The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: division

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.

No “Team” in “I”

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WITH THE FINAL NOMINEES SETTLED AND three months of campaigning ahead, this American election season is likely to be one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. That’s okay; political contests, especially south of the border, have ever been tumultuous affairs.

Yet there has never been anything like the showdown that has been building for months, largely because of Donald Trump. It almost seems like nothing new can be written about him. Appearing not to care what people say of him, the Republican candidate speaks with a directness that isn’t so much targeted as scattered about in every direction. This results in his dominating every news cycle, breaking every political protocol, and promoting a political war that seems to break every bond of respectability.

But in very real and concerning ways this election isn’t about Donald Trump at all, but the depths of the absurd millions of citizens are willing to embrace in order to send a message to the political elites of both parties in Washington. That people are upset with the financial bailouts, the fallout from globalization, stubborn unemployment, and political dysfunction, is a given. But is the best choice to send that message an individual who doesn’t respect numerous groups of immigrants and nations, who carries few credentials for the top political job in the land, and who scatters the election landscape with landmines designed to blow up at any time in order maintain the chaos that has so come to characterize public life in America at the moment?

It is likely that there has never been such a year in American political history when so many citizens disliked so many other citizens from all points of view and for such nonsensical reasons. When Trump said, “I will build a wall because nobody builds walls better than me,” he provided the modus operandi of his campaign.

Much has gone into the creation of this condition, but Donald Trump has been its main instigator. Is this really what Americans want, or are they just angry enough to suspend the traditional traits of respect and progress in order to get their point across? If so, then this America looks more like the America of 1927, where a season of prejudice became so combustible that more people were deported from Ellis Island than permitted in.

In tolerating so many lesser evils hoping that they will all add up to the so-called greater good, many good citizens are collectively guilty of bad math. It all merely adds up to political decline by calling for the baser instincts of a once proud nation.

In a boisterous era where citizens around the world are demanding seats at the tables of power more than ever, it becomes a major setback when the nominee for the GOP says things like: “I know what’s best for America,” or, “I will be your voice.” The need for a saviour, a political redeemer, the “great man,” is precisely the kind of political attitude that hundreds of millions of people have been endeavouring to shake off around the world. The fate of democracy lies not in the giant footprints of powerful leaders but in the millions of collective footsteps taken by global citizens interested in sharing power and fighting for a more equitable future among all peoples.

Do Americans truly desire a politics of resentment, where everyone is against everyone else? In a world where hate is as near as a keyboard or a gun, do people honestly wish to put power in the hands of a Commander-in-Chief that could place an army or a grand policy behind his animosities? With tolerant societies now fighting for their lives in Europe and other places, does a troublingly divided America honestly think it can lead from the middle of the pack?

Something is growing terribly amiss in our popular and moral culture when a man who openly insults any woman, race, immigrant, or vulnerable person finds a possible path to the White House. If being president isn’t about the power to divide but the responsibility to unite, then somebody has goofed. Rather than taking the easy way of looking for a voice, citizens themselves must raise their own voices in ways that bring a nation together. And if that nation is a global leader, then there exists also the possibility of working with others to bring the world together.

Donald Trump’s greatest blunder is believing that it is his voice that matters in a time when citizens themselves are craving to find their own articulation – for him there is no “team” in “I”. When a top presidential contender tells a crowd, “Frankly folks, if I don’t win this thing, then it was a total waste of time for me,” what does that say about his view of average citizens and the struggles of their own lives?

Standing Still as Humanity Moves

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THE FRUSTRATION ON HIS FACE SAID IT ALL, and his emotions weren’t unlike our own. President Obama, like other political leaders, is in a pickle – not because there isn’t the need to help refugees, but because their constituencies are divided as to how to respond. The Paris attacks changed everything, filling the refugee conversations with an intensity and sense of urgency that has made dialogue more difficult.

When reminded that Republican governors (three of whom are running for president) claimed they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, and that even many Congressional Republicans agreed, Obama showed visible pain on his face, believing that America couldn’t abdicate global leadership at a time he believed the country’s compassion was so required.

The purpose of this post isn’t to delve into the many sides of the refugee situation, but to consider the implications of the refugee phenomenon itself and provide something of a longer view.

When we are informed that the past few years have seen more refugees than at any time since World War Two, we get that, and it’s worrying. But it’s revealing when we consider where many of those fleeing that conflict ended up. Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians fled to deepest Africa to escape the horrors of Nazi death camps and deportation. Conditions were brutal and dehumanizing on the journey. Official recognition of their plight was all but impossible – they were on their own. Abysmal refugee camps were established but were soon filled to overflowing, with approximately 35,000 Polish refugees alone. Many came from other beleaguered countries in Europe.

It was revealed later by historians that a number of Jews were travelling in this group. For Jewish refugees themselves, the need to flee their homes was immediate and, in many cases, death-defying. Those attempting to get to Britain came in for something of a shock when movements of citizens wanted to bar their entry. Historian Thomas Harding wrote that, “In Britain, these Jewish refugees were greeted with a mixture of grudging acceptance by some and open hostility by others.” As more and more landed on British shores, Harding adds, “The British government had become fearful of how its citizens would react to a wave of Jewish refugees from Germany, and had clamped down on immigration.”

We know, of course, how Jewish refugees were refused entry to the United States on a number of occasions, but what of those biracial Americans who attempted to escape slavery in America by fleeing to Paris, France, as refuge? In their midst were some of the great artists and musicians of the age and in Paris they found a home they could never enjoy in Harlem.

This is all a reminder that how to respond to millions of refugees isn’t only complex, but frequently ironic. The flowing movement of a desperate humanity from injustice and death is hardly new, nor does the current merely flow one way. Obama knew all this, of course, and his frustrations only grew as a result.

As did those of Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees: “It’s absolute nonsense to try to blame refugees for terror attacks when they were the first victims of such attacks and can’t be held responsible in Paris, Beirut, or elsewhere.” But he wasn’t done. “It’s not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

There is an essential truth in this insight, but it is unlikely to sway those Canadians speaking out against accepting Syrian refugees into Canada. Our country is under strain from a human dilemma that we didn’t ask for but have been forced to confront. The ability of thousands whom we have never met to divide us is a real threat, but the potential for such divisions have come from within ourselves, not from that sea of humanity seeking refuge somewhere … anywhere. The solutions will not prove easy, but will never be possible should we fail to find some kind of consensus, even compromise. We are Canadians, after all, and like it or not, the world prefers to view us as compassionate and accepting.

Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security, delivered a compelling and unexpected challenge to his fellow citizens:

“Civilized nations should see the violence in Paris not as a moment to question our long-held ideals but as a chance to reaffirm them and embrace the most vulnerable among us. It is not just the ethically correct thing to do. This embrace of humanity’s deepest values is itself a rejection of the tortured ISIS worldview.”

ISIS isn’t going away anytime soon, but their duration will extend as long as we give in to the fear and insecurity that undermines the very best of who we are as a people. It is likely that most of us have a refugee somewhere in our ancestry, as many have discovered in recent years. To turn our back now is to deny our very existence and identity. The decision is now ours to make and it will carry an impact far greater than any bomb.

Brain Breaking

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THERE WERE LOTS OF THINGS TO BE WORRIED ABOUT regarding this week’s mid-term election south of the border. In many ways it didn’t matter which party won what because we have seen this film before and the ultimate losers are citizens themselves. The partisan squabbles will only be magnified and the run-up to the next presidential election will be painful to watch.

Perhaps the most sinister portent of all wasn’t about who prevailed but who didn’t show up. Only 38% of voters filled out their ballots, reminding us yet again that politics continues on at the same time as democracy is in danger of dying.

But it’s not merely about the political class and how they just seem bent towards destroying one another; it also concerns citizens and how they appear pre-programmed in their choices.

As if to affirm this reality, New York University is undertaking research on how our brains appear to be hardwired for partisanship. The leader of the team, Jay Van Bavel, put it this way:

“Once you trip this wire, this trigger, this cue, that you are a part of ‘us-versus-them,’ it’s almost like the whole brain becomes re-coordinated in how it views people.”

Through the use of MRI research, Bavel discovered that when it comes to politics the brain regions used to empathize with others aren’t nearly as active when we see the face of someone who is from the opposite side of the political fence. Kind as we may be, tolerant as we might have become, those who are politically active nevertheless lose those qualities far more quickly the moment we encounter a person from the other team.

The research team discovered that even those individuals of opposing views who have never met one another before immediately feel their anger rise and their “opinion meter” rattle on at full throttle. Somewhat surprisingly, they discovered that those tested even experienced pleasure while beholding the pain of those with opposite political opinions.

Bavel thinks this tendency towards partisanship is the result of evolution, where groups survived by besting others desiring the same resources. This helps us to understand why ancient tribes went to war, but in a sophisticated modern democracy it spells serious trouble when the essence of modern life is supposed to be about compromise.

The moment that partisan side of our brain kicks in, it naturally begins pre-filtering facts to suit our purpose, even if the data isn’t true or justified. Again, in Bavel’s words, partisanship of this kind “breaks our brains.”

But its effects are worse than that: it breaks our communities, rendering them increasingly dysfunctional. Partisanship triumphs while democracy decays. If the essence of the democratic experience is attempting to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we should disagree with it, in order to reach compromise, then disqualifying others right from the start makes progress impossible. It all just becomes about one side besting the other – hardly one of the finer traits of functional civilization.

This biggest problem with this recurring situation is the disillusionment it creates within those who don’t harbour such personal biases. Put simply: they pull out, leaving the ballot box to those delighting in the combat. Which means that friction will inevitably beget friction. Some like that kind of political contact sport; most don’t. Pre-programmed brains most often blind partisans to the fact that the majority of fellow citizens are checking out when they should be engaging for the sake of community. Differences are one thing; blindness is another.

At some point democracy itself could become irrevocably lost if our public world is left to the sole property of those who treasure war over peace. And try as hard as they may, political parties have not yet discovered the ability to cooperate together for the sake of better policymaking and more functional communities.

Nevertheless, Bavel and his team, while still in the midst of their research, are discovering some reasons for hope. What would happen if we as citizens came to understand this penchant within us and began working on ourselves to the point where we stay in a situation long enough to understand the other point of view, whether or not we agreed? Would that not be some measure of victory? Indeed it would. And the best place to build that kind of patience and understanding is in our cities, where political parties have less of an impact and where we work, travel, play, worship, and learn together in real-time. We don’t sit across an aisle from one another and lob political grenades; we actually ride the same buses, attend the same restaurants, work with other parents on our kids’ sports teams, celebrate Canada Day together, and grieve in common over the sense of loss.

In other words, real life can save us from the manufactured one politics can create. Instead of being an end in itself, shared political responsibility could be the ongoing process where we build together despite our distinctions, or maybe even because of them.

Perhaps Carl Jung’s insight is more prescient now than ever: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” And if that understanding can lead us to a functional kind of tolerance, then politics can again be useful.

 

 

 

How Politics Changes Us (3)

It set us back for a minute. The email message had come in from someone in the riding that I used to represent as an MP and who was a member of another political party. The words were harsh, claiming that I had blogged about my health difficulties because I was merely playing for sympathy for when I ran to be MP again. We were stunned. I know the man, though not well. He’s a good citizen and caring family man. He would have understood the difficulties we were facing, but that didn’t matter. What was vital was that he get to me in a vulnerable moment. It wasn’t the devil that made him do it; it was politics.

This is the portion of politics we all dislike, save for the fanatics. It takes good and decent people and attempts to persuade them that those not holding to their persuasion have basically become the enemy. The enemy of whom? The community? Other citizens? The welfare of the country? No, just the foe of other political parties. It cheapens us, and, by extension, soils our collective life as well.

Even as America was in its founding years, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “there are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” Such is the state of partisan politics in any age. But in the last while, politics in Canada is no longer about cooperation to establish a progressive state, but rather a blood-soaked arena, where hopefully the “enemy” is bludgeoned beyond recognition, unable to rise again and offer a sustained threat. We have the last two decades of federal politics to thank for that. Everything became about the domination of the PMO and not about deliberation in the people’s Parliament.

Jane and I recently spent some time with a senior Ontario civil servant who got his start in the Bill Davis years in Ontario. He’s managed through every stripe of government but had to acknowledge that provincially across the country partisanship has become so pronounced that dedicated and cooperative civil management is now almost impossible. That’s what bad politics does. He referred to the change as the “Americanization of the Canadian civic structure,” and there’s hardly anyone to deny it – except, of course, the über partisans themselves.

It’s time to admit that modern politics has the potential to make suckers of us all. Increasingly there are only two options: get out of it altogether, or get into it and leave your open mind behind. Those choosing the former abdicate their responsibility on the basis of disillusionment; those opting for the latter also forego their true obligations on the basis of contempt. Either way, politics loses. Those who permit themselves to be brushed with only a certain colour – blue, red, orange or green – inevitably see the public world through similar coloured glasses. As Frank Herbert reminded an audience in profound fashion: “Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely; absolute power attracts the corruptible.”

There it is – another way politics changes people, by subtly closing their minds in their desire for power. There is no Liberal, Conservative, Green or NDP answer to the problems now dangerously confronting our collective condition. We were fools to ever think so. Each of these parties represent leanings across the spectrum of those Canadians who voted. By using violent or disrespectful means to dominate, we lose that plurality. By cooperating together, despite our differences, to bring in an inclusive governance model, we stand a far better chance of legitimizing the path ahead and the decisions made to get there.

There is nothing wrong with being from a political party; the error is in believing that this is the only way to be. By denouncing or ridiculing the other parties, we do the same to those citizens who hold honest opinions in this regard by extension. As Harry Truman once put it:

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

We are closer to this reality than at any time in our history.  The colour of the party now matters more that the conviction of our principles. The partisanship of our opinions presently counts for more than the pursuit of our collective opportunities. The denunciation of our foes has taken prominence over our dedication to our future.

If you are an average Canadian desirous of working within the political system to bring about change, the partisanship of the present order will insist on you changing to the party’s confines if you are ever to find your place. As our Ontario senior bureaucrat friend, mentioned above, reminded us: “Even civic administrations are now all about whose side you are on.” Places like Toronto and London remind us that this is true.

There was a time when it was maintained that parties were necessary in order to fight for certain ideals. Those days might well have passed, as parties now spend their time fighting one another. There are countless members within each party that detest this condition and seek compromise, but until voters re-enter the political arena and reward those who seek compromise over conflict, these dedicated politicians shall forever remain trapped behind the barriers of partisanship and their own futility.

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