The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizen engagement

Democratic Recession

 

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WHEN THOMAS FRIEDMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES recently drew attention to the 2006-2014 Freedom House finding that democracy is declining worldwide, it likely not to many were surprised. Places like Turkey, Russia, along with various countries in Africa and Asia, appear to have lost the handle on democratic progress that they possessed a mere decade ago.

But when the report circled back on the affluent West, it didn’t mince its words:

“Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic failure has been the decline of democratic efficiency, energy and self-confidence in the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock, and corruption through campaign financing … things have become increasingly dysfunctional.”

No surprise here either. An economic recession is often described as a significant decline in economic activity that lasts more than few months, effecting everything from GDP and real income to employment and production. What’s currently taking place in our politics has been going on for years and shows little sign of improvement. We’ve readily noted how partisanship on both sides of the 49th parallel has disillusioned citizens in general, but the effects of such dysfunction are now obvious.

So, yes, our political estate is in trouble. Or as Bloomberg News put it in a headline last month: It’s Official. Partisan Rancor Worst in Over a Century. Then there’s Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s headline: Antics in Question Period Illustrate the Charade Our Politics Has Become.

But democracy, and efficient politics, also requires an effective citizenry if it is to succeed. There are signs that some of the hoped-for political engagement in the process is experiencing trouble.

The only way to counteract bad politics is good citizenship; there really is no other way around it. We can see what happens when politics can’t adequately handle power, but what if citizens themselves are experiencing great difficulty in handling their tools of engagement into the political process?

Signs of these perplexing problems are becoming more apparent on social media. Could it be true that we have permitted Twitter to become “Power Without Responsibility,” as some claim, or is it possible it’s not giving us power at all? Tough questions.

I’ve increasingly run into well-meaning citizens who are taking what they term “Twitter breaks” – for a day, an evening, a week, even for holidays. When probed as to their reason, it’s always the same. It’s tough to manage a consistent presence on social media because the overly negative attacks are increasingly poisoning the waters. Some have seen their important relationships strained as a result. When author Michael Naughton noted recently that, “Social media is a shared delusion of grandeur,” he found a level of support he believed wouldn’t have been forthcoming even a year ago.

Citizens dedicated to a better kind of politics, and the public good, are confessing the fatigue of it all. Comedienne Amy Poehler, turning serious in a recent interview, affirmed,

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about mere opinions or what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

In our hunger for a better and more productive way of living together, perhaps Henry Buckle’s insight is carrying increasing weight with us: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” We all know social media is merely a tool, like political power itself; how we use it is what matters.

One thing is certain – a well-meaning citizenry desiring to engage and improve the democratic estate is growing disillusioned, taking breaks, attempting to recover from personal attacks they have received or unintentionally delivered. If our politics are to improve, it won’t work to merely bemoan the divisiveness of the political class if we practice the same thing. We need to better use our tools of engagement.  If we believe we must, in fact, lead the way as citizens, then it’s time we built on the understanding that merely giving opinions isn’t the same thing as a workable collaboration.  Democracy in recession? Certainly, but that’s a coin with two sides.

Making History Without Knowing It

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ROSA PARKS ADMITTED THAT SHE WAS TIRED on that particular morning as she shuffled off to the bus stop and began a journey that was about to form part of the seminal beginning of the civil rights movement. As procedure demanded, she entered the front of the bus, paid for her ticket, then exited to the outside and re-entered through the back door to the black section. Realizing the white section was filled, the bus driver ordered Ms. Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger.

We all know what happened next and the movement her refusal helped to launch. Her own simple account of that day is still inspiring: “I had no idea history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” That was 59 years ago this month (December 1, 1955), but in so many ways average citizens have felt that kind of despair that says enough is enough. It can’t be compared to what southern blacks endured in the 1950s, but it’s been real to many citizens in London just the same.

Londoners were tired of a politics that seemed to shift our priorities to the rear of city business. On the occasion of this last civic election they refused to give in again and settle for more of the same. The effects of thousands of individual acts of conscience were cumulatively transformative, at least in the moment. The change was clear when some 800 Londoners attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new mayor and council – an occasion that rarely drew 50 people in years previous. Perhaps without realizing it, citizens were determining that the best way to find a future was to create it – a remarkable moment in time.

Tired of the status quo, they began to imagine new ways to move forward. It was is if they suddenly reminded themselves that the purpose of politics wasn’t to win elections but to govern collaboratively, and in the process they gained a new lease on life.

They also came to understand that a jaded kind of politics was something in which they had played a part. Many of them were tired of it all and had just quietly moved off to concentrate on their own private lives. But it eventually became obvious that even their personal worlds were circumscribed by a politics that under-performed. Their sense of optimism felt increasingly hemmed in, and so many among them re-engaged.

Voting as they did, Londoners were, in effect, declaring that they weren’t going to give up their hopes to that same kind of stasis that said they should merely give over local government to others and just sit back. They decided they wanted to play a part. Yes, voter turnout was up only slightly, but those who did show up actually stood up, saying, like Parks, “we were just tired of giving up.”

This council’s being successful isn’t a sure thing. The challenges before them are imposing and there are years of status quo thinking to overcome. The risks are high. Council could be tempted to spend wildly beyond its means. On the other hand, it could fail to invest sufficient resources to give the city a new sense of being. A spirit of experimentation is in the air, a willingness to entertain the unexpected. Innovation can no longer be about tweaking a little bit here or there, but can only emerge when people who care for their city are welcomed to think freely and create. For that to occur, London has to build a culture of inventiveness and originality, regarding the odd failure as a valuable lesson that inevitably gets them closer to their purpose.

Democracy was never meant to be easy. Nor was it meant to be merely top-down. Citizens and their representatives must agree to a covenant that each will do her, or his, own part. It’s been some time since Londoners felt that way, but a couple of weeks ago things clearly took on a new tone. Citizens took their seats at the swearing-in and refused to yield them up. In remarkable fashion, they were taking their own collective oath to participate in the process – remarkable.   They were there for what many hope to be the beginning of a movement. By growing tired of being tired, they, like Rosa Parks, placed a down payment on the future. Their time as Londoners has arrived and they will only succeed as they set a new direction, fulfill their covenant to one another, and derive the courage to become the heroes of their own story.

Mayors: Citizens are the Mayor

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SO FAR, I’VE RESEARCHED OVER 30 MAYORS from around the world for this series of posts and I’ve been surprised at how diversified they were when they first came to office. Almost half of them come from the educational or non-profit sector, with many of that group championing human rights and citizen engagement. Then there were billionaire businessmen, like New York’s Michael Bloomberg, who have left their mark. We continue to hear that mayoralty candidates require business experience, but it intriguing to note how many of the most successful mayors come from other sectors.

Like Park Won-Soon, the mayor of Seoul, South Korea, who was first elected in 2011. Emerging from humble origins, he nevertheless ended up graduating from both Harvard and Stanford Universities, specializing in law and economics. Yet he remained fascinated by citizen engagement – so much so that he opted to run for mayor of Seoul as an independent candidate and triumphed with 53% of the vote.

If you were to ask Won-Soon today what qualifies him as mayor now, since he had no previous experience, he doesn’t emphasize his law or economic background, but rather his experience as a human rights advocate and a community organizer. Put simply: he believes in the bottom-up form of politics, where citizens grow active enough to implore the political elite to make changes. He comes by it honestly, having founded his own non-governmental organization in 1994, called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. He went on to establish the Beautiful Foundation, dedicated to encouraging voluntarism and community service.

When deciding to run for mayor as in independent, his opponents were quick to point out his lack of political experience and business acumen. What they didn’t count on was his appeal with younger generations between the ages of 20-40. He eventually pulled in some 60% of those groups to win the election.

No sooner had he won than he developed the phrase that characterized his entire outlook towards political purpose: “Citizens are the mayor.” He’s prolific with social media and inaugurated a “citizen as mayor for a day” program.

In his first year, he moved government’s efforts from large development projects to issues of inequality, affordable housing, renewable energy, local agriculture, and indoor urban mini-gardens. He was initially ridiculed by political professionals, but citizens took to his direction in ways that altered the prevailing customs of politics as elite-driven.

He likes to say that a mayor should be the embodiment of his neighbours. How many times have we heard that in Canada recently? “I’ve been working for ‘us’ my entire life,” he said in a recent interview, once again linking his fate with the people as opposed to some mere political agenda. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that Seoul is a city of 10 million inhabitants. To manage a city like that takes much more than business or legal experience; it requires the ability to inspire and view a city’s main resource as it people, not its money.

As the old political order, and the kind of politicians that once benefitted from it, recedes into history, it is being replaced by a new kind of organized humanity that, difficult as it is, puts the fate of future communities in the hands of those who live in them. It’s the next emanation of democracy and we’d better start voting for it.

Cup-a’ Community

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SOME OF MY GREATEST MOMENTS HAPPENED THERE.  When the Little Red Roaster coffee shop closed up for good this past weekend, I realized that the journey of my life in the past 18 years could be traced through the hundreds of meetings I had in that little coffee shop over the years.

I remember when I took my Sudanese kids there for their very first hot chocolate.  They didn’t know English very well, but the sheer delight on their faces as their taste buds relished the chocolate and whipping cream could be translated into any language.  I ended up buying them two each.  Everyone in the coffee shop that day knew of their story and gathered around in celebration.  It was my kid’s first real exposure to community in Canada and all they saw around them were friendly and welcoming faces.

Then there is the recollection of seeing two Canadian prime ministers there.  They sat down in the midst of all those citizens, drank their coffee, and got an earful of insights from the good people of London.  It taught me early the importance of citizen engagement and the need for politicians to get back to the grassroots.Roaster board

Over the years I became good friends with a former Conservative MP at various tables in that shop and learned afresh that good-hearted people can cooperate across any divide if the spirit is right and the community comes first.

My heart broke as I took a dear friend there for his last taste of French vanilla coffee before he passed away a few days later. 

I met teachers, principals, businessmen and women, kids, parents, scientists, economists, politicians, priests, media personalities, doctors, nurses, and those from so many other walks of life at those tables over the 18 years I frequented the place. 

And citizens and groups took me there for hundreds of coffees, as they sought advice on all aspects of citizenship and responsibilities to community and to offer their opinions in return.  I met so many people interested in running for politics – women and men – in these last few years that I became inspired by their fervent desire to better their community.  I told them that the “Roaster” was the very first place I frequented the day after my political sojourn was brought to an abrupt end and how the community in that place enfolded me in their midst, encouraging me to keep fighting for a better city.  I recaptured hope in such times.

Jane and I went there immediately after learning I had a baseball-sized tumour in my stomach that would have to be removed, along with the stomach.  I still recall to this minute Jane’s gaze as she sought to reach out in our own moment of private and quiet despair.  I also recall going there an hour after my chemo treatment had concluded and how everyone gathered around in congratulations.  That 18-month journey could also be mapped out in the tables around that coffee shop.

And then there were the various meetings with ElectroMotive, Ford Talbotville and Kellogg’s employees who weren’t merely staring into their coffee cups, but into a black void in which they felt entrapped.  There were the tears, the worry for the children, but ultimately the resolve to find a new future in our community.  I will never forget the sheer dignity of those folks in the midst of great difficulty.

It’s true that I was attracted to that coffee shop because of all the people I knew, but somehow it developed the ability to move out into the community through the efforts of its patrons.  Its offering of free coffee and amenities to some 150 charitable ventures across the city is well-known.  The greatest demonstration of that to me was dropping by the Red Roaster in the mornings, picking up the thermoses of coffee, and taking them out to the locked-out workers at ElectroMotive during the coldest days of the winter.  Those coffees were the community’s way of demonstrating their compassion for those workers and that coffee shop made it possible.

This past Saturday was the Red Roaster’s last day being open in Wortley Village, and in typical fashion it donated all of its earnings that day – 100% – to a local charity.  They were ending their tenure just as they lived it.

I sat alone in those final few moments, at my favourite table and feeling sentimental.  So much of what I have attempted to do for my city happened within those four walls and within the reach of all in my community.  I was alone at closing, in the end realizing that I had grown so much in those familiar surroundings.  To Kendra Gordon-Green and Adam Green, the owners, I offer a fond “thank you” for providing a solid place where I could discover a broader community.  Their work will continue in the catering business, and the brand will continue at other locations, but the memories of what we had while that place served its community will remain with many of us for years and years.

This story could be told numerous times in similar venues and coffee shops across the city, and we thank all of them for providing that “third place” where we could interact as citizens, families, and friends.  They teach us the possibilities of engaged citizenship on so many different levels.  The Roaster’s door might now be closed, but my mind is more open than at any time in my life because it gave me a place to become my best.  If all of our coffee shops can do that, then our community will be fine.

We Get What We Vote For

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“When a tree falls,” says author Jocelyn Murray, “it resounds with a thundering crash; and yet a whole forest grows in silence.”  That is what has been happening with the ongoing saga of Rob Ford these days, and it’s a troubling portend, not just of political corruption, but of citizen ambivalence.

There is something so remarkably foolish about it all.  Those from the Right side of the political spectrum have remained largely silent because … well, he’s been one of their poster boys.  And those on the Center/Left have piled it on, reminding everyone they could concerning the sheer moral depravity of the man.

But it is the citizenry that appears surprisingly mute – not in the coffee shops or other social gatherings, but in their inability to collectively express the kind of outrage required that says that we expect better and demand better.  Alas, citizens are fascinated, even upset, about what they are witnessing, not just with the Ford saga, but in the sorry state of politics collectively in our land.  But instead of determining to pull together to change the narrative, they remain isolated and frustrated.

It is absolutely correct to expect a proper ethical code of conduct from those who represent us.  This has been a subject well played out in the media in these past few weeks.  However, what continues to be overshadowed is the sheer level of manufactured incompetence coming from people like Ford.  It is one thing to suffer apparent lacks of moral judgment, but it’s another entirely to just not be up for the job in the first place.

When Rob Ford stated last week that he had saved Toronto roughly a billion dollars since his predecessor’s last year (David Miller in 2010), he played the perception game and in so doing degraded the public space even further.  In reality, city spending went up about $200 million per year under Ford, and taxes and fees went up by another $200 million.  The issue here isn’t really about whether such revenues are good or bad, but whether it’s possible for citizens to get a complete story when politicians play such games.  His ethical lapses in judgment are revealing, but such pronunciations about budgets form the greatest insult to the intelligence of the citizenry.

All the recent conflicts between politicians and citizens have been heavily slanted toward ethical lapses, and these are surely troubling.  Yet they distract us from the real virtues required to effectively manage the public space and the private contribution: competence and transparency. 

It is not the declining stature of the politicians that forms the greatest danger to our communities, as it is their inability to get on with the task of running those cities and regions effectively, especially during troubling economic and social times.  While citizens can easily be sidetracked by political scandals, their real difficulties are lack of jobs, homelessness, lack of investment, access to healthcare, climate change, lack of youth opportunities, and declining public infrastructure.  At the very least, we expect attention to such details; at the very most, we hope for their solutions.

Should we not expect our representatives to tell us the truth as opposed to slanting it?  Is the requirement for transparency not more essential than spin in these troubling times?  Shouldn’t our economic struggles cause cooperation instead of contention?  This isn’t some great Shakespearean tragedy we are witnessing on some stage and then head off home.  It’s real life and our communities are facing real challenges.  While we may quibble about the sordid morality plays filling the airwaves, we should at least agree on the fact that we require capable people to fill our offices of power.

We are guilty of asking too little of ourselves.  We find it remarkably easy, natural even, to blame our representatives and yet we put them there.  They have no real answers to our unemployment situation, but we either continue to support them because of the party we serve or because we have just given up altogether.  We turn away in disgust at all the corruption trials, the hanging around with nefarious types, and the constant role-playing to populist politics, and in that very act of walking away we poison the wells for our children’s future.  We will continue to dote on our kids at Christmas, providing what they require, but we won’t fight for their cheaper post-secondary tuitions, their future healthcare requirements, their ability to purchase their own homes or to have meaningful jobs.  Our children will be entrusted with billions of dollars in public infrastructure deficits and our way of dealing with it is to walk away from the public space instead of fighting for it – for them.

Apathy is a kind of public trap, with no challenges and therefore no rewards.  It just is and the consequences are inevitably bone chilling.  Most of us care, just not enough, and if we maintain that attitude then we need to prepare ourselves for more mini-tyrants overrunning our public space.  This isn’t about Left or Right, is it?  It’s about competence and our ability as a people to overcome our challenges and build on our past successes.

The simple reality is this: it’s not really about Rob Ford and his ilk; it’s about us, and how much incompetence we are willing to endure.  We got what we voted for and now we’re paying for it.  We need better politicians, but our only way of achieving that target is to be better citizens.

 

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