The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizenship

Catch and Release

This post was originally published at National Newswatch here.

Author Chris Gould, in his Aristotle: Politics, Ethics and Desirability, made the rather sage observation that, “the best promises forever seem to be made by amnesiacs.”  Politics has frequently been measured as the distance between what a politician promises and what is ultimately delivered. As voters themselves move all over the political map, those seeking their approval make ever more outlandish vows in order to secure their trust, and often fail to complete them.

The more this goes on – the over promising and under delivering – the more that essential ingredient of trust slips away from our democracy. We have reached a stage in the modern era life where politics itself has escaped the very democratic system it was supposed to guard and empower.  The generation that endured the deep disillusionment of Watergate and lost faith in democracy’s institutions, its ideals and its pragmatic ability to find commonality, never recovered.

Canadians. who endured years of Senate scandal, eventually grew to distrust and ignore the Upper Chamber, with many calling for its abolition. Even Justin Trudeau’s efforts to reform the Senate have so far failed to restore it to a place of respect, and perhaps more importantly, effectiveness. Trust has yet to be rebuilt.

Europe is currently walking a perilous tightrope as old institutions fall into disfavour, political leaders make outlandish claims, and citizens themselves collectively retreat from the comity that once spoke of a more hopeful future. Current French elections are only the most recent example of the creeping era of democratic distrust.

Throughout democracy’s history were numerous unorthodox figures and statements that frequently served to spice up debate and make the news more interesting. But many of today’s current leaders are, like Nixon, willing to undermine the very integrity of constitutions and revered political practice in order to achieve their ends. For them it is not enough to win; they must trounce the system, drain the swamp, get the voters to detest government itself, if they are to retain their popularity. In Harvard University Law Professor’s Jack Goldsmith’s view, it is now becoming the normal for a political leader to claim that “lawful is awful.”

All of this willingness to push beyond the limits of law and common sense has left the average citizen with the sense that nothing is politically sacred anymore – not common purpose, compromise, personal integrity, even law itself. The goal posts keep moving. The rules keep morphing. The characters keep changing. Yet, in all of it, little seems to be getting done. For all the talk of democratic reform, little changes. Lofty statements on the need to radically challenge the encroachment of climate change remain largely empty. Poverty remains stubbornly present and damning. Calls for political parties to cooperate on our greatest challenges have yet to successfully tear down the walls of animosity between them.

It’s the political equivalent of catch and release: use whatever bait it takes to hook the fish, but once it’s in the boat, toss it back into the water. Do or say whatever it takes to get the vote, even if it means undermining democracy itself, and then govern as though the only thing that matters is political survival.

Founding figures in both the United States and Canada launched their precarious experiments in democracy in the belief that only a commitment to high standards of human behaviour and respect, along with maintaining the abiding trust of citizens, could guarantee the success of their efforts.   It is becoming more evident that we are failing in that quest across the board – politicians for making promises that they sensibly can’t make, and citizens for continuing to vote for those moving more and more to the extremes. Abraham Lincoln understood this well enough to say:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Politicians around the world are going to have to work exceedingly hard to regain the trust of the voters and that will mean making sensible promises and working in collaboration to achieve them. And citizens must begin the process of finding and building on the common ground that was once the most expensive piece of public real estate, but one we are increasingly in danger of losing.

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

It’s the Little Things That Matter

When our planet seems to heading off in all directions all at once we face the tendency of following it. Do that for long enough and we end up having opinions without wisdom, goals without direction, and speed without depth. It can leave us all emotionally spent. Consider this observation from David Brooks:

“The noises of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”

There’s that word again – character. We think we know what it means and that it’s who we are. The problem is that it needs to be developed as we get older in order to ground ourselves in a fast-paced world. All too late we frequently discover that our actions are ineffective unless our principles guide them. We end up being all over the map. The big things that really matter in our lives are the vital small things we do repeatedly and that accumulate to the point where we make sound decisions.

Author Benjamin Hardy once asked his readers and interesting question. Given the chance, which would you rather have: $1,000,000 in your pocket right now or a penny that doubles in value for 31 days? Most of us would likely choose the million dollars because it appears more motivating and we get it all at once. But if we followed the penny route we would end up with $10.7 million dollars in a month. The key, of course, is not just deciding correctly, but having the patience to let things build bit by bit. The big payoff comes at the end.

Our modern world always goes for the immediate reward because that’s how things are peddled and advertised to us virtually on every level. But we would be richer if we went for the deeper decision. Character is like that: we keep doing the small things well, growing and learning in the process, until that point in our lives when we are able to rise above the pandemonium of our age through well-developed characters. In the end it will be our repeatedly working on the small things that will help us to achieve our purpose and not just pursue it.

We can spend a lot of time pursuing new opportunities, but if we don’t have a clear idea of the sources of the great meanings in life – love, diligence, discipline, forgiveness, humility, compassion, generosity, truthfulness – and developed them, then we just find ourselves jumping from cause to cause but growing little of substance in the process. We find we lack the internal strengths to develop unwavering commitments and spend our lives skipping across the surface of life, rarely being affected by its depths.

The greatest improvements and decisions in our lives come when our heart is expanded, not just energized. The reward of all that is that our minds become consistently sound and our hearts and choices become dependable.

Most have been taught to believe that our character becomes strong through the hard times and there is clear precedent for that. But it is through the quieter times when no one sees us and we aren’t bent out of shape by circumstances that our character becomes deep and dependable, not just strong. It’s all in the little things done well. It might well be that in a mercurial world it is the working on the deeper attributes that eventually persuades us to choose rightly. That choice is ours and the true rebel of the age is the one that slows down to achieve it.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

The Authoritarians

Perhaps more interesting than the subject of exactly where Donald Trump came from to seize the ultimate prize of the American political system is to wonder where were all the people who came out of obscurity to vote for him. The same way that nobody really gave Trump a chance early in U.S. election cycle, the same forces failed almost completely to spot the millions who would emerge to eventually put him into the Oval Office. It’s called populism, and in its own way it’s kind of crazy.

A few years ago, the term “populism” was rarely heard, let alone capable of overthrowing entire governments. But now that it’s here, everyone is jumping on board and talking about how it could realign politics and democracy to work with the average citizen. That’s merely wishful thinking and deserves more consideration.

As Trump surged towards the White House, a CBS News piece talked of a huge wave of populism propelling the billionaire to victory. It also sounded kind of heroic in a way – the people rising up to overthrow the elites and take their country back. It seemed sentimentally revolutionary. But then an exit poll on Election Day by the same CBS News discovered that in South Carolina, 75% of Republican voters wanted to ban Muslims entirely from the United States. A few hours later, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) press release reported that a full one-third of Trump voters supported banning gays and lesbians from the country. More shockingly, 20% said Abraham Lincoln was wrong in his efforts and shouldn’t have freed the slaves. If this was populism, it was hardly what people were expecting. It must be acknowledged that millions of Trump supporters are neither racist or bigots; they are merely looking for change and a better chance at life.

It’s assumed that this new emergence of populism is based on the desire to get rid of the elites in charge of democratic regimes around the world. That’s too simplistic, as two American researchers – Jonathan Weiler and Marc Heatherington – unearthed to their surprise. Following a number of experiments, tests and data analysis, they discovered that most of the great disruption in American politics was not merely the byproduct of partisanship, money, or outright political manipulation, but the presence and emergence of one electoral group that nobody had really counted on – authoritarians.

In other words, much of populism is looking for leaders to take charge, and right now it tends to be more the neo-liberal elites they are after. They want the strong man, or woman, who will just seize the reigns of government and begin casting off the effects of all those Left and Centre-Left political experiments that have been going on in this past half-century. And neither is it merely an American phenomenon.

Back in 1880 to 1900, when the word “populism” rose to ascendancy, it was significant enough that it threw the traditional political system into disarray. Citizens rebelled, insisting on economic equality. That sounds pretty good, but as Conservative author Peter Viereck wrote of that time, underneath all the economic desire for fairness, “seethed a mania of xenophobia, Jew-baiting, and thought-controlling lynch-spirit.” And then when famed “populist” George Wallace ran for office he used the slogan “Trust the People.” The problem was that he was a white supremacist and avowed racist at the time, yet he received a huge following, not regardless, but because of his stance.

This brings us back to the study of Weiler and Heatherington. They looked hard into their data and concluded that the Republicans, initially campaigning on the traditional planks of law and order and family values, unwittingly drew, through Trump’s candidacy, a huge group of voters who were both Democrat and Republican, or neither, and who had a hankering for authoritative values. Where traditional Republican candidates brought out the usual Republican followers, Donald Trump drew from disenchanted voters that just hadn’t appeared on the radar of partisans or pollsters. The two co-authors reasoned that, “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.” As the report concluded:

“This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which ‘activate’ authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.”

So when we’re talking about “populism,” we are talking of a phenomenon that has no real definition or identity, other than average citizens scrambling for change – the very thing that makes the term so acceptable for activists who believe in democracy. It is only over time that societies in places like America, Germany, Denmark, or even Canada, discover grassroots populism might also bring on grassroots bigotry, prejudice, and deep division within the citizenry itself. This is the shadow side of populism that every nation must guard itself against, as Holland proved in its remarkable election this week.

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