The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizens

Smart Sovereignty


Cartoon Democracy

THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS PEERS STOOD ON THE VERGE of an entirely new historical era, but the ultimate question remained: were citizens up to the challenge of enhancing the democratic ideal and of intelligently voting for representatives who best housed their values?

Over 200 years later, we look back on those turbulent times and wonder what the big deal was. But that’s only because we have the benefit of hindsight. All that the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution saw when they looked back was a combination of wealth owners and a political elite that basically decided for everyone else how society would function. To decide upon a marked departure and simply “trust the people” approach was a gamble of truly historic proportions and there were no guarantees of success.

Yet Jefferson counted on one key ingredient if success was to be attained: knowledge. Here’s the way he put it at the time:

“If we leave the people in ignorance, old customs will return, and kings, priests and nobles will rise up among us. The diffusion of knowledge among the people is the only hope of success. Education alone will preserve the sovereignty of the people. Without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny.”

Odd as it might seem to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t a given way back then. It was one of the reasons Jefferson himself felt so strongly about the need for public school systems at all levels. He believed that without watchful and knowledgeable citizens those in power would stray and government would no longer represent the will of the people. Worse, they wouldn’t even understand their people. He believed, and time would bear this out, that because people who held office were human, that they would be subject to influences that could tempt them away from the public good and towards special interests. He reserved his greatest concern for rabid partisanship, where people put their minds on hold for the sake of selective interest. Informed citizens guard against such opportunism.

Democracy fundamentally requires an informed electorate. The alternative to that is civic decay, which is what so many jurisdictions are experiencing at present. The Achilles Heel of democracy has always been that it doesn’t force citizens to participate. Worse still, it doesn’t force them to understand the very issues that directly affect their own status.

Much has been written lately, especially on social media, that by exercising the right not to vote people are actually making a choice. Fair enough for the short-term. The long-term consequences, however, will be the dumbing down of democracy itself and the hijacking of communities by those who managed to cobble together enough support to get elected when the majority of citizens refused to participate. In doing so, we begin the inevitable walk back to the Stone Age.

As historian, Daniel Boorstin, once put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Exactly. The tendency to land on the support of a certain political party can be a galvanizing moment; it can also lead to the shutting out of our minds of other ideas necessary for good governance. This is where partisanship is its most dangerous. When handled well, it can provide a personal sense of shared conviction, a welcome, and an opportunity to fight for what one believes in. Handled poorly, there is the inevitable exclusiveness, the shutting out of others, and the demonizing of those that disagree. Sadly, at present, there is much more of the latter than the former.

To be meaningful, politics must call out our convictions. But to be effective it must draw us out of ourselves, beyond the present, and set our minds and intellect to a wider setting that extends farther than our private circumstances and personal gratification. Our communities are worth the best our minds have to offer, but to achieve that we must resist the lure of simple thinking and be called out to the realm of greater humanity.

The sovereignty of the electorate – citizens – over their rulers lies at the very core of the democratic experiment. To waste it on the need to always be right or to vilify others merely sells out that sovereignty to the professional manipulators in the political class. Our community requires more than that and we must be smart enough to realize it.

Mandela’s Legacy and Politics


WITH NELSON MANDELA’S PRESENCE NOW GONE from among us, questions continue to linger about his abiding influence.  Some of it is easy to figure.  As a person of moral stature, it is likely that no one from this present generation will stand as such a colossus of meaning and integrity.  As a family man, his life was mixed – as one would expect from someone so fully dedicated to a cause of freedom and having to spend almost 30 years in prison as a result of that commitment.  As a leader for human rights, his practices were varied, but the ultimate outcomes of his efforts are now beyond dispute.  And as a human being, he has ascended to that rarified realm occupied by people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But will his sojourn on earth have left any lingering effects on politics itself – its usefulness, calling, power, and ability to draw us together?  On that point things aren’t clear.

As a politician himself, it remains difficult to assess someone’s effectiveness who had been elevated to almost godlike status even before entering the rough and tumble world of politics.  His most effective campaigning was done from a prison cell on Robben Island and his influence only grew more magnified by his absence.  That’s not normal in a world where politicians have to put on their game face and attend as many public events as possible.  He had been a revolutionary who somehow ascended to the peak of power through peaceful means.  So, yes, that kind of life represents a challenge to our current practice of politics in almost every sense.  Despite all the eulogies, there remains something rather uncomfortable at watching a grouping of world leaders laud someone’s principles and actions that they have no plan of replicating themselves.  We understand that leaders should be there; but can they not do more than commemorate?

We all know there’s something not right in all this.  When I asked on social media yesterday whether Mandela’s example could result in a new kind of politics there was an immediate response.

  • Dave – “Nothing will rub off.  They are so engrained in their corruption and greed that they can’t even see the hypocrisy of their eulogizing.” (Facebook)
  • George – “First you’d have to create a new kind of human.” (Twitter)
  • Monika – “I have hope, but fear that if it could have, it would have while he was alive and standing up for the rights.  I feel change is left to the living.  We can draw on his legend, but only so much.” (Facebook)
  • Bill – “Being someone even close to the likes of Mandela requires a huge personal sacrifice.  Many of today’s politicians are ego driven, not driven by principles and therefore cannot make the personal sacrifices for the good of the people.” (Facebook)
  • Dave T. – “I don’t think our leaders are ignorant.  I don’t think they are greedy.  If anything, they have lost sight of the reasons why they are in their positions.  Their goals have become skewed.  They are always focused on the next election.  They follow a party line, even if they strongly disagree with some of it.” (Facebook)

So, from a citizen point of view, it doesn’t look good.  Part of Mandela’s greatness in our collective mind comes from the reality that so many others in politics fail to attempt such a standard, opting instead to tow the party line.  Nelson was a moral compass.  Of how many others in politics can we say such a thing?  There are some, but they grow increasingly rare as the political elite become just as lost as the citizenry.

Mandela’s life carries lessons for all of us, not just our leaders.  And in many ways we have all failed to carry the torch he bore for us, even if only for a brief time.  We can castigate our leaders all we want, and there is merit in such an action, but Mandela’s main energies were expended in convincing his fellow citizens that it was they who had to make the change.

Nelson Mandela once said he found a certain rectitude in Vaclav Havel’s observation: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”  The South African leader understood that if he failed at this point – citizens – then leadership would not matter.  So, he stirred them up to a higher calling and bore the scars of that calling in his own life – body and soul.  This is the kind of leadership we require – not just challenging citizens, but actually serving as examples of what cooperation and sacrifice could do.

As we begin this series on Mandela and politics, let’s not fall into the easy trap of blaming the elites.  It’s too late for that.  Their failure to secure such a destiny is daily reducing the public space, it’s true.  But our unwillingness to take them to task – to debate, to challenge, to run for office ourselves, and, yes, to vote – has paved the way for their underperformance.  There is no point in criticizing leaders who merely call to our self-serving instincts.  We are better than this and it’s time to show it.  The question is: will we become that change?

“New Cards” – Community Engagement Podcast (36)

It is highly possible for citizens to discuss their way into solutions.  But that’s not how the political process works.  There you have an agenda and people must dialogue along those lines or they are excluded.  But what would happen if an agenda was worked out later in our discussions.  This is what happens in real life.  Sometimes the answers to our struggles are to be found in third or fourth options, not merely what we are presented by the political class.  Community is about conversation; the agenda comes later.

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

“From Interests to Interest” – Community Engagement Podcast (35)

To create meaningful dialogue, good citizens display empathy more than emphasis.  To understand and respect where the other person is coming from is one of the hallmarks of civil society – a trait made all to rare these days by a partisanship that’s gone mad.  We all have our points of view – interests – and we all need to present them.  But above all there is the need to get to the overriding interest of why were attend such gatherings in the first place.  Sometimes the best people in such situations are those with respectful characters, instead of those with smart minds that are nevertheless petty.

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

“Idiots” – Community Engagement Podcast (25)

If citizens check out of the political process, then it becomes increasingly easy for governments to do as they wish.  We all know that.  And yet, with voter turnout declining in most democracies around the world, the democratic estate is becoming increasingly ineffective.  There’s an ancient name for people who don’t wish to take up their societal responsibilities and until they do, then our challenges will only get greater in equal measure to our disillusionment.  We can solve such difficulties, but it will require a new kind of citizenship.

Click on the audio button below to listen to the six-minute podcast.

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