The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: change

Transcending Cynicism

This blog post is also available at National Newswatch here.

“SCRATCH ANY CYNIC AND YOU WILL FIND a disappointed idealist,” comedian George Carlin said during an interview. We are watching this play out in the American election season, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have plumbed a motherlode of disenchaumudunu_kaybetmentment on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters of both candidates continue to cry out that they want their country back and their leader is just the person to do it.

In the modern era, those seeking election have learned that it’s possible to create something of a political movement by speaking to the despair of citizens, and there’s a point to it. Globally, politics has increasingly become a mug’s game – a sad parody of how it doesn’t seem to matter who gets elected because our greatest challenges as humanity remain significantly under-addressed. Whether it’s a lacklustre response to climate change, financial inequality, or a growing kind of collective distemper, the political class seems never quite able to rise to the challenge. This is playing out in real time as we witness the fascinating machinations in the American election.

In Canada, however, cynicism has to some degree been temporarily suspended. Whether the change promised by the Trudeau Liberals will materialize can’t be known for some time yet, but a stubborn sense of optimism has endured in large swaths of the country since Election Day, and, for a time at least, our growing suspicion has been placed on the shelf.

It didn’t start with Trudeau’s victory, but had been emerging over the last few years, for anyone willing to spot the undercurrents. Progressives across Canada began to see movement in 2013, when British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario opted for more activist-minded governments. Cities like Montreal, Mississauga, London, Calgary, and Toronto voted along similar lines. Something was brewing and at its base was the belief that governments could entertain more imaginative policies than mere austerity and restraint. The movement caught on enough that the Postmedia’s Jim Warren would note:

“The stars have finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”

Years of political dysfunction and financial restraint had ultimately resulted in a critical mass of the Canadian electorate pining for something more dynamic. In voting with the pen in the ballot box instead of remaining isolated in their detached cynicism, citizens were confirming they were capable of transcending their pessimism in order to be part of the change they sought.

And so progressive leaders and parties have the levers of power at their disposal. Will it be sufficient to restore hope in what Canada can accomplish? The answer is no. Change has come because Canadians pressed and voted for it, with progressive politics benefitting as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what changed our political dynamic in Canada, not the other way around.

Elections don’t change us so much as they reveal us. Like our cousins south of the border we wanted something more hopeful. Yet enough Canadians were willing to transcend their learned cynicism to at least create the possibility of a different future. In putting aside our collective pessimism we affirmed what Sufi mystic Rumi concluded: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”

Will Canadians remain engaged enough to shape their governments towards the change they seek? If not, cynicism is never far off and it won’t take much to tarnish our ideals. The political order has caught the wave, but without citizens paying attention it won’t be able to ride it to completion, whatever the goal may be. The next few years will be just as much a test of citizenship as of politics, and democracy will only flourish as both remain engaged in a partnership robust enough to overcome our main challenges.

Sanders and Trump: The Jig is Up

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IT’S TIME FOR ALL POLITICIANS TO LISTEN to Nick Hanauer, an American billionaire who actually came out last month to say, “When they (the financial industry) say that the better profits are, the better it will be for everybody, I’m the one who can say ‘That’s a lie. ‘ “

And a lie it is. Those pundits studying the tea leaves to ascertain Donald Trump’s or Bernie Sander’s appeal are looking in the wrong place. They simply have to walk through most neighbourhoods, or sit down in coffee shops throughout America, to figure it out.

Here’s how Leonard Steinhorn from American University laid it out.

  • the Great Recession “flatlined” the lives and aspirations of millions of Americans
  • comparable jobs just didn’t come back following the financial downturn
  • one-third of Americans making between $30,000 – $100,000 per year report that their finances haven’t recovered
  • middle-class families saw their median wealth drop by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013
  • the middle-class is now effectively on the outside looking in
  • the top one percent captured 58 percent of all income growth between 2009 and 2014 – a greater share of the national paycheque than at any time in the last 100 years
  • employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years
  • according to a 2015 Pew survey, 7 in 10 Americans say government has helped large banks, financial institutions, corporations, and the wealthy and done little to help the average family

There we have it – a powerful narrative that doesn’t emanate from some political leader but from the experience and lack of expectations of most citizens in the United States. This is what happens when good people who played by the rules feel out of the loop. Even now the Republican candidates are collectively calling for a relaxation of financial restraints for the big players, and more tax cuts for them as well. And the Democratic Party is seen to be complicit in the present sense of stasis in the nation and have governed federally over the decade of malaise.

Put simply the “jig is up” and Americans from all sides of the political spectrum are railing against a political elite they have come to regard as sluggish at best, uncaring at worst. It is this pressing reality that the media establishment never spotted on the horizon. Now they can’t get enough the populism that is erupting behind Sanders and Trump.

Canada has just been through a pivotal election, but even in this country the political and media elites underestimated just how deep the current for change ran throughout the country. The opposition parties learned to their regret that a makeover of the status quo would suffice to placate this angst in voters. While the Trudeau Liberals caught the wave of change on their way to majority government, the great danger they now face is to lose touch with that raw nerve of a citizenry that brought them power and now appears anxious for something more substantial than they have received in years.

Note: This blog post is also available to be read at National Newswatch here.

The Ticking Time Bomb Sanders and Trump Both Share

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WATCHING WHAT’S OCCURRING IN THE POLITICAL primaries south of the border is like nothing we have really experienced before. Those who thought just a few years ago that Sarah Palin was likely the most extreme establishment candidate to come along now stare agog at how Donald Trump has blown up the long-held “rites of passage” in American politics. It is likely few believed in this era that a serious political candidate running for president would run so afoul of facts that he could say what he wished and get away with it. Moreover, his willingness to entertain the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., or banning Muslims from the country, would have been thought of as political suicide only a few short years ago. But here Trump is, in vital contention for the presidency, and with a large following.

Like Trump, Bernie Sanders is an independent political force establishing himself within the mainstream of traditional party politics in an election year. But the Vermont senator has been an experienced, savvy, and proven political operative compared to Trump. In late 2014, most American media franchises said that Sanders simply didn’t have the clout or the connection with the average voter to turn in any kind of serious campaign. They were all wrong and now each one is covering him in equal measure to Hillary Clinton. Sanders is also promoting ideas that traditional Democrats would have thought unworkable a decade ago. His policies can find acceptance with the party, but it’s his perspective that is the true challenge. It’s not what he wants to build, but what to break up that makes him a true revolutionary – big banks, media monopolies, billionaire democracy.

So, we have an evolving set of political phenomena south of the border that serves as a direct challenge to politics itself and how it has functioned for decades. Traditional candidates in two established parties are struggling for some kind of footing, while two independents, different as night and day, continue to capture the hearts and minds of voters.

We are witnessing a populism explosion that few expected and which could be signaling the demise of democracy in America instead of its rebirth – we just aren’t sure. To maintain that the traditional parties have embedded themselves in a deep collusion with big money, with Wall Street, and with vested interests would be correct. They guarded and guided a political system that over a few decades tolerated, even shaped, the great challenges we face today. So, yes, some kind of “reset” is required.

What both Trump and Sanders have tied into isn’t so much a change as it is a shaping of the burgeoning anger average people feel towards the political and financial institutions themselves. Just as in Canada, where many overlooked or dismissed the deeper yearning for change felt by Canadians and which the Liberals surfed on to majority, Americans, too, have caught the pundits unprepared for how they have expressed similar urges.

To say that populism is on the rise would be an understatement, but it is what it truly wants that can be troubling. Bernie Sanders understands that Americans are fed up with the political and financial classes, but his solutions to that angst revolve around reforming the institutions themselves into workable units that can strengthen employment, education, the economy, healthcare, even tackle climate change. He understands that political parties, colleges, financial businesses, and healthcare institutions have arisen out of legitimate need to assist citizens to move forward in life. When they are broken, fix them.

Trump, on the other hand, sees institutions as a kind of roadblock to popular rule. Somehow he has been able to parlay voter anger into a kind of weaponry against elitism when he is, in fact, the ultimate elitist himself. It defies full understanding, but it is a reality, and it is now a force.

This is what Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous 19th century French observer laid out in his now infamous book Democracy in America. He believed that a free people required restraints if they were to progress their way into the future. And he believed that a healthy people live their collective life out in institutions as the best chance for advancing society – they touch one another through them.  Ultimately, he fretted that the “tyranny of the majority” would someday destroy America by removing the very civil and legal rights that had initially made it a light to the world. He perceived mob rule as eventually doing away with the historic lessons of inclusion America had come to represent. It would seem that building walls and deporting or banning entire cultures of people would fit into that category.

We don’t know how the American election will work out, but this much we understand: people are angry. Should that anger focus itself on making institutions relevant again, then democracy will find its renaissance.  If it results in collectively avoiding or ignoring institutions, or the primary responsibility of citizens towards one another, will have the opposite result. Right now those two possibilities are playing out in real-time in America.

Davos: The Ever-Missing Gender Lens

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THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM IN Davos, Switzerland last week captured a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Sessions were held in the growing fear that elite figures in finance, government, and the entertainment industry are no longer in control of the direction in which our planet is headed.

A clear sign of what’s wrong was obvious just in the makeup of the participants. Around 18% of them were women – that’s it. In 2002 that number was 9%, and in 2011 it was 16%. True, things are heading in the proper direction, but, seriously, this is trite and incremental stuff – hardly worthy of true leadership, especially on a global level.

What’s truly frustrating about this fundamental lack of progress at Davos is that a good portion of many of the meetings was about tackling poverty by supporting women’s efforts in developing nations. It was right there in front of them as Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, observed at Davos: “I don’t think the people who go to Davos deny that this is a major issue. They read the same reports about the value of investing in women in terms of education and employment as I do.”

The World Food Program reminded the crowd that the global economy requires the leadership of women if it is to be righted. Almost 90% of each dollar is invested by women and girls in their families through purchasing books, medicine, and food. The number for their male counterparts is between 30 and 40 percent.

I suppose we would expect a development group to say such things, but what about the head of the World Economic Summit himself, Klaus Schwab. He stated forthrightly that:

“A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential.”

Who’s to argue? And why would we wish to? But how do you square that observation with the fact that only 18% of Davos attendees are women? This has to be more than some kind of value statement; it must be an action plan, and if anyone should be able to guide us in this direction, it is supposed to be world leaders.

This week I composed a piece for the Huffington Post on the Davos Man. You can link to it here. Author David Rothkopf has asked the cheeky question: “What About Davos Woman?” He’s right. How can you gather the world’s elite in such a grand spectacle as Davos and call for more women’s leadership when you are willing to tolerate less than 20% women into the sessions? Clearly there is work to be done, but it’s difficult to have confidence in the supposed “best and the brightest” when they can’t make happen in their own sessions what they say needs to happen in the world in general.

“Leaders do not conform, says Israelmore Ayivor, author of Leaders’ Ladder, “they reform. If you conform, you are nurturing mediocrity. If you reform, you are breeding change.” If it’s change Davos is looking for, then conforming to historic gender patterns is hardly the way to get there.

Betrayed by Silence

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“I AM NOT A SAINT, UNLESS YOU think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” Nelson Mandela said reflectively. It’s hardly an accident that the former South African human rights champion looked on Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his guiding lights. Both men were flawed, yet they endured against significant odds, believing in their ideals when others thought they should pull back. Robert Louis Stevenson would have agreed with Mandela’s observation: “Saints are sinners who kept on going.”

All this week we have been dealing with the life of Martin Luther King Jr., noting his power of rhetoric and ideals, his refined sense of justice, and his deep understanding of human nature. There is ever the tendency to turn dead heroes into saints, but we had better be sure how we define saints if we travel down that road.

We quote King, admire him, and in many ways wish to be like him. But just before we do that, we must consider what it would mean. He had no halo, but he did possess a burning light of illumination in his head that continually placed him at odds with his generation.

He was one of the first to speak out against the war in Vietnam, but not for reasons we might expect. Yes, he turned his back on violence, but his chief reason for pessimism about that Asian conflict was how it had sucked the air out of everything else, leaving legislated ideals unfulfilled. “This war has eviscerated the national anti-poverty program,” he mused, and he was right. Lyndon Johnson’s vow to eliminate poverty in a generation was lost forever due to a protracted battle thousands of miles away.

And how would all those people who admire him if they understood that he was a democratic socialist, much like Bernie Sanders is today? In truth, King was a radical, one who believed that the political and financial systems were purposely geared to reward the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Such views made him unpopular. An August 1966 poll discovered that 66% of Americans had an unfavourable view of him. His call for a transformative redistribution of political power and financial wealth was deemed as anarchy to many.

And yet there is something remarkably relevant about King’s outlook today. We know where he would be. He would be standing with the workers locked out of their places of employment. He would rail against the fact that half of the world’s wealth belonged to only 63 people. He would side with the homeless and demand proper care of refugees. And he would call for the kind of political reform that would extend power to the oppressed so that they could alter their own fate. He would call for international development instead of military exploits. These and many more issues would feel the sting of his rhetoric.

“The time has come when silence is betrayal,” he mused to an audience shortly before he died. It remains difficult to locate any politician today who would take such a stand. And yet he is widely praised in the modern era. Clearly what people say they respect is not necessarily what they desire. When he openly pushed for government to guarantee a person’s right to work he was vilified, yet today the need for such an action is more necessary than ever.

It’s true that King had a dream, but he also had nightmares – worries that unless the world fought for equality and financial equity, all he struggled for would be lost. Is his dream alive in us today? Not unless we have a personal stake in changing a politics that rewards the elite and a financial system that degrades the poor. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” he preached. He never stopped raising his voice; we have remained in our silence too long. No dream becomes a reality unless we pay the full cost for those visions. King became a saint, not because he was flawless, but because he was restless and never ceased in his struggle for fairness. We presently honour King by naming a day after him. We’d be better served if we built a future on his architecture of justice.

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