.

“Public Dialogue: Not” – Community Engagement Podcast (32)

Just two weeks left in these podcasts, but this is an important one.  What happens if we get a chance to build an effective democracy as citizens and no one shows up?  Sad to say, this is repeatedly occurring in various citizen engagement activities around the world.  The regulars show up, and through their dedication and hard work seek to instill new life back into the democratic spirit.  But, in a sad discovery, the learn that the majority just don’t care or seek to involve themselves in the process.  How do we get ourselves of that devolving cycle?

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

Preserving Neglect

It remains one of the three great lessons I learned in my time in politics and it’s even more pertinent now, some four years later. Though it was referred to in one of my earlier blogs, it stands repeating here, especially if anyone reading these words is thinking about entering politics.

Seated on a lengthy plane ride with a government minister, we fell into talking of my discouragement with Question Period and especially the negative advertising that appeared to be a permanent part of the political landscape. He was immediately sympathetic, nodding in the affirmative, and at times even seeming to agree with my conclusions. It was then that he dropped the bombshell that forever changed my view of present-day Ottawa.

“Glen, you’re such a well-meaning guy – just like most Canadians, I think. But you miss the point: negative advertising works.” Well, that wasn’t news to me, but what he went on to share definitely caught my attention. He felt that most Canadians were moderates, mildly interested in politics, somewhat progressive in outlook. “But they’re easily turned off,” he added. He reminded me that it wasn’t so much the messages in the negative ads that worked but the negativity itself. “Canadians turn off of that stuff.”

I still wasn’t quite getting it. Then he drove it home. Heavy partisans are going to believe in their stand, no matter what, he continued. But political party loyalties are on the decline. The majority of Canadians – those decent, compromising, tolerant citizens – now form the critical mass of voters. “The secret to acquiring power is not to win their vote but to turn them off altogether so that voting isn’t really an option for them – it’s easier to accomplish than winning them. With the absence of those votes, it then becomes a battle as to how can get out the most partisans for their party. Those same ads that turn off more tolerant folks fan the flames for our base. They come out in greater numbers and we win.”

Welcome to the world of voter suppression. The realization of what the minister had just told me caused me to sit back in my seat and ponder the implications. He was exactly right, and it worked. It worked for the base, the party, and for the government itself. Sadly, it didn’t do anything for democracy, citizen participation, the democratic franchise, or the decline of political respectability in the country. But if what you want is power, then those long-term implications are hardly significant.

To be clear, negative advertising has been used by various parties, repeatedly. I still recall being a Liberal candidate when the ad came out against Stephen Harper and reminding folks that troops might have to be called into Quebec. I condemned it then, even though it was a Liberal ad, and I condemn it now. But those days are now in the past. These past six years have seen the development of the permanent campaign and the use of negative ads between elections. We expect such shenanigans during election campaigns, but it is the consistent use of them, based on the rationale that minister told me about, that has driven Canadians away from politics in droves. Of course it works for the government; it’s foolish to deny the reality of it. Most of us don’t like negative people and tend to avoid them. Well, the same is true of the ballot box for many Canadians – make politics negative and they’ll just bypass their democratic franchise.

I was never taught this tactic in school or in subsequent years. I know advertisers occasionally meander down this negative path, but its implications on voters in these last few years had been overlooked by me somehow – until that plane flight. We witness its full expression and devastating consequences in the recent American campaigns, such as the one we are witnessing now. We now have our own version, and for Canadians it is a caustic reminder of how far we have fallen.

How could we let ourselves come to accept this ongoing preservation of neglect, this great turning away of citizens from that one place where they can recapture their own future – the ballot box? It is the neglect of timely repairs to a nation that make major reconstruction inevitable. This new approach to power is not so much to kill democracy as to let it die from neglect due to abhorrence of the political domain. It is the collective living out of Tryon Edwards observation that, “Hell is truth seen too late, of duty neglected in its season.”

Following a period of prolonged silence, I asked the minister, “Why would anyone purposefully set up such a system if it meant the democratic decline of our country?” That’s when he nodded his agreement. “But it’s the quickest way to power,” he concluded. Well, so is skirting the law, denying the rights of others, or the illegal use of force, but we don’t condone those.

If you are thinking of running for office, then get your head around this. Your job will not be to mimic this practice but to run in such a way as to get people back into the process through the manifestation of ideas and the nobility of public service. Establish your campaign on ending the neglect and you might not only have a chance at success, you might just change the country in the process.

The Biggest Obstacle In Running For Politics

You want to run politically – locally, provincially, or federally. You might think that your greatest challenge will be the uber partisanship that has destroyed so much of the political legacy of compromise in Canada, and you’d have a point. This past week the city of London, Ontario found itself the centre of national attention when one of its local elected officials (a former Liberal MP) was accused of using federal funds inappropriately during his time in Ottawa. Our community has been going through difficult times these last few years, but the sight of a present government MP slagging the London official in Question Period and on national media embarrassed our community on a nation-wide stage. No charges have been laid on the official, nor has anything yet been proven, but it didn’t matter. It was just a partisan kind of bullying that made Londoners deeply uncomfortable. Fortunately the other two government MPs from the city showed more admirable restraint.

This is the stuff you’ll have to face if you run for office, and if you end up choosing the party over your community you will have committed one of the greatest sins of elected office.

But you’ll have one greater obstacle and it will drive you crazy. You’ll soon discover that deeper realization that 20 years of the kind of partisanship mentioned above has turned off your constituency – apathy rules in most regions of the country, often typified by lower voter turnouts. The present American election season is revealing this once again, but in a new dimension. Numerous media venues south of the border have taken to “fact-checking” as a way to keep candidates from telling outright lies to the public. This was perhaps best displayed in the presidential debate when CNN moderator Candy Crowley corrected Republican candidate Mitt Romney on his accusation that President Obama didn’t condemn the terrorist attack in Libya until two weeks later. Romney faced the equivalent of being smacked down on national television for his subterfuge. Confronted by this following the debate, one Romney staffer stated, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” In other words, it isn’t about truth anyway.

In previous election seasons, media would call together panels representing both sides and let them duke it out. But falsehoods were rarely exposed in a definitive manner. So this time the media has taken to confronting candidates directly, in the belief that voters both want and deserve the clear truth. But it doesn’t seem to have increased public interest in the contest. Hyper-partisans still believe that negative and false ads work.

Maybe, but as we will see in a later post, I think the only thing such negative ads succeed in is turning people off of politics altogether, or baiting the ideologues who are incapable of curbing their anger for the greater good.

Truth is not red, blue, orange or green. It isn’t even black and white. We assume far too easily that everything has to have two sides and that we must select one or the other. In the modern world of politics we hardly find truth at all – just sides, often jarringly expressed. The modern Canadian voter is sophisticated enough to comprehend this and she/he turn away in disgust at the modern political spectacle of the tragic loss of the public space.

Canadians understand that politics is about the angle, the slant, the message, the barb, the perception, even deception. Citizens are looking for solutions but instinctively understand what Aldous Huxley expressed years ago: “Truth does not cease to exist because it is ignored.” All this “fact-checking” means nothing to the modern citizen because they stopped relating politics to reality years ago.

No party, regardless of its colour, possesses all the truth. The great and historic Canadian genius has been found in our ability to pull together the various aspects of reality from where we can gather it. But to listen to modern parties today you would think that opposing parties possess nothing of value. That is hardly true. What every party present in any legislative chamber possesses is the collective choice made by the voters in their riding. To slander such parties is to deny the democratic presence of those who voted for the person of their choice.

And that could be you. The only problem is that the majority of the people in your constituency likely won’t vote in the next election. It won’t be about you, but what they think of politics in general. There is only one way to get their attention and that is to stop slagging. Tell those listening to you that you will work with any other politician to tackle the major problems confronting our age. Not only that, you refuse to place your party, or even yourself, above those in your riding. You do that and you’ll get lethargic voters to sit up and take notice. They’ll have trouble believing that you’re real, so you have your work cut out for you. Your greatest obstacle will be the disillusionment of the voter, not your opponent. Your greatest accomplishment won’t be just winning an election, but winning back the belief of your fellow citizens that politics can matter again. You’ll win if you win them; all other political victory is hollow compared to that.

Citizenship – “Online Map but Offline Relationships”

Interesting responses on the last two posts on the Internet and democracy, and, as expected, they have been divided, at times even sharp. Some view the digital world as a vast sea of unrefined opinions, whereas others believe no filters should be put in place – let citizens sift through it for themselves, deciding whether they agree or not.

The problem is that the complexities of public policy, of managing what it takes to keep communities functioning and progressing (something different from just “growing”), can lead to simplistic arguments that add little to citizen engagement or comprehension.  It is vital to understand in all this that there is nothing essentially “democratic” about Internet technology. It is merely a tool, but one full of potential and pitfalls to the democratic spirit. Initially launched in 1991, it could have been shaped to be an essential component of the public domain, thereby enhancing citizenship and how we relate to one another. But this potential was largely ignored in favour of corporate control and random openness. We as citizens were never consulted as to what shape the Internet should take; the decisions all took place in a public policy vacuum.

In the last few years I have witnessed a clear irony in Internet use that, for citizens at least, perhaps presents its greatest challenge as a tool for better public participation. It has been made clear to me, especially as governments falter, that there is a bounty of democratic impulse on the Net, yet there are few demonstrations of democratic processes. In other words, the Internet openly permits us to express our leanings but has, as of yet, failed to shape them into a coherent citizen engendered public policy format. To be sure, there are numerous special interests, ranging from environmental causes to civic unrest, but they are not all being brought together in a manner like the political system, where vast ranges of ideas are worked through only a few political parties and disseminated from there. In the autumn months, as we journey back to the task of remaking politics through citizen engagement, we’ll revisit how the Internet might be of key service, but for now there are few processes on the Net that can bring a divided population together in ways that cause deliberation and compromise on things that matter, especially if it is to impact the political process.

A system of governing without the active participation of citizens is hardly democracy at its best, regardless of how well the guardians govern. This is a great part of the reason why the public trust in government itself is in decline. Yet the Internet itself has never been more active – or promoted. It could well provide key solutions to citizen apathy but has not yet lived up to that potential. In essence, the Net has become an online map for offline relationships when it comes to citizen engagement. The “digerati,” if I can use that term, partly sold the Internet in its initial years by claiming that it as an essentially “democratic” medium, and much of that has turned out to be true. But, despite some wonderful and effective exceptions, it has essentially failed to move citizens towards the political process in order to reform it and make it more sensitive to the peoples’ direction.  “Digital democracy,” as it was once trumpeted, has largely disappeared into the netherworld.

Like the commercial Net can create strong economic ties, a civic, or citizen Net could create an effective “human” economy, but only if given a chance and support from policy makers. This past weekend my family attended a wedding near Toronto that was a marvel in its creation. The bride was East Asian in origin and the groom Scottish. They used the Net to bring people from across the globe to the ceremony, using it to plan air flights, accommodations, meals and the reception itself. It wasn’t merely fascinating because it drew together two completely different cultures into one room, but because of the way in which it was all brought together.

Sadly, citizens have yet to utilize the Net in sufficient fashion to bring about a democratic revolution among the citizenry, especially in the West. The free market has successfully divided people into groups conducive to marketing and the purchase of products; the “public” market can’t emerge if we continue to permit the Net to only focus us on those things of interest to us. It keeps us divided and unable to summon the political will necessary to force democracy to function for our communities and our common concerns.

Come the autumn, we’ll be looking for instances of where the digital world has brought citizens out of their isolation in support of long-term change, and not just through political parties. You can help by sending in such examples. But somehow those successful stories will have to be expanded exponentially in order to have significant effect overall. New software will have to be developed to handle deliberation on such a large-scale and governments will have to support citizen efforts at re-engagement through digital means. We presently stand as either lost in apathy or isolated in ineffectiveness. Citizenship depends on the ability of the Net to overcome both liabilities.

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