The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizens

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

The Real Creator of Jobs

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IN RESPONDING TO NICK HANAUEER’S observation that “the pitchforks are coming,” one of the .01% noted that the democracy has successfully “tamed” the masses, to the point where violent responses to growing economic inequality are no longer likely.

One wonders what that person must think of the millions marching in the streets of Paris in response to a brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the hundreds of thousands marching in streets across the world seeking change in the world’s financial system. These demonstrators might not carry rudimentary weapons like pitchforks, it’s true, but on the other hand, armed with smartphones, websites, petitions, cameras, and powerful texting abilities has meant that they can actually enter into the consciousness of the world in ways never seen before.

Hanauer understands the distinction, saying forcefully that modern revolutions come gradually, then suddenly. He believes his financial peers just don’t get it, despite all their supposed acquired intelligence.

But his greatest frustration is reserved for just how unnecessary it all will be.

“If we, the elites, do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression – so that we help the 99% and preempt the revolutionaries and cries – that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer … My suggestion to you is: Let’s do it all over again. We’ve got to try something. These idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying my customer base. And yours too.”

It was when he realized this that Hanauer decided he wanted to try changing the conversation. He calls it “middle-out economics,” and it’s compelling stuff. It simply asserts that if workers have better jobs and more money, businesses have more customers.

In this he hits on a great truth that has been overlooked. The financial elite is fond of saying that governments don’t create jobs. Well, if recent years are any indication, neither do corporations. It is, in fact, middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople, that are the true job creators. When businesses have more customers, they require more workers to fill the demand. It is a thriving middle-class that created the rich, not the other way around. Endanger that middle-class and it’s inevitable that fabulous wealth will prove fleeting.

Hanauer is compellingly effective when exposing the underlying fallacies of elite assumptions. For those calling for smaller government, it will never happen, he claims, if so many people keep falling through the cracks. “You have to reduce the demand for government and that hasn’t happened under conservative Republican leadership – in each case, the size of government and debt has mushroomed under their watch.” He isn’t trying to be partisan, he maintains, but it should be obvious to all sides of the political spectrum that the more people out of work or facing financial insecurity, the greater will be the call and need for government intervention and support. It’s inevitable.

Governments are in the crosshairs of the 1% not because they are big or small, but because they can legislate regulatory control and nothing scares the wealthy class more. And so the assault on government continues. Yet despite this reality, Hanauer believes that both the right and left sides of the great political divide are slowly finding common ground on the need for a common approach to save capitalism from itself. “Perhaps that’s one reason the right is beginning, inexorably, to wake up to this reality as well,” he says. If he’s right, then unbridled capitalism doesn’t have much time left. In the next post we’ll examine if politics can actually begin to formulate a plan to pull it all back from the brink.

To Our New Council, With Love

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LONDON, ONTARIO, CAN BE FORGIVEN FOR FEELING some wind in its sails, despite having passed through some difficult years. We have a new mayor, a mostly new city council, and a new spring in our step. Feels good.

Those who were elected have a passion for their city and it’s not hard to spot. We need sound leadership if we are to proceed. And, in their desire to lead, they’ll need to follow the leadership of the community if they are to make the difference they obviously seek.

So, here is my prayer for all of you, the new team, based on the clear respect for your stepping forward and the awareness of the challenges you face.

First, please keep yourself. I’ve had a bit of experience in politics and it was troubling how easily political representatives permit themselves to become exclusively the extension of other people’s wants and desires. It’s vital to know your community, but your authenticity and usefulness will be centered on who you are and why you ran for office in the first place. To know oneself is important for political life; to keep yourself, however, is vital. Londoners didn’t elect robots, but living people in whom we wish to learn trust. That won’t be possible if you can’t stay real.

Be honest … please. Someone in Ottawa once explained to me that the secret of remaining in politics in putting on a difference face for everyone, as needed. It was some of the dumbest advice I’ve ever received. Politics isn’t only the art of the possible; it involves the transfer of trust, back and forth between citizen and representative. Start faking it with us, and trust is gone. And once it’s lost everything is just power plays or ambivalence.

I pray you make clear time for your family and friends. It is inherent in the very nature of politics that it soaks you for everything you can give it. Don’t give it that advantage. It is these very people who got you to where you are, and if you permit the demands of thousands of citizens to displace the honour you owe to those closest to you, it won’t be long until you lose your way, removed from those things that once gave you grounding and understanding.

Don’t forget to be humble. You didn’t get to where you are at this moment just because you’re so smart or innovative; you got there because citizens voted for you. When your community decides to trust you with leadership, it means that they not only deserve your best but also your devotedness to the honour of serving those who marked the ballot for you in the first place. Politics is not about pandering or policy, but ultimately about people. You have been elected to serve, not to seek advantage. The voters will never forget that; neither should you.

Please be kind. I have known so many good people who entered politics and who then permitted it to turn their spirits repeatedly to stone – so much so that they came to resent the very citizens that were supposed to be serving. You are to administer both the resources and understanding of the city to those that live and function within it. Resent those you are to be serving and it will be inevitable that you’ll care only about the power and perks of your position. Take time for your people, quality time, and they will keep you grounded and honoured – not because you’re a politician, but because you are a good person.

Please don’t lose yourself in these next four years; if you lose your way, so do we, and we’ve already had enough of that. Just like your citizens, love your community as though it is worthy of our very best efforts. Court it. Pursue it. Build a life with it. Love is at its best when it prompts us to serve others. Serve us with respect and understanding and we will honour you with our loyalty and talents. We love our city, but we will have to manage it through you, and that is a responsibility beyond measure. We’re turning a page together.  Let’s give it our best shot.

 

Our City

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TODAY WE HEAD TO THE POLLS IN OUR CITY to select a new mayor, councillors, and school board trustees. Some will have no idea who to vote for until the last minute; others have been ready for months. Politics can bring out the best and worst, sometimes both, in our city, and elections can draw a community together for another four years or rip it apart for a painful period of time.

But in the end, regardless of the quality of the candidates or the strengths and weaknesses of their platforms, the person who holds the ultimate power today is the voter – all of us. For the briefest moment in time we will be secluded, pencil in hand, and in that isolation will lie the future of our city. In the end, we aren’t voting for a candidate but the kind of community we desire to have. It rests with us and we have some serious questions to ask ourselves before we mark our ballot.

  • Am I willing to change the course of my future by making the needed changes in myself to move from isolation to community?
  • Am I willing to stop seeing my city as a kind of crossword to be solved but a community to be built?
  • Am I willing to keep hoping even if the political outcome I’m voting for doesn’t prevail?
  • Am I voting for a new way of governing that includes me?
  • Does my vote represent the best in me or merely the most self-serving?
  • Does it reflect my problems or my solutions?
  • Does it reflect my reasoned understanding or my tribal opinion?
  • Is my choice for the future or for the past?
  • Do I understand that by holding the power to vote I am stronger than the person who receives that vote?

Whatever the results at the end of the day, our vote should mean much more than our choice to have someone else to take care of the city. It isn’t their place to rule but ours to build. Our vote shouldn’t spell the end of our participation in the political process but a clear signal of our recommitment to make politics meaningful again through the participation of thousands of others just like us.

It is time for democracy to step out from its own dark shadow into the light of shared responsibility – citizens with one another, and with their elected representatives.

But all that depends on a small mark on a piece of paper. In other words, history is moved in private, in the solitude of an individual’s preference for how her or his community will be fashioned for the future. And history could also fall into decline if enough citizens refuse to spend that moment alone. Democracy depends almost exclusively on the simple matter of showing up – to vote, and then to engage and build together.

Today will be about the human spirit and its ability to reimagine how it will work with others to building a better place for us all, despite our many differences. We must select politicians who can become people again and not just extensions of some political agenda. And it will be about us, continuing to show up again and again until we get this shared responsibility thing right.  No election is perfect, but it should nevertheless be a step in the right direction, an avowal of faith that we live in a democracy and that we will never be satisfied with poor performance – in our representatives or in ourselves.

Author Herman Melville once said; “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  That’s what today is about.  Tired of the same-old, same-old, we strike out in a new direction, where voter and those successfully elected opt to share the challenge of leading and invigorating a community.  And it all starts with a pencil, a piece of paper, a private place, and, above all, a citizen.

Mayors: The Dream Catchers


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THIS BRINGS TO A CONCLUSION THESE POSTS on the importance of mayors around the world. There is a such a diversity among them, but it’s clear that the ones we have focused on have some clear things in common, namely a desire to make cities more central in the political universe, and the distinct belief that in order to achieve success they must share the power with the citizens of their respective communities.

And we as voters have learned something as well: to put aside our past belief that one political individual, or even a grouping of them, are capable of providing the kind of collective and meaningful life we are seeking. The claims of some political aspirants that they will clean up a city or even run it like a business are surely empty, as recent history would suggest over and over again. You might as well say that you think you’re smarter than everyone else, or that you run your family like a corporation. Time to put such pretenses to bed.

A city council is supposed to derive its powers from the consensus of the governed, and it’s supposed to exist to serve them. That has always been the historic model, even if in recent years we have gotten away from it. But now it’s more. We have reached the place where a council must, in part at least, derive its policy and expertise from the governed as well – a significant change from past eras.

Unlike business, government has to serve everyone. Any public trust it might enjoy comes at the behest of the people. Yet it’s no longer enough to rest on such laurels. The failure of the political order has introduced a new element into democracy – an engaged citizenry – that has filled up the spaces vacated by government and won’t take kindly to being tossed aside following the next election. They not only wish to stay; they want to share power in a way that is equitable. This is the new democracy and any person running for mayor who ignores this reality doesn’t deserve to win anyway. Governments abandoned much of the ethical, environmental, fiscal, and quality of life issues and citizens won’t forget that. They have come forward to help; should you toss them aside, you might as well toss you city as well.

And here’s another truth that successive mayors have learned: culture is more important than vision. It is the way of life, the expectations the people feel toward one another, that form the building blocks of a better future. Vision is one thing. But the culture a mayor builds creates inroads into creativity, prosperity, and human relations that no one woman or man can hope to replicate.

Put more simply: the best mayors are a community’s dream catchers. From our First Nations culture we learn that these remarkable symbols form a way in which a community not only protects itself, but enhances its dreams. Yes, they were suspended above the beds of children to keep out the negative forces, but their ultimate purpose was to let through the good dreams and permit them to slide down the feathers to those sleeping.

The most successful mayors are those who not only protect their communities through legislation, law and enforcement; they also build them according to the capacity of their citizens. The vision of the one is simply incapable of outperforming the dreams of the many. And there will come that time when a community dedicated to its shared future will wake up one day to discover that its reality is greater than its dreams.

But all that will take leadership. It will take mayors who use their offices to unlock the potential of their citizens. It was so many years ago now that Eleanor Roosevelt observed: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” That us, and we’ll need good mayors to get us there. They will link us to other cities, other dreamers and builders, and they will demonstrate by their very acts that a dream shared is better than a vision monopolized.  In that sense, I trust these posts have been of assistance.

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