The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: disillusionment

Cities are Rebuilding Faith in Government

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IT HAS BECOME A PERSISTENT NARRATIVE, especially during the American primary season south of the border – politics is broken. There will be those who argue the opposite, but in the minds of most citizens north or south of the 49th parallel something has gone wrong in our politics and we feel it for a certainty. Yes, a cruel partisanship has gripped the political class for years. Yes, our deeper problems remain insufficiently addressed as an uncertain future moves into our collective life. But perhaps the greatest cause of the present disillusionment has been the growing distance citizens have experienced from the kind of society they would seek for themselves and their children.

Maybe that’s changing. While America fights through its own political wars for change, the feeling for many in Canada is that change has begun with the last election and we now have to see if it’s all just rhetoric or if it will stick.

Yet for cities in both countries, change and innovation have been part of the political dynamic for a number of years. In the process, people are regaining a certain level of trust in government again, but primarily at the local level, where they live and where they can more easily spot the progress. Citizens and politicians are discovering together that renewal is more easily generated the closer it comes to cities themselves.

The desire for progress following twenty years of austerity didn’t emerge out of some mere whim but from municipal streets and houses, businesses and non-profits, the arts and the poorer districts – anywhere where years of failure to invest have left obvious effects in the economies and hopes of people.

It was previously believed that cities were more or less outside of those larger economic and structural arenas where the feds and the provinces played. Often content to get the scraps from the table following any budget season, cities had to cobble together what they could while waiting for the larger players to pay attention.

Times have changed, and communities are fed up with waiting or merely being carriers of water. They wish to lead and to get the senior jurisdictions to pay more attention. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” said Helen Keller. The same can be said for cities. Yet there is a stirring in communities around the world that links hope with vision, and not with mere pragmatic decisions of management or budgets. People want to actually live politics in its true democratic sense instead of just talking about it or fighting over it. They choose not to play at it or get partisan over it; they just want to practice it.

This goes even deeper. Citizens are coming to the realization that the modern pressures they face actually come from a lack of community, not just from the shortcomings of Ottawa or a provincial capital. And so they look for solutions locally – an extremely practical response. They see planning as an extension of vision and not the other way around. Citizens are putting everything on table: taxes, expensive infrastructure investments, joining the Smart City movement, and demanding collaboration from their politicians.

This is about government and our belief in its potential, not merely its pragmatism. Mere rhetoric just won’t cut it. Citizens are now seeking the tools that can assist them to build their collective dreams instead of leaving it to others to maybe get around to it at some future time. Cities are their “dream places” not someone else’s, and they are just at the beginning of a renewed citizen dynamic. They desire to be engaged in the spirit of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Politics is now in the process of getting real.

 

Democratic Recession

 

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WHEN THOMAS FRIEDMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES recently drew attention to the 2006-2014 Freedom House finding that democracy is declining worldwide, it likely not to many were surprised. Places like Turkey, Russia, along with various countries in Africa and Asia, appear to have lost the handle on democratic progress that they possessed a mere decade ago.

But when the report circled back on the affluent West, it didn’t mince its words:

“Perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic failure has been the decline of democratic efficiency, energy and self-confidence in the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock, and corruption through campaign financing … things have become increasingly dysfunctional.”

No surprise here either. An economic recession is often described as a significant decline in economic activity that lasts more than few months, effecting everything from GDP and real income to employment and production. What’s currently taking place in our politics has been going on for years and shows little sign of improvement. We’ve readily noted how partisanship on both sides of the 49th parallel has disillusioned citizens in general, but the effects of such dysfunction are now obvious.

So, yes, our political estate is in trouble. Or as Bloomberg News put it in a headline last month: It’s Official. Partisan Rancor Worst in Over a Century. Then there’s Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s headline: Antics in Question Period Illustrate the Charade Our Politics Has Become.

But democracy, and efficient politics, also requires an effective citizenry if it is to succeed. There are signs that some of the hoped-for political engagement in the process is experiencing trouble.

The only way to counteract bad politics is good citizenship; there really is no other way around it. We can see what happens when politics can’t adequately handle power, but what if citizens themselves are experiencing great difficulty in handling their tools of engagement into the political process?

Signs of these perplexing problems are becoming more apparent on social media. Could it be true that we have permitted Twitter to become “Power Without Responsibility,” as some claim, or is it possible it’s not giving us power at all? Tough questions.

I’ve increasingly run into well-meaning citizens who are taking what they term “Twitter breaks” – for a day, an evening, a week, even for holidays. When probed as to their reason, it’s always the same. It’s tough to manage a consistent presence on social media because the overly negative attacks are increasingly poisoning the waters. Some have seen their important relationships strained as a result. When author Michael Naughton noted recently that, “Social media is a shared delusion of grandeur,” he found a level of support he believed wouldn’t have been forthcoming even a year ago.

Citizens dedicated to a better kind of politics, and the public good, are confessing the fatigue of it all. Comedienne Amy Poehler, turning serious in a recent interview, affirmed,

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about mere opinions or what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

In our hunger for a better and more productive way of living together, perhaps Henry Buckle’s insight is carrying increasing weight with us: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” We all know social media is merely a tool, like political power itself; how we use it is what matters.

One thing is certain – a well-meaning citizenry desiring to engage and improve the democratic estate is growing disillusioned, taking breaks, attempting to recover from personal attacks they have received or unintentionally delivered. If our politics are to improve, it won’t work to merely bemoan the divisiveness of the political class if we practice the same thing. We need to better use our tools of engagement.  If we believe we must, in fact, lead the way as citizens, then it’s time we built on the understanding that merely giving opinions isn’t the same thing as a workable collaboration.  Democracy in recession? Certainly, but that’s a coin with two sides.

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