The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: dysfunction

Democracy Reset

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In his book At Home, bestselling author Bill Bryson tells of walking through Norfolk, England, with an archeologist friend. Every church they looked at was depressed three feet into the ground – like “a weight sitting on a cushion,” he writes. Bryson assumed it was because of the weight of the structures over the centuries. His friend answered instead that it was because the graveyards around the churches had built up the earth around the structures over many years.

I thought of that observation in considering the fate of democracy in recent years. It was once a vaunted and vaulted political institution that for 400 years had enlightened and empowered the world in most places where it was practiced. Two world wars had convinced most Western nations that more violence was on the way unless power and wealth were spread about more equitably. Global institutions were quickly established as the architecture for international progress.

For a time it worked, until money grew more concentrated in fewer hands and the environment took a pounding. Citizens morphed into consumers and their political representatives transitioned from astute managers to pandering salespersons.

With a global financial system bent on the bottom line and a rapid rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it was inevitable that, despite all the affluence, American family wealth was in short supply. Even though more money was being generated than at any other time in history, large swaths of it didn’t make it to those billions of people who had bought into the democratic dream. Soon enough, infrastructure began to deteriorate, meaningful employment flattened out or disappeared altogether, the natural environment was increasingly on life support, and citizens embraced the troubling response of doubting their leaders for not delivering on their promises.

Now, like those old Norfolk buildings, the great structure of democracy seems to be sinking, not through its weight, but due to the build up of corpses of all those who had once believed in its possibilities. It still looks quaint, grand even, but many of its adherents now stand in doubt.

Regardless of the outcome of the American election, both Republican and Democratic parties had maintained an international system that benefited elite individuals and financial institutions. The parties had become so vengeful towards each other that any real assistance to the average family became a casualty of war. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have maintained that declining political system, and Donald Trump, enriched by avoiding his accountability to his fellow taxpayers, could hardly be expected to adopt the role of a modern-day Robin Hood. Democracy is eroding.

It’s hardly an American phenomenon. What we are witnessing around the world isn’t so much a rise of the Right, but the resurgence of the Wrong. Extremists, racists, ideologues, bigots, anarchists, neo-Nazis – all these and more have surged through the abiding cracks and broken windows of our democracies, and rather than being repelled by voters, are in the process of being embraced in increasing numbers.

Our advance as democracies has been in doubt for some time. Too many people have been left behind. Too many families feel their wealth has flatlined. Too many men and women can’t locate good jobs. Too many people haven’t so much fallen into poverty as remain mired in it. Social justice is a term easily thrown into election campaigns and just as quickly dropped in the years following. Too many feel they are losing control of their country, and that is a serious sentiment, destined to affect any election.

As Canadians, many of us supported Hillary Clinton in the belief that it was time that an obstinate glass barrier was shattered, but we were under no illusion that besides breaking through the ceiling she wouldn’t raise the floor for all Americans. For that to occur, the entire political and financial structures throughout the West will have to be hauled into dry dock and refitted for a more equitable world. It is beyond foolish to believe that Donald Trump will undertake that overhaul.

It is easy for those concerned over the Trump victory to assume that his followers are extremists and racist bigots. They are among his supporters to be sure, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for him were decent, hard working citizens who just felt it was time for a change. Many confessed to holding their collective nose while voting for the billionaire, but they were united in believing that decades of Republican-Democratic leadership had left America out of touch with average people. They have a point, as did the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters who innately understood that Clinton would more than likely support the status quo. A month ago pundits were saying the Republican Party leadership had to change; now they say it’s the Democratic leadership that must transform. The reality is that they both must be reconstructed from the giant fundraising machines they have become.america-decline-22618321

There are lessons from the American election that have nothing to do with bigots or billionaire gropers. Millions who once worshipped at the altar of democracy no longer believe in its efficacy. The only way to restore its effectiveness is for average citizens to defend historic progress at the same time as they speak out against the inequalities that have resulted from a democratic institution that for too long tolerated a growing world of winners and losers.

Someone Buy Twitter – Please

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THE RUMOURS HAVE BEEN CIRCULATING FOR WEEKS, all driven by one pressing question: who will buy Twitter? For a time, some were certain the Disney Corporation was making a bid. More serious seemed to be the talks with Salesforce. Then someone mentioned Google, but that seemed to be more wishful thinking that anything of substance. Ultimately, it appears that they all fell through, or weren’t serious offers anyway.

Intriguing in all of this is that the millions of Twitter users want it to survive – just not in its present shape. The company is currently valued at $20 billion (U.S.), but its user growth has flatlined and Twitter itself is talking about its willingness to sell. Sales have been off and some of its recent efforts at rebranding itself have proved lackluster at best. CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been able to reverse the company’s fortunes after a year of dedicated effort.

Underlying all of this has been the disenchantment with Twitter’s abuse policy. When the company launched, Dorsey believed that his policy of little to no censorship would create a vast open space of dialogue with a 140-character limit that would self-discipline itself and lead to a new way of civic engagement. It’s now apparent that his outlook was naïve – the weeds overgrew the garden. Abuse has run rampant. Stalkers and trolls have raged unfiltered and unguarded. Women have been shamelessly attacked and society contains more shadows than perhaps Dorsey or the rest of us figured.

And yet for those of us still using Twitter, there remains something of the innovative in it. It’s at its best when users openly, and respectfully, debate, cajole, inform, and perhaps even persuade. Yet our disenchantment over the last few years came with the realization that the worst of human nature was slowly creeping up and choking our more noble aspirations. When Dorsey refused to censor the abuse, users just started opting out of discussions because of the inevitable attacks from people only out to muckrake and never refine. Sadly, Twitter didn’t have our backs when the going got rough.

Technology correspondent Nick Bilson was asked what he thought about this last week and his insights more or less nailed it:

“I truly do believe that one of the reasons the company’s future is so uncertain is because Twitter is too nasty, or in some instances, too dangerous … I think if the company banned everyone who was mean on the platform, their numbers would vanish, the stock would fall even more, there’d be cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! I mean this sincerely, but it’s really sad what happened to the service. I barely ever use it anymore, and precisely because—to quote Louis C.K. when he quit Twitter —it just doesn’t make me feel good.”

Ultimately, for the democratic experiment, this is tragic. When Bilson is forced to conclude that, “I think, at the end of the day, that the grand experiment of everyone in the world having the opportunity to converse in the same chat room didn’t work out so well,” there’s something in his words that we can all identify with – the worst of us ruined the opportunity for the rest of us.

Do we want Twitter gone because of its idealistic view of human interaction? Hardly. But it would be good to see it improved. And since the present leadership remains willing provide cover for the illegitimate attackers, it’s time for something new and different that can still build on the strengths Twitter continues to maintains and develop. For that to happen there must be the selling of the company to new visionaries who understand intrinsically that you can’t successfully sell a social app that isn’t social.

Twitter was an experiment on how we would be together, and it hasn’t ended up pretty. It’s not just the company that failed; we too failed to have one another’s backs and opted for a kind of remote involvement instead. Twitter users have looked in the mirror and, for many of them, they haven’t liked what they have seen. But it is too useful a resource of citizen-to-citizen democracy to be tossed aside because of its willingness to harbour abuse. We can only hope that some civically responsible company will buy it and turn it to the better angels of our collective nature.

A House Divided

Republican Presidential Candidate and Businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a rally in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, USA, USA, 18 February 2016. The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is 20 February 2016. ANSA/RICHARD ELLIS Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participates in a Breaking Down Barriers town hall campaign event at Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, USA, 24 February 2016. The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary is 27 February 2016. ANSA/ERIK S. LESSER

Read this post on Huffington Post here

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up … Now some of these folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not Americans.”

What are we to do think of this? Is it even right? When Hillary Clinton stated this on a campaign stop, she was sick, clearly fatigued, and likely fed up with all spiteful rhetoric coming from the other side. We get that. But one wonders if it’s ever a good thing when a candidate, especially for president, to speak about voters in such toxic words – even claiming some aren’t Americans. It’s not because the customer is always right, it’s just that the voting citizen is usually holding the power to decide who wins in such a vital campaign.

But there’s a larger story and it’s a global one. As politics in the affluent West continues to flatten out and lose its lustre and support from average citizens, people become divided, sometimes to the extremes. Gender inequality, poverty, immigration, refugees, austerity economics – these and much more are pressing voters in countries around the world closer to margins of intolerance and it gets us to some things unthinkable a generation ago. Normally tolerant people are getting frustrated with the inability of their political leaders to ease the tension points of modern life.

Millions, for good or ill, might be fascinated by Donald Trump, but the fissures dividing the various populations across the European continent show the extremes all this can lead to. In places like Austria, France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Italy, and Finland, right-wing nationalism is on the rise as growing disillusion with the European Union, millions of refugees, and sluggish economies induce normally centrist nations to veer to the right.

Such movements, spread across a large number of nations, have caused many to wonder if Europe’s progressive tolerance is sliding back into a more extreme age. It certainly appears that way, and as the number of European elections is played out in these next two years that sentiment might actually be confirmed in troubling terms. Normally liberalized populations appear tired of affirming that certain liberties must be placed aside for the common good. Right now they are seeing nothing common or good in what is going on and their voting priorities are shifting, at least temporarily.

In many of these countries, the intolerance was speeded up by spokespeople from the status quo “tolerance” camp and their denunciations of many of their citizens as xenophobes, Islamophobes, homophobes – in short, the language Hillary Clinton used in her campaign speech. When civilized society feels okay about demonizing others in the name of tolerance, you have a problem that doesn’t necessarily require Donald Trump to become president to alienate much of the population. When the politics of resentment comes from the Left, the Right, and even the Centre, the road to democratic decline appears like an open freeway.

The current politics of labeling and resentment is dangerously coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Citizens themselves will hold hard to opinions across that spectrum as well and this must be respected. But what we require is a context where our differences are discussed with respect and a sense of compromise. Donald Trump has delighted in blowing that pretense out of the water. Making alienated people even angrier is his modus operandi, but it’s a foolish game to utilize similar techniques on the opposing side. Many Democrats and Independents are feeling isolated, too, but the majority are progressive in their leanings and should those they look to for leadership dumb down the conversation into heated name calling, not of the opposing candidates, but citizens themselves, then the fight for a common place of respect is finished. That will be true in coffee shops or in Congress itself, as we have seen in recent years.

Even if Hillary Clinton was right in her definition of Trump’s followers, she was wrong to exacerbate tensions already at a boiling point. America can’t be a light to the world if it continues to present itself as a divided house falling into civic darkness. Since both Clinton and Trump speak frequently of how they respect Abraham Lincoln, they should hearken to his words: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

 

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.

 

 

 

Over His Head

negativityOver two years out from the next federal election but the campaign has already begun, as the party leaderships are now clearly in place.  It didn’t commence when the Writ was dropped or the government fell, but by that first action that now seems to signal the coming electoral conflict in the post-democratic era – the negative ad.

We continue to hear that they are used because they work.  Even certain political pundits seem to kind of relish this battle of the combative airwaves, as if admiring the tactic.  They are smart writers and observers, and they know well enough that the goal is to suppress voter turnout, yet they continue to take a certain morbid delight in their use. They mused enough about the cause; now they should write about the effect.  It’s like the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum – a kind of bloody entertainment that actually said more about the decline of the empire than it did the ghoulish tastes of the spectators.  

The use of these most recent ads against Justin Trudeau is all about retaining power, not expanding democracy.  It’s the PM’s way of saying that we’re stupid.  He knows that by airing them that he fans his base, brings in tons of cash from supporters, and gets to spend the next two years framing his opponent.  The stupidity doesn’t come from the fact that we tolerate them as much as it results in moderate and progressive voters turning off and refusing to go to the polls.  He was correct on this in the past, but what it says about the head elected official of the land’s willingness to “dumb-down” the citizenry is more than just a bit troubling to consider.

One of the recent ads is about Trudeau’s being “in over his head.”  It surfaced a mere few hours after the leadership was decided.  This is an all-out war campaign, to be stretched out for 24 months, to convince Canadians that he’s too young to lead.  It troubles me a bit to do this, but let’s use that same litmus test on the Prime Minister himself.

Somehow, a year before this past recession began, he lost a $12 billion dollar surplus that was vitally needed for the upcoming economic downturn.  Under his watch, Canada lost its chance at a Security Council seat.  We lost our vaunted place in international rankings on everything from child poverty to food security.  The Prime Minister lost all of the momentum and goodwill that had been generated from the public apology to the aboriginal people.  He lost the battle against poverty.  We lost Kyoto and we lost any real opportunity for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to break out of the political traps and lift this country’s international reputation by putting the poor ahead of the Canadian corporate interest.

Then there has been the cost to politics itself.  Stephen Harper lost the confidence of the House twice and was found in contempt for the first time in our history.  He somehow lost a 250-page handbook on how Conservatives were to undermine parliamentary committees so that nothing could get accomplished – an embarrassing revelation.  The House of Commons has lost the ability to compromise under his watch.  We have misplaced democracy, lost trust, lost confidence, and in the process we have lost ourselves for a time as Canadians..

So, I’m kind of wondering about who really isn’t up for the job?  How could someone with such a record like that above, established over six years, dish the dirt on someone who only became a party leader not even a week ago?  Shouldn’t the barrels be turned in the opposite direction?

My personal answer to that last question is no.  Should Justin Trudeau ask me whether he should take such negative ads to Stephen Harper, I would say don’t do it.  It’s not because I’m a pie-in-the-sky ideologue.  It’s simple, hardl reality, and all parties do it. The more of these things we send out on the airwaves or in print, or the Internet, the more quickly we hasten our demise.  “Democracy never lasts long,” American founder John Adams said.  “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The realistic facts of the case are that democracy is “murdered” by the countless character assassinations that precede any undermining of moral and popular authority.  Parties and their leaders have every right to run ads revealing the flaws in their opponent’s policy and practices.  Yet it is done most often not as a democratic duty, but as a way of winning an election.  What happens if we hold an election and nobody came?  We are now closer to that reality than at any other time in our history, and it’s not just because citizens are distracted or governments are inept; it’s because political parties have taken to the use of negative ads to suppress voter turnout, thereby robbing democracy of its true owners.

Any leader that supports such a strategy that belittles citizens instead of elevating them should hardly use the “over his head” slogan to describe another when he has been unable to manage the complexities of a robust democracy that we are clearly at risk of losing.

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