The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democratic decline

“Long in the Tooth” – Community Engagement Podcast (14)

It sounds counterintuitive, but our governments are banking on decline.  Running low on resources, they inwardly know the future will be something less than what Canadians would have hoped for.  The Baby Boomers, flush with the policy privileges supported and financed by their parents following World War Two, now want to maintain those same benefits while at the same time sapping the resources of government.  The gig is up, as Boomers now are coming to terms with the reality that their kids and grandkids will likely never enjoy the benefits they possessed.

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

A Crisis of Power

Powerless+Structures,+Fig+101+boy+on+rocking+horse+4It’s a voice increasingly coming from the economic periphery and gaining more traction the longer it takes for global economies to get up off the mat.  While not exactly the voice of doom, as in apocalyptic, it nevertheless speaks of a coming world where limited choices will lead to a reprioritization of how we spend and how governments will behave in a time of diminishing returns.

Gwynn Dyer, for example, in a syndicated article in the London Free Press this past weekend, speaks of the “lethal consequences for a large part of the human race,” if we don’t reign in our fossil fuel consumption.

There’s no predetermined path out there, no clock-like scheme, hovering over us and leading to an increasingly risky future, merely an endless consumerism and a prolonged array of government choices that place a higher priority on economics than human preservation and adaptation.  Speaking in the midst of the last Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt developed a maxim that, while painfully true in his time, takes on an ever greater poignancy today:  “We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics.”

Naturally, the vast majority of voices in almost every discipline think this a little shrill and excessively negative, but as time goes on we have that sinking feeling we’re running out of options.  We go into each recession feeling it will end in a few months, then feel encouraged when economists boast of 3% or 5% growth in the future – predictions that largely materialize.  And yet with each recovery we find unemployment continuing to escalate – growth seems increasingly contingent on less labour.  As unionized workers continue to decline, our ability to protect workers becomes more vulnerable and, sadly, workers begin to turn against their unionized brothers and sisters.

Although many conclude that poverty is relative and that the poor are better off than, say two decades ago, we continue to see a growing gap between rich and poor that continues even after recessions end.  Homelessness increases.  Those vulnerable to mental health conditions are increasingly less resourced.  Food bank numbers grow to alarming heights.  And yet all this continues to transpire even after recessions conclude.

Farmers are losing their businesses.  Students are opting to keep out of university because they either can’t afford it going in or in exiting with massive debts.  Seniors are heading back to work and twenty-five year veteran employees are headed for the breadlines. 

We perhaps see it the most clearly in our communities, where we can no longer afford the quality of life and feelings of optimism that infused our parents.  We are told we can’t afford public housing, public transportation, public libraries, public health systems, public infrastructure, public post offices or even public education.  There are private alternatives to all of these things, and though we remain doubtful as to whether they are cheaper, we are nevertheless told we can no longer live as we want to.

But just to be clear: this isn’t what we wanted, right?  True, we enjoyed the food brought in from thousands of miles away, but we didn’t mean to put local growers out of work as a consequence.  Yes, we elected good people to politics who now seem so fully ineffectual, but we didn’t realize partisanship would get so completely out of hand, correct?  We’ve actually reached the stage as a citizenry where we turn on teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, etc. and yet glorify teen idols and sports superstars, who really have no understanding of how we live and who have no influence over our children that doesn’t involve riches and fame. 

This is not what we signed up for as a citizenry.  We know that the ranks of millionaires and billionaires is growing globally but regard that wealth as out of reach until we realize it’s also out of control.  There was once a time in this country where taxes for ports, railroads, airports, rural roads, culverts, and water supplies came largely from companies that leveraged their profits from such amenities.  But most wealthy don’t make their money off of such things anymore.  They make money from money, from investing and dealing.  We ask so little of them anymore and yet the level of investment abandoned by such firms can hardly be made up by taxing the middle-class alone.  They demand governments invest in various kinds of deregulation and tax breaks, leaving the running of a huge country with a small population up to average working people who can neither afford it or take full advantage of it.

And now we discover that the vague stirrings of a global economic meltdown might actually have some substance to them.  We are told that oil, food, and other amenities dependent upon fossil fuels is about ready to escalate beyond what we thought possible.  We understand as a people, and as communities, that the amount of money made in a single day would simply blow away any other time preceding ours, and yet it increasingly lands less and less in our communities, our hopes for our children, our plans for our cities.  All that money; so little hope.

All of these things are ours to change.  We established a democratic order specifically to enact fairness, opportunity and innovation through legislative equity.  So we can change it.  We can demand a greater economic accounting from our governments, our lending institutions, corporations and ourselves. But we’re not there yet and the road is about to get much steeper until we are ready.

 

Identity – Sleeping Through History

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There’s a revolution going on but most of us appear not to notice.  Or, as Aldous Huxley put it, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”  We all realize we are living in times of great change and transition, but we are failing in our belief that we can change any of it.  One of the vital aspects of any individual or corporate identity is that it can often just be the imprint of the times we live in, as opposed to affecting our world through who we truly are and what we believe.  In other words, to just observe is to be diminished.

Most of us know the story of Rip Van Winkle, the American villager who ventured into the woods one day, took a nap, and woke up 20 years later.  The real import of the narrative, at least as Washington Irving meant it, focused on the times Van Winkle slept through.  They were indeed turbulent, filled with change and agitation of the citizenry.

When Rip Van Winkle nodded off, King George III was still in charge of America; when he awoke he discovered that another George (Washington) was president.  He assumed he had only slept for a night but almost immediately sensed something was wrong.  His beard was a foot long and the children of the village viewed him as some old relic.  While the hills around him appeared the same, it was the people who had changed, for they had just passed through the American Revolution and the sleepy old days of village life were gone.  He had fallen asleep in a pasture but had woken in a new nation.  The old order was gone and in its place were independence and a Constitution.  The people around him were animated, understanding that they now had distinct roles to play.  The old ways were gone; in their place stood a citizenry determined to lead their own future.

Van Winkle got a whiff of just how much had changed when, in Irving’s words, he encountered a man, “pockets stuffed with handbills, haranguing repeatedly about rights of citizens – election – members of congress – liberty.”  The year was 1796 and Rip Van Winkle had slept through a revolution. People wondered if he was a Federal or a Democrat, a Tory or a spy, a subject or a citizen.  It was all too much and it forced him to exclaim:

I’m not myself – I’m somebody else – somebody else got into my shoes.  I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”

Talk about an identity crisis.  Here was a man who lived in a transforming society and had missed it, losing himself in the process.  Rip’s twenty-year sleep had become a parable of civic life.  While the community was rising to new challenges, some never saw them, never confronted their own role in making change or being part of it.  Here was a man consumed with the immediate circumstances of his life, and yet his world had suddenly become bigger, more challenging, and he had lost his place in it.  The newfound realities of citizenship had little effect on him because he didn’t realize how much had changed and how his own identity was now mixed in with the fate of others.  To sleep through it had important consequences for him.

What Rip Van Winkle ultimately required was a willingness to shape his character to the larger responsibilities around him.  Much would be required of him if he made the adjustment.  Gone were the easier days of being guided by authorities far removed from local realities.  In their place was a kind of newfound freedom that placed more responsibility in his own hands.

Rip Van Winkle’s predicament would be funny if it didn’t speak to such serious issues – just as Washington Irving intended.  The moment people hand over the reigns of their civic life to others there must be a certain diligence to it, a willingness to stay alert in making sure they are represented effectively.  It is now passé to suddenly wake up and proclaim that the governors no longer reflect the realities and aspirations of the governed.  It’s a new day; excuses no longer apply.  Neither is it acceptable to just blame elites while moving on blithely with our everyday lives.  Each one of us is now responsible for his or her own ignorance.

We need a steady stream of women and men, dedicated to their communities and their country, to replenish our institutions, not attempt to live outside of them.  Institutions are how we connect to one another and carry out the ideals of our collective life.  To nod off just at the time of their pressing renewal is to remain a throwback to an earlier time.

Democracy no longer thrives in a few hands.  The rest of the world has begun to wake up to this reality and is creating citizenship revolutions, yet we content ourselves with tuning out.  To sleep through it is now unconscionable, especially as it relates to what we leave the next generation.  Everywhere we look we can see people sleeping under trees when they should be responding to the change.  To not see that reality is to not see ourselves.  It is to lose our identity just at the time we need it to adapt and grow.

 

A Time For “Honest Abes”

Jane and I came out of the movie “Lincoln” deeply moved. I had written a book on perhaps America’s favourite president 15 years ago, with research that took me to Kentucky, Springfield, Illinois, and of course Washington D.C. That preliminary work and our struggle against slavery in Sudan prepared us well for the movie and we weren’t disappointed.

But in leaving, we encountered someone in their thirties, I think, who felt let down by what he had witnessed on the screen. “It was all this boring legislative stuff. With Stephen Spielberg I expected a lot more special effects,” he offered as we exited. If only he knew, I thought to myself. My experience in Ottawa had taught me that political life is largely made up of that “boring stuff” – committees, votes, drafting of laws, planning meetings. It’s the real “stuff” of democracy, and if the way it was portrayed on the screen appeared glacial, it is such developments that ultimately provide us our protections and progress.

Even as I watched the movie, I marvelled at how far we have come in so many ways. Lincoln’s margin for getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed to outlaw slavery was razor-thin. It was 1865 and much of America still believed that blacks weren’t human and that owning them was in the best interests of the State. Then again, they didn’t believe women deserved the vote either. Arduous political work was required just to move the justice needle enough to, in legislation at least, remove blacks from the blight of slavery. It all happened in a democracy, but it revealed that in any moment in time citizens and their governments can yet reveal just how far they have to go to enact the deeper issues of justice and equality, equity and responsibility.

It might be correct to say that we might be living in such a time. According to the monitoring group Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political and economic realities, democracy has been in steep decline for the past five years running. In fact, we are in the longest continuing democratic decline in nearly 40 years. Most of this is revealed in the developing world; democracy is faltering in places from Latin America to Asia, from Africa to former Soviet states.

It’s also becoming clearer that democratic decline has taken hold in developed and affluent nations as well. The deepening divisions in Europe, the U.S. and Canada have caused the democratic franchise to lose much of its tensile strength as hyper-partisanship and animosities undermine the ability to adapt to the needs before this generation.

The findings of Freedom House are supported by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy which studied democracy in the form of electoral process, pluralism, political participation, political culture, the functioning of government and civil liberties and concluded that democracy as in retreat around the globe. It added to its findings by stating that, “In all regions, the average democracy score for 2010 is lower than in 2008.”

To be clear, the studies focused primarily on the developing world. The Arab Spring, which many viewed as the “flowering of democracy” in the Middle East, has instead led to even more complex scenarios and a divided Arab community. On the other hand, India, for all its problems, somehow keeps it population of 1.3 billion people together democratically, even though it is blighted by 50% poverty and illiteracy, challenged by 3000 languages and 27 linguistically divided states with their multiplicity of religions.

But keeping things together is not the same thing as adapting to new realities in ways that still protect the hard-won democratic gains of the past centuries. It remains a difficult thing for a country like Canada to export democracy when we have historically low voter turnout, increased scepticism concerning the political process, a deterioration of trust in institutions such as courts, parliaments, federalism, and, yes, even civic administrations.

These are just the institutions of democracy; what about the issues themselves? We continue to be undermined on the world stage by our lack of solution to the aboriginal problem. How could such an affluent nation permit the abiding, and growing, presence of institutional poverty in its midst? How could such a wealthy country tolerate such increased levels of homelessness? If our economy is so great, why can’t the next generations locate employment, buy a home, or even settle down? In a land requiring so much energy for a relatively small population, how can we not agree on a workable solution to climate change? These are enduring issues and our democracy has proved unable to solve them.

That young man in the theatre wanted politics with special effects, but that is what we have at present: human deliberation skewed by manipulated perception, not reality. We need more Abraham Lincolns to openly deal with the flaws within all of us by the judicious use of law and the use of developed and respectful characters over flash in the pan politics. This isn’t about political corruption or competency; it’s about courage to confront a generation with the choices it must make. When Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural address that we must do the right as it’s given to us to see the right, it was a profound moment. The problem with democracy at present isn’t that we don’t see the right; it’s that we don’t practice it. Time for some honesty. Time for all of us to raise our game and free our generation.

Preserving Neglect

It remains one of the three great lessons I learned in my time in politics and it’s even more pertinent now, some four years later. Though it was referred to in one of my earlier blogs, it stands repeating here, especially if anyone reading these words is thinking about entering politics.

Seated on a lengthy plane ride with a government minister, we fell into talking of my discouragement with Question Period and especially the negative advertising that appeared to be a permanent part of the political landscape. He was immediately sympathetic, nodding in the affirmative, and at times even seeming to agree with my conclusions. It was then that he dropped the bombshell that forever changed my view of present-day Ottawa.

“Glen, you’re such a well-meaning guy – just like most Canadians, I think. But you miss the point: negative advertising works.” Well, that wasn’t news to me, but what he went on to share definitely caught my attention. He felt that most Canadians were moderates, mildly interested in politics, somewhat progressive in outlook. “But they’re easily turned off,” he added. He reminded me that it wasn’t so much the messages in the negative ads that worked but the negativity itself. “Canadians turn off of that stuff.”

I still wasn’t quite getting it. Then he drove it home. Heavy partisans are going to believe in their stand, no matter what, he continued. But political party loyalties are on the decline. The majority of Canadians – those decent, compromising, tolerant citizens – now form the critical mass of voters. “The secret to acquiring power is not to win their vote but to turn them off altogether so that voting isn’t really an option for them – it’s easier to accomplish than winning them. With the absence of those votes, it then becomes a battle as to how can get out the most partisans for their party. Those same ads that turn off more tolerant folks fan the flames for our base. They come out in greater numbers and we win.”

Welcome to the world of voter suppression. The realization of what the minister had just told me caused me to sit back in my seat and ponder the implications. He was exactly right, and it worked. It worked for the base, the party, and for the government itself. Sadly, it didn’t do anything for democracy, citizen participation, the democratic franchise, or the decline of political respectability in the country. But if what you want is power, then those long-term implications are hardly significant.

To be clear, negative advertising has been used by various parties, repeatedly. I still recall being a Liberal candidate when the ad came out against Stephen Harper and reminding folks that troops might have to be called into Quebec. I condemned it then, even though it was a Liberal ad, and I condemn it now. But those days are now in the past. These past six years have seen the development of the permanent campaign and the use of negative ads between elections. We expect such shenanigans during election campaigns, but it is the consistent use of them, based on the rationale that minister told me about, that has driven Canadians away from politics in droves. Of course it works for the government; it’s foolish to deny the reality of it. Most of us don’t like negative people and tend to avoid them. Well, the same is true of the ballot box for many Canadians – make politics negative and they’ll just bypass their democratic franchise.

I was never taught this tactic in school or in subsequent years. I know advertisers occasionally meander down this negative path, but its implications on voters in these last few years had been overlooked by me somehow – until that plane flight. We witness its full expression and devastating consequences in the recent American campaigns, such as the one we are witnessing now. We now have our own version, and for Canadians it is a caustic reminder of how far we have fallen.

How could we let ourselves come to accept this ongoing preservation of neglect, this great turning away of citizens from that one place where they can recapture their own future – the ballot box? It is the neglect of timely repairs to a nation that make major reconstruction inevitable. This new approach to power is not so much to kill democracy as to let it die from neglect due to abhorrence of the political domain. It is the collective living out of Tryon Edwards observation that, “Hell is truth seen too late, of duty neglected in its season.”

Following a period of prolonged silence, I asked the minister, “Why would anyone purposefully set up such a system if it meant the democratic decline of our country?” That’s when he nodded his agreement. “But it’s the quickest way to power,” he concluded. Well, so is skirting the law, denying the rights of others, or the illegal use of force, but we don’t condone those.

If you are thinking of running for office, then get your head around this. Your job will not be to mimic this practice but to run in such a way as to get people back into the process through the manifestation of ideas and the nobility of public service. Establish your campaign on ending the neglect and you might not only have a chance at success, you might just change the country in the process.

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