The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democracy

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.

 

History’s Most Troubling Chapter

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.


Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation.
The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity’s troubling journey towards peace and security.

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.

Down to You and Me

There is only one way that civil society makes sense, and that’s if we disagree – a lot. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but consider the average coffee shop banter in any local hangout.   You hear friends disagreeing all the time, most often with good-natured humour, but crossing verbal swords nonetheless. If civil society is to work, it must include everyone who wants to take part, and since we are all unique in our opinions and outlook on the world around us, it’s inevitable that there will be just as many points of view as there are people.

A troubling trend in recent years has been the propensity for citizens to expend great energy with those who mostly agree with them, primarily online. It’s natural that human beings seek out likemindedness in others, but if we only end up in separate camps of thought, how can a neighbourhood, a city, a country, even the world, bring all of these constituencies together? Historically, civil society organizations – service clubs, churches, neighbourhood associations, even community-minded businesses – brought together great varieties of people for causes greater than just giving opinions. And to a large degree they worked, not because one viewpoint won out over another, but because people attended to take on a vastly bigger task than merely gathering – supporting charities, building schools (or fighting to keep them open), helping flood victims, holding fundraisers for hospitals or soup kitchens, and so many more worthy initiatives.

It’s important to be civil when in public, but that only serves as the springboard for greater things. To comprehend this better, it’s good to consider how the word civil and polite came about.

Civil originally came from the Latin term civilis, which meant “relating to a citizen” and to his or her ability to move through public life. Politics and polite have similar beginnings. Essentially polite meant “smooth,” denoting the idea not so much of sophistication but the ability to get along well with others. Put all this together and we see that civil society is designed to be populated and empowered by citizens who developed the ability to work together for the community’s good.

It is this precise element that seems to have gone largely missing in our professional politics of the day. Whether it’s due to gross partisanship, animosity, or lack of fitting work experience, the dysfunctional politics on display today can hardly be defined as “smooth” or “civil.” Around much of the world harsh political conflagrations seem to have become the order of the day. With Donald Trump’s inauguration only a few days away, and with the sabre rattling emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, it remains a difficult thing to hold out much hope that the democratic decline in recent decades can be reversed. And as long as citizens themselves remain deeply divided on issues it could be that democracy’s best days are now behind us.

It is up to citizens to see what they make of this – any political success will now depend on their ability to choose and channel their elected representatives towards the great task before us. This isn’t about parties so much anymore but people and it’s unknown if we are up to the task. The old sage Walt Whitman comprehended this truth better than most when he wrote, some ironically, in his By Blue Ontario’s Shore:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,

Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,

Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,

Its Congress is you and me …

Natural and artificial are you and me,

Freedoms, language, poems, employments are you and me,

Past, present, future, are you and me.

 

I dare not shirk any part of myself,

Not any part of America good or bad.

Democracy can only be functional when the great, moving mass of humanity somehow discover a way to bring themselves and their differences to the table and hammer out a future together. Realistically, politics is all about conflict – each person or group or association with their own likes and dislikes. The secret is to manage the tensions – not by merely electing representatives, but being polite and civic ourselves, as citizens. If we can’t accomplish that, then chaos can’t be far off.

 

 

 

The Only Way Forward

“When civility is illusory, war is inevitable,” wrote author Steve Maraboli not long ago. You don’t have to look very far for verification of his claim. While people will make nice in the next couple of weeks for Donald Trump’s inauguration, it won’t be real and it won’t be effective at creating cooperation.

We are increasingly living in a world where there is little common space where people of different opinions can hang up their weapons of verbal combat at the door before they partake in productive policy exchanges. There is already blood on the streets of Washington D.C. but it’s just not the literal kind. People are learning to hate, despise, mock, jeer, troll, attack, belittle and demean at levels rarely seen in the public space. And it plays itself out in local hangouts, the various forms of media, and even at the recent Golden Globe awards.

Suddenly “being nice” isn’t so nice anymore. Even progressives who mocked Donald Trump’s arrogance and rhetoric have turned ugly as a result of the election. But this isn’t about who won; it’s about who voted. Trump successfully garnered over 60 million votes on his way to victory (yes, I know, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote).   This wasn’t just some muckraker who bludgeoned his way to the White House. Donald Trump capitalized on the angst citizens were feeling towards the political system. Like it or not, he connected with voters in ways that were stunning. And the point is that he had the help of millions of Americans. This was a troubled democracy in action, for all its foibles.

The key now isn’t for those who lost to pour out their wrath on every political institution, but to begin the hard process of creating fair and respectful places of dialogue and debate in the public arena in order to bite back on the encroaching hatred. In democracy, the winners are supposed to be the citizens – they voted freely and are expected to abide by the results, whether or not they like it. But if both sides – winners and losers – remain angry at one another, no one will win.

If Americans want to halt the decline, it won’t be by electing Republicans or Democrats, but by rising above their own disenchantment and anger. It has been clear for decades that the partisanship of the professional political classes has become increasingly dysfunctional, regardless of which party held the power. This is what politics has become in many countries, and not just in America. Its only solution is to discover new ways of showing respect, creation places for consideration and dialogue, even when we don’t feel like it. Or as Kevin Stirtz put it: “To work best democracy needs a diversity of thoughts, ideas and expression. This is only possible with civility.”

“I hold to the idea that civility, understood as the willingness to engage in public discourse, is the first virtue of citizens” … Mark Kingwell

In an era where everyone looks to venues to give their opinions, it is vital to remember that democracy’s strength isn’t in its opinions but in its consensus. Unless this is achieved among citizens and politicians, democratic decline is inevitable. Civility doesn’t get in the way of truth but is rather what is required to make truth discoverable in the public arena. Exercised properly, civility opens the door to consensus by keeping the players in the room long enough to establish common ground.

The key to recovering our political health is to interact with those we might disagree with without holding their opinion against them. The point isn’t to best them, but to find accommodations so that we can live together based on our commonalities, while yet respecting our distinctions.

These are hard truths, but then again these are hard times for democracy. It is all about making civil society real. If our political representatives can’t do it because of party affiliations, then the millions of citizens who no longer belong to such parties must find ways of making politics real and workable again. There is no diversity without tensions, but neither should their be public spaces without respect. Far from being passé or redundant, civility might prove our only way forward.

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