The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: citizenship

Democracy Without Conscience Can Only Lead To Chaos

This post can also be read at Huffington Post here

It’s likely time most of us agreed that we collectively have noidea where democracy is going. And if numerous polls are correct, living in such a situation is creating increased insecurity and tensions among citizens around the world.

It’s at times like the present when Vaclav Havel, former independence activist, playwright, and president of Czechoslovakia, might have something to offer us, despite the fact that he died some six years ago. It wasn’t by accident that the New York Times called him the “global ambassador for conscience.”

He, too, lived in a world of turbulence. With the Soviet Union breaking apart, no one was quite sure what would arise to take its place. In such times voices of conscience can become signposts for leading us out of our collective confusion. Or as Canadian author Louise Penny put it: “Don’t mistake dramatics for conscience.” There is a difference between the frenetic actions of the present democracy and the gentle pull of conscience.

In our modern world everyone seems to have an answer for everything, and the more opinions there are the more confounding everything is becoming. That was happening in Havel’s world as well, but he took a step back and urged his nation to consider what was happening around them: “We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved.” In recent years we have journeyed down a political path where policies were supported by evidence gathering, science, focus groups, and research. All these things made it seem like the answers to our problems were there, but that we just had to have the best policies to find and implement them.

It didn’t work that way, of course, since all that looking at the world as some great puzzle got us increased unemployment, environmental catastrophe, a yawning gap between rich and poor, overt racism, terrorism, and costly regional conflicts. Whatever the problem, solutions, even researched ones, were never going to be enough. More important than all of these was the abiding need for a better understanding of humanity. That’s why Havel reminded his own citizens: “None of us are just victims; we are also its co-creators.” These were tough words, but then again, the times were tough, too. He would go on to add: “Freedom and democracy require participation and therefore responsible action from us all.”

And while it is true that we see emerging democratic participation at the grassroots level in most democratic countries, it frequently leads to more contention than compromise, to more heat than light. Somewhere in all the debate, protest, anger, confusion, participation and populism, we must find a way of bringing it all together in a way that can move us into a more equitable future. Havel watched political opinions ripping his country apart, so he cautioned:

“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level, to engage our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”

His question was one for the ages, including our own. And it came from an honest place within his being as he watched anger dominating collaboration and absolutism among various factions replace tolerance and understanding. To counter that growing trend, Havel threw out a direct challenge: “There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another … I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honour one another, just as we are.” In a world of rigid ideologies that can only lead to autocracy and cultish bigotry, this call to a deeper respect for humanity couldn’t come soon enough.

We need not fear the distinctions that exist within our citizenry if all are prepared to accept those differences while building on our far greater commonalities. And to the politicians among us comes one of Havel’s final observations:

“A politician must become a person again — one who can think and act outside of his party. He must learn to trust in the soul of humanity again. Without this, politics itself cannot be overcome.”

All this is ours for the making, but only if we take the time to consider where we are headed, who we are electing to office, and what our own part could be in bridging those divides that are presently ripping us apart.

Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.

 

Common Ground Remains Democracy’s Most Expensive Piece of Real Estate

Readers and viewers seem transfixed with the more extreme political movements across the world. Far from bringing the world closer together, these new developments threaten to disassociate us in ways we haven’t experienced in decades. All eyes are on politics these days.

Yet something else is bubbling beneath the surface that receives little attention but which is effectively cutting off our collective ability to meet the powerful challenges facing our modern world. For over two decades we have watched as hyper-partisanship has ripped the governing capabilities out of our politics, aligning each party into rigid positions that often make compromise and common ground almost impossible to achieve. That inflexibility has now spilled over into the citizenry and the results are eerily similar.

It was almost a year ago that Bill Clinton and journalist David Brooks labeled hyper-partisanship as the “governing cancer of our time” and little that has occurred in the past twelve months alters that reality. Brooks talked about those who “don’t recognize other people … don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions … don’t recognize restraints … want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.” We’ve all been around long enough to see the results of that kind of politics, but can we spot its emergence among citizens?

Repeated studies over the past decade have highlighted just how the different liberal and conservative temperaments in people have caused them to pull further apart from one another, talking past each other in the process.

Intrinsic in all of this has been our penchant to meet only with those of similar feelings to our own, to only befriend or follow those on social media who agree with us. A natural tendency, the results of such social isolation into similar outlooks has come to look more and more like those political parties who sincerely dislike one another and refuse to find that essential common ground that is necessary for progress. The negative effects of this in the political class prompted Irish playwright Sean O’Casey to note: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.” More than a few are now worried that this practice has carried over into how we treat one another as citizens.

While the operating principle in our modern politics has been partisanship, its equivalent in our communities has been polarization. There are good people in our communities who run solid businesses, create loving family environments, volunteer at charities, and pitch in to help their neighbours. The thing is that they might not agree with us on some issues of policy, but do retain many shared values which we hold. While many of these individuals remain silent, they are nevertheless fellow citizens who ride the same buses, have kids who play on the same sports teams as our own, and are just as patriotic as those who hold to different political persuasions.

The reality is, of course, that there are millions of such people around us. But what if our present course continues as citizens retreat from their shared culture of consensus? What happens when we need to come together for the sake of our children over some great universal challenge and discover we can’t?

Perhaps our greatest task as citizens is to show that we are actually capable of establishing a civic culture that eventually accomplishes what our heavily partisan politics lost. But that will require talking with respect, not trashing. It will need understanding, not umbrage, intelligence and not incitement. There’s nothing wrong with protesting; indeed, it’s our right and obligation as citizens. But so is the task of finding news ways of coming together. As Mike Sasso would put it in his Being Human: “Originality is the best form of rebellion.”

Protest we must because that is part and parcel of any healthy society, but added to our desire for change, or principled opposition, must come the willingness to sit down and deliberate together. The reaching out must start happening now before it becomes impossible. It was our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who said that, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should private citizens if we are to attain the country we all seek.

Shape Shifters

There’s “nothing orderly” about Donald Trump’s presidency process, wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, going on to add, “Trump always said he liked to be unpredictable.” It’s fitting in its own strange way, since so much of politics globally remains in a state of flux. Citizens, too, remain uncertain in their sentiments – a trait causing political office seekers to cast about wildly in their efforts to find a constituency to elect them.

Call them the “shape-shifters,” of whom Trump is perhaps the most obvious. They are everywhere in politics these days, seeking pockets of voters who might propel them to victory or incumbency and then modifying their language and principles to suit. Such a tendency has been endemic in politics from the beginning, but is increasingly becoming standard practice in a volatile world where vote getting at any cost often comes at the expense of solid policy.

This tendency was helpfully identified by author and journalist Susan Delacourt in her recent book, Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them – a fascinating journey into how our politics is taking us into unknown territory. Amazon’s description of Delacourt’s book posits the danger for modern democracy: “The book explains how parties slice and dice their platforms for different audiences and how they manage the media. The current system divides the country into ‘niche’ markets and abandons the hard political work of knitting together broad consensus or national vision.”

The term “shape-shifter” was first used publicly in 1887 but has now become standard fare. In modern politics this constant morphing has become an essential tool in the endless quest for ascendancy. Everyday, politicians have to shape their message and their image to the multitude of groups and individuals and hope to keep some semblance of policy coherence. Sometimes it can be an impossible task. The pressures seem endless: answering questions regarding climate change, international trade, foreign aid, terrorism, healthcare, pensions, and even the price of gas. One minute the politician is attempting some lofty rhetoric in the House of Commons, and an hour later she is addressing some beleaguered people in a homeless shelter. Constant adaption has become an occupational hazard.

Things were easier when great swaths of voters remained loyal to particular political parties. Those days are gone, and with them the ability to put out a traditional message that gathers the troops. Voters today frequently have entire menus of items that they care about that often blur the lines between party policies. Navigating through such wants while, at the same time, retaining ongoing support can be a tricky thing.

That’s especially true for those seeking leadership. Traditionally, voters have appreciated their leaders when they displayed a positive bent, but if recent elections are anything to go by an increasing number of voters are going for those angry voices that call for change. Discerning this not so subtle change, modern leadership aspirants are taking extreme positions that previously might have proved destabilizing and unacceptable.

The success of Donald Trump has prompted leadership contenders like Kellie Leitch to brandish harsher policies, believing they can carve out enough of the electorate to find a path to victory. Yet many who knew her previously have been surprised at the severity of some of her positions, especially on immigration – as they were with her “snitch line” announcement in the last election. But Leitch isn’t trying to be consistent; she’s shape-shifting in her reach for the crown. She’s hoping that by employing Donald Trump’s tactics she can summon the same kind of groundswell that occurred south of the border.

That Leitch remains silent while her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, blatantly publicizes his willingness to use “fake news” to support her campaign hardly squares with her principled demeanour evidenced in her pre-political professional life. As Maclean’s writer Martin Patriquin put it this past week: “Kouvalis has a history of posting provocative, absurd and often completely false information. He does so, he says, ‘to make the left go nuts.’ “ It is a troubling admission revealing that politics runs the danger of not only promoting shape-shifting personalities, but of debasing facts in the process.

It can be tempting to see such practices as a partisan issue, but these behaviours frequently move across party lines as political ambition squeezes the integrity out of the democratic process. It says something that we, as citizens, are perceived as gullible enough to accept such designed manipulations. As Donald Trump’s inauguration reminds us this week, if voters no longer know what they’re getting, trust in democracy itself becomes the ultimate loser.

Yelling Past One Another

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

“The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency” – Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

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