The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: elections

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.

Transcending Cynicism

This blog post is also available at National Newswatch here.

“SCRATCH ANY CYNIC AND YOU WILL FIND a disappointed idealist,” comedian George Carlin said during an interview. We are watching this play out in the American election season, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have plumbed a motherlode of disenchaumudunu_kaybetmentment on both sides of the political spectrum. Supporters of both candidates continue to cry out that they want their country back and their leader is just the person to do it.

In the modern era, those seeking election have learned that it’s possible to create something of a political movement by speaking to the despair of citizens, and there’s a point to it. Globally, politics has increasingly become a mug’s game – a sad parody of how it doesn’t seem to matter who gets elected because our greatest challenges as humanity remain significantly under-addressed. Whether it’s a lacklustre response to climate change, financial inequality, or a growing kind of collective distemper, the political class seems never quite able to rise to the challenge. This is playing out in real time as we witness the fascinating machinations in the American election.

In Canada, however, cynicism has to some degree been temporarily suspended. Whether the change promised by the Trudeau Liberals will materialize can’t be known for some time yet, but a stubborn sense of optimism has endured in large swaths of the country since Election Day, and, for a time at least, our growing suspicion has been placed on the shelf.

It didn’t start with Trudeau’s victory, but had been emerging over the last few years, for anyone willing to spot the undercurrents. Progressives across Canada began to see movement in 2013, when British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario opted for more activist-minded governments. Cities like Montreal, Mississauga, London, Calgary, and Toronto voted along similar lines. Something was brewing and at its base was the belief that governments could entertain more imaginative policies than mere austerity and restraint. The movement caught on enough that the Postmedia’s Jim Warren would note:

“The stars have finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”

Years of political dysfunction and financial restraint had ultimately resulted in a critical mass of the Canadian electorate pining for something more dynamic. In voting with the pen in the ballot box instead of remaining isolated in their detached cynicism, citizens were confirming they were capable of transcending their pessimism in order to be part of the change they sought.

And so progressive leaders and parties have the levers of power at their disposal. Will it be sufficient to restore hope in what Canada can accomplish? The answer is no. Change has come because Canadians pressed and voted for it, with progressive politics benefitting as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what changed our political dynamic in Canada, not the other way around.

Elections don’t change us so much as they reveal us. Like our cousins south of the border we wanted something more hopeful. Yet enough Canadians were willing to transcend their learned cynicism to at least create the possibility of a different future. In putting aside our collective pessimism we affirmed what Sufi mystic Rumi concluded: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”

Will Canadians remain engaged enough to shape their governments towards the change they seek? If not, cynicism is never far off and it won’t take much to tarnish our ideals. The political order has caught the wave, but without citizens paying attention it won’t be able to ride it to completion, whatever the goal may be. The next few years will be just as much a test of citizenship as of politics, and democracy will only flourish as both remain engaged in a partnership robust enough to overcome our main challenges.

Seeing and Changing: Canada’s Next Step

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WE MIGHT BE WITNESSING A DIFFERENT COUNTRY in the making, though we can’t be sure for some time yet. Nevertheless, something seems to have altered. It’s true that Justin Trudeau won a convincing election victory and enjoyed a terrific day for being sworn into office. But the yearning for change might be forming beneath these more public events.

For the first time in a decade the country’s premiers have been included en mass in some of our most serious challenges. Our new Prime Minister sent out that signal immediately by inviting the premiers and territorial leaders to accompany him to the global climate change conference in Paris. Provinces are being consulted again on everything from refugee settlement to the prioritization of indigenous affairs. Dig deeper and there’s more. The welcoming back to the public sector on a partnership in governing infused new life throughout the civil service. Scientists are being told to harmonize their databases, their research, and their collaborations because evidence-based policy is again rising to the top of policymaking.

Clues to that transformation have been emerging for some time, for those wishing to spot them. Beginning in 2013, the progressives across the country began to see movement. British Columbia went Liberal. Then Alberta elected an NDP government. Montreal and Calgary chose progressive mayors. In 2014, Ontario and Quebec both voted Liberal. Then Mississauga, London, and Toronto added progressives to those numbers. The greatest spectacle of them all took place with Trudeau’s victory a few weeks ago. In the words of the Post Media’s Jim Warren:

“The stars are finally aligned and have created an opportunity for real change. We are living in political times never experienced before. All of Canada’s major political decision makers are aligned in political ideology.”

Now what? Almost a decade of austerity and outsized right-wing leadership inevitably produced a longing among Canadians for more hopeful days and sunnier dispositions. It was inevitable. Conservatives can cry sour grapes, but they did have a decade of rule in some jurisdictions and should have known that politics inevitably swings the other way. But the real question should be: is it enough?

The answer is no. Change has come become citizens have pressed for it and astute politicians have run on progressive platforms as a result. The cumulative intervention of citizens on politics in the last few years is what has changed the political dynamic, not the other way around. We must always remember that elections don’t change us; they reveal us. We now know that Canada is clamoring for a change in perspective, but it will never come if we merely expect the political order to provide it.10978678_876511772369934_6715206009367924481_n

Have a look at this cartoon – it says it all. For those of the progressive bent, getting political change was the easy part. Getting ourselves, as citizens, ready to lead it is something that has rarely happened in Canada. We push our leaders for a new day and expect them to deliver while we go back to our private pursuits. That’s no way for democracy to proceed into the pivotal decades ahead. Politicians without citizens is like a country without its heart.  We changed our political circumstances, but for it to last we must change ourselves.

Perhaps Rumi put it best: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I’m changing myself.” It’s time for Canada to mature from political adolescence, where others direct our lives, to maturity, where we work in concert with our political representatives to create the world we want. The political order has caught the wave, but without us it won’t be able to ride it to completion. “The strong say nothing until they see,” noted poet Robert Frost.  We’ve seen enough to know that our time has come.

Election 2015: Citizens and Power

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IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT THINGS ARE MOVING dynamically in this final week in the run-up to the election. Interest is growing. Voters are changing their minds. The media are having a field day.

But on October 20, with the election done, everything settles back into that one great goal: the possession of power. A feeling develops in Ottawa that the winners have been legitimized by a process of voting that now gives them sway to carry out their own designs. It’s as if democracy is all about the vote and never about the four years following.

There’s been much hoopla about the increase in advance voting as compared to the last election, and it is encouraging. As citizens we are coddled, prompted to dream, to trust this party or that, to get engaged, to make a difference. But at midnight of Election Day we are largely overlooked as the focus becomes the power structure in Ottawa once again.

This being the case, it is always a dangerous thing for citizens to emphasize the few weeks of election at the expense of the few years following. Power is not just about voting, but vigilance, and that’s a lot harder to accomplish. The office of citizenship (and, yes, it is an office) is built on the premise that power is really established in the will of the people. But the irony is that citizens most often exercise that privilege during an election and rarely follow through afterwards, whereas the political class panders to voters in the electoral contest while become fixated on the years of political power in the future. If that practice is maintained, citizens will never be able to change anything.  The assault on democracy prevalent in recent years will only continue.

Power is not just about the one who wins it, but the many who guard it. Should citizens not want to take part in the long game, power and its use, its winner and losers, will be determined in Ottawa. Citizens don’t like to talk about power, especially as the political structure itself becomes more dysfunctional. But power, and the pursuit of it, is remarkably real, and whoever holds it will inevitably affect the lives of millions. We can go ahead and presume the practice of politics is sordid, but if it causes us to opt out, to remain ignorant of the ways of power, then our future is decided by others, without our input.

It is encouraging to witness the present interest in the 2015 federal campaign. Citizens are showing up in significant numbers in advance polls and it could be an indication that they are feeling enough is enough. They understand that our greatest challenges aren’t being addressed and they are somehow wishing to acknowledge that reality by visiting the ballot box. But that is meant to be the beginning of their engagement in power, not the end of it.

If we as citizens don’t wake up to the realities of power, we will simply be left out of its workings in the coming years. If people desire change, then they must adjust themselves to collectively stay tuned to politics instead of turning away. Elections alone are never enough.  Politicians and political parties alike have grown accustomed to returning to the voter every election in order to get their papers to govern again. But our political future will never change unless, following our vote, we remind our representatives that we desire a place at the table – not in Ottawa, but in our home constituencies. We need collective and cooperative meetings with our politicians on an ongoing basis, to demand accountability, yes, but to also teach us the nuances of power itself and how we might play our own needed role – collectively.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire notes that, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” There is important truth in this insight. To turn away from vigilance regarding political power only leaves those who seek power for power’s sake forever in charge and leaves millions defenceless.  .

Election 2015: Going To The Place You Miss

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I HAD COFFEE WITH A GROUP OF FRIENDS I meet with occasionally at a local coffee shop. Some were retired, but easily half of them were still in their careers. The topics of conversation often vary widely, but on this occasion they were focused on the recent federal political debate from Calgary. And they were troubled.

It would be fair to say that the majority of the group came from the progressive conservative persuasion. Their parents had voted that way and they just kind of stayed on with it. Most had voted for Brian Mulroney in the 1980s.

But the recent version of conservatism expressed by the present federal government was driving them to distraction. They viewed it as austere, too politically partisan, and far more focused on dividing the country than they should be.

I have a book of poems at home written by Theodore Roethke, and as I listened to all the coffee shop debate that morning one of his reflections came back to me: “Be sure that whatever you are is you.” At that particular moment my conservatively progressive friends were suffering a kind of identity crisis that was building steam as the election date nears. And then came out the sentiment that most politicians dread to hear: “We’re just not sure how to vote anymore.”  It is a quandary likely felt my millions of Canadians from all stripes as parties move away from their historic bearings.

The political inclinations of these folks were dearly held and historically supported. They viewed themselves as being part of a heritage that had helped to build this vast country through inclusion and breadth. Now they feel lost and don’t know where to park their vote.

It’s important to remember that political terms like conservative, liberal, or socialist are increasingly hard to nail down – the parties are shifting all over the political spectrum. Think of David Cameron’s Tory Conservatives in Britain and how their accomplishment together looks nothing like their Canadian cousins.

Cameron recently won a healthy electoral victory while talking about moderating the austerity the country had painfully endured. He is in the process of introducing sweeping regulations of the British financial sector. The Conservatives are increasing spending on their national health service. They are raising some taxes, and have raised the minimum wage for anyone over 25 to $14 an hour. Cameron speaks aggressively about global warming and annual carbon budgets, and he has increased foreign aid 36% since 2011.

None of these things sound like Canada’s Conservative government, not even close. In reality, Cameron’s party is governing to the left of all the American Republican candidates and Stephen Harper.

This is the kind of conservatism that Canadians have known and historically felt comfortable with. It was a willing partner in the building of Canada into a fair and productive nation both home and abroad. We owe them much.

But my coffee shop friends are experiencing great difficulty in locating that fairer kind of Conservatism, except, perhaps, in one another. They supported the present government reluctantly in the beginning, but have grown increasingly alarmed at its heavy-handedness. As one of them noted, they are feeling increasingly lost. All Canadian parties are morphing and they see that, but at present they are becoming desperate to follow the advice of author Toba Beta: “When you don’t know where to start, just go to the place you miss so much.” But where is that? It’s likely that this question, and the response to it, could have some considerable effect on Election Day.

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