The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: partisanship

Millennials Put the Positive Back Into Politics

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My article in today’s London Free Press, for April 25, 2015.  You can link to the original article HERE.

“I’M NOT A PARTISAN LIKE MY FOLKS WERE,” she said in reflection. “I just want politics to work and I don’t see why it can’t. Most of us want the same basic things, right?” Interestingly, the older generation isn’t all that partisan either, and, as we saw in the last column, they are checking out of the “gotcha” form of politics as fast as anyone else.

Yet the emphasis on making things “work” is perhaps the key desire of my 41-year old friend’s generation in their view of politics. Part of a cohort called the “MIllennials” and born in the span between the early-1980s to the early-2000s, they are increasingly making their talents, frustrations, resources, and energies felt on everything from consumerism to community values.

Younger generations of Canadians are, at once, clearly more passionately individualistic and yet fervently communitarian than any group we have seen in decades. Research has revealed them to be more socially tolerant, more comfortable with racial and ethnic diversity, and most welcoming to new immigrants than generations that preceded them. These values undergird their attitude to towards community, public life – and politics.

The Millennials have watched as fundamental Canadian values have suffered decline in recent years, regardless of which government was in place at all levels. As a result, they want to take risk, to do good, and to invest in their communities, families, and countries in ways that will last. Social media has permitted them opportunity to vent their frustrations and their aspirations, often in negative ways, but also in a fashion that is constructive, collaborative, with innovation as one of the key drivers to future efforts.

Robert Kennedy would have felt at home with this restless generation because he once tried to elevate younger Americans past historic prejudices and limitations through his own presidential aspirations. “Few will have greatness to bend history itself,” he reasoned, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of those acts will be written the history of this generation.” That’s exactly what the Millennials are committed to and they’re determined to blow past historic limitations that have refused to yield control to a more equitable world. They harbour few illusions, but they are driven by hope.

Will they collectively apply themselves to remaking the present form of politics that has grown hyper-partisan and angry? Research reveals they are, but we have to look no farther than our own city of London to spot the evidence. The youth of our present city council is now familiar, yet in numerous nomination battles waged over the last number of weeks an entirely new generation of candidates has stepped forward, saying they are ready to press for change and are confident enough to believe they can deliver it.

In an era where an increasing number of Canadians has given up looking for politics and cookie cutter politicians to solve our greatest challenges, the Millennials are acknowledging that we can’t adequately handle those tasks without a politics that matters. Yes, they are skeptical of the standard politics that puts party above principle and confrontation over collaboration, but instead of checking out they are checking in, and in that reversal might come the reformation of Canada’s political structure before it is too late.

Our nation’s history has witnessed reformed minded generations before, and Canada moved progressively ahead as a result. Those generations melded their aspirations to public service and better communities with the possibilities of politics. They would have agreed with Michael Sandel’s observation that, “when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

In troubling fashion, large portions of Canadians no longer hold to that bond between values and a beneficial politics that could deliver on them. But many of our younger citizens, tired of waiting for political change, have opted to change things themselves by challenging the very culture of modern politics. The fate of the next great political consensus is now in their hands and they simply won’t accept the tribal mentalities that so characterize the present political class. Just as their great example of business ingenuity is Apple as opposed to General Motors, their politics will become about their communities as opposed to political camps. They are fighting to bring together active government with innovative public policy and community service.

It is yet to be seen if the old and partisan political order can fend off the Millennials in its desperation to retain power, but should the new generation find ways of bringing Canadians back to a more relevant politics, then they will have already triumphed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mud vs. Common Ground

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Below is my London Free Press piece from April 11, 2015 on the real costs of bad politics.

CALL IT THE “MEAN SEASON,” AND IT’S ABOUT to descend upon us in the run-up to the next federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19.

While Easter might have instilled hope for a better humanity, the months leading up to the next federal contest for political dominance will inevitably resurrect negative campaigning in ways that continue to turn an increasing number of Canadians away from politics.

Hyper-partisanship reaches its apex at the national level and its potential for destructiveness is worrying to a growing number of political observers.

Respected pollster and political writer Bruce Anderson has been troubled enough by what he is witnessing at the federal level that he has been speaking out. Writing recently in the Globe and Mail, Anderson put it simply: “In this election, is it too much to ask our politicians to inspire us?”

Well, as long as the spiteful attacks continue, the simple answer is “no.”

Ross Perot was a third-party U. S. presidential candidate 20 years ago. The experience left him with one clear thought: “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, but politics has no rules.” He was speaking about election fever and its penchant for crossing the line on human decency and respectability.

We are told repeatedly that attack ads work and there’s truth in that. But for the majority of Canadians such assaults on the senses have the perverse effect of turning them off politics and voting.

Anderson took issue with the way things are going, especially once he viewed the debate on Canada’s mission to Iraq. “No matter what party is in office, I wish a Canadian Prime Minister wouldn’t stand up in the House of Commons and say the things Stephen Harper chose to say to opposition leaders.” Anderson wrote.

In a world weary of global wars, must we also deal with conflict on a domestic political level?

It’s something Bill Clinton recently labeled the “one remaining bigotry” ­— the penchant for politics to succeed in getting people to label one another instead of discovering the common ground they share. It was a powerful reminder that the light at the end of the tunnel is going out as long as this brandishing of labels continues.

There is no sign at all that things are getting better, and it isn’t just about some belligerent MPs.

“It’s cultural,” political observer Andrew Coyne noted recently. “It’s a shared culture of obsequiousness, cynicism and gall, a collective readiness to set aside the ordinary restraints on human behavior. Shamelessness may have reached new heights . . . and it afflicts our politics generally. MPs have had several opportunities to reform various aspects of Parliament in recent years, and in every case declined.”

And what of the rest of us? Recent research by Samara Canada discovered that 4 in 10 Canadians said they hadn’t had a single political conversation in the past 12 months. Some 62% felt the politicians want only their vote, not their ideas. Samara concluded: “Canadians are withdrawing from the democratic system, because they see politics as irrelevant.”

Yet Samara didn’t stop there, adding: “There is proof that many citizens do care about their communities and their country and are willing to give their time or resources accordingly. But this activity is often at a distance from politics.”

There are two clear calls here.

The first is obvious: politicians and their parties have to begin finding the common ground instead of slinging the mud they find beneath their feet and their calling. It remains difficult to name politics as a noble position when those occupying such roles continue to prove otherwise. Any party that puts more emphasis in attack ads than attacking climate change, child poverty, homelessness, the plight of cities and small business, or unemployment is hardly worth the ballot their brand is printed upon.

Second, citizens can’t just throw their hands up in disgust and walk away from politics. It is all we really have to alter our fate. Yet we have done so, in increasing numbers, blaming politicians instead of challenging them, disengaging instead of claiming a better world for their children. If we accept the “mean season” about to descend on us, then perhaps we deserve what we get — politician and citizen alike.

In the next column I’ll explore a generation that could, by their very difference in outlook, alter the course of politics and the country — the Millennials.

Time For a Millennial Moment

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IT’S NOT DIFFICULT TO OBSERVE THAT POLITICS, as an occupation, has entered a dark era – been in it for some time, in fact. We continue to ask ourselves how it is that good people running for office can get so disconnected from those they are supposed to represent. The chief reason is that the political system itself, predicated on a debilitating kind of partisanship, where politicians live in a bubble-like culture. Unless that system itself can be transformed, politicians themselves are doomed to ineffectiveness.

A lengthy tenure in politics definitely brings experience and know-how, the ability to communicate and glad-hand, to read a room and give the impression that people matter. But if the latter point was true the system itself would change. Experience in politics doesn’t necessarily translate to openness and innovation. It’s like we’re trapped in a time warp of decades-old animosities, relentless arguments, and a dispirited citizenry. We all know it and yet tolerate the treadmill as though nothing can be done to change it. Younger generations don’t care to engage, we’re told, and few of them look to politics personally.

And then something happens like in London, Ontario, a few weeks ago – a largely new council and mayor are swept into office and their average age is 41. So much for the idea that younger generations aren’t engaged. And, for now at least, we can put to bed the sense that they don’t care enough about politics to enter it themselves. Something is happening, and I suspect it won’t just pertain to one city.

If governing has become such a challenge and the political system appears so intractable, perhaps it’s time to look to a new generation that isn’t so inured in the present dysfunctional paradigm to have its own opportunity to attempt transformation. There will be significant complications, but it’s not as though the old system hasn’t been fraught with not only difficulties, but perpetual breakdowns.

The Millennials have something to stay at this moment in time, starting with the fact that they deem these political culture wars to be detrimental to public life. And they are finding allies among the older cohorts.  Political parties can attempt to tease them into the political battles all they like, but they are finding little resonance, other than those who already have pre-determined political mindsets.

For years it has been assumed that Millennials, as well as Gen X, hated government. That just isn’t so. What they can’t stand is a political agenda that seeks to drub others in order to win power. Millennials are intelligent enough to know that such an approach burns bridges that will eventually be required if communities are to come together. They just think that the present political approach of divide and conquer is dumb – and it is. Millennials see government as an essential partner in reaching for the world they desire. That motive was clearly on display in the recent London election, with most of the 800 present for the swearing in process of the new council were under 45 years of age.

They are also tired of hearing that government can’t fix our economic problems, that somehow it remains powerless in a globalized world. It’s a rationale that’s been used for 30 years, often as an excuse for inaction. Millennials don’t buy it, neither do Gen X-ers. Government has legislative powers for a reason, they argue, and the problem is that it presently refuses to use it, in part because internal squabbles have rendered it ineffective. British politician Iain Duncan Smith gets it just about right:

All too often, government’s response to social breakdown has been a classic case of ‘patching’ – a case of handing money out, containing problems and limiting the damage but, in doing so, supporting – even reinforcing – dysfunctional behaviour.

A new generation of citizens is emerging that won’t abide by opaque political answers. If there is a housing problem, a dysfunctional public transportation system, an ineffective response to climate change, or a politics more interested in war than progress, they say simply that such things should be fixed without delay. They mean it and they are increasingly proving that commitment by attempting to make politics relevant again. Given what’s been going on in the last few years, they can’t do any worse than what we’ve been experiencing.

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.

 

 

 

The New Breed

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THE MORE ONE EXAMINES IT, THE EASIER IT IS TO CONCLUDE that politics of the heavily partisan nature is quickly losing its appeal to the average citizen living in a community and just desiring a good place to live and opportunities for their children. Previously we let political parties formulate their policies on various parts of the political spectrum and then citizens could select their priorities and vote from there.

In many ways it all functioned well: communities were offered choices, parties drew on supporters, and politics involved rigorous debate that clarified the issues. What we have been witnessing in the past two decades is the breaking down of that model for two key reasons.

The first arises when people don’t really know what political candidates and their parties really stand for anymore. America is currently going through a crisis in this regard, where Republicans actually have more in common with Democrats than they do with the Tea Party that operates under the Republican banner. Democrats who supposedly believe in evidence-based policies, government help for the poor, and the protection of qualified bureaucracies, nevertheless undercut welfare programs and permitted the key financial culprits who instigated the greatest financial crisis since the Depression to walk away unscathed.

And what of Canada? Are parties that once occupied the left-centre-right wing of the political spectrum moving collectively to the right, or is everyone cramming into the middle in pursuit of votes? It’s not only difficult to know who the players are anymore, it involves great perplexity attempting to understand their teams. The pursuit of power has led to a great free-for-all that witnesses every party rushing whichever way the pollsters tell them are an abundant crop of voters. Practical ambition has taken the place of principled policy and voters are left in a daze trying to figure it all out.

Our communities quickly arrived at the point where they just gave up. Watching such antics, the average citizen concentrated on their immediate existence instead of their collective life because politics was no longer capable of drawing them together and empowering the communities in which they lived.

But that’s now beginning to change as citizens have begun the process of casting off partisan practices in favour of common goals. For our respective communities it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Political parties, by morphing into whatever it took to capture more voters, no longer hold much appeal. Worse still is the increasing practice of pulverizing other parties in order to secure supporters. To the average citizen, politics looks more like a Game of Thrones episode than a respectful appeal to the intellect of citizens.

The word partisan itself was first used in 1555 in Tuscany, Italy, where it referred to someone who was “part” of a group or sect. Ironically a second meaning emerged within a few years where the term was used for a weapon with a long shaft and broad blade. In 21st century Canada, both of those meanings have become synonymous and Canadians have had enough.

Which leaves communities with a problem: if our politics is based on a battle of “parts” that no longer practice respect or pursuit of common principles, then how can communities come together collectively under such a paradigm? The truth is that they can’t.

It is time for a new breed of politician, especially at the local level – the woman or man who respects their community when it collectively desires something different, and fights for that place. This kind of politics isn’t about left or right, but the way forward based on community will.

London, Ontario has now become a battleground for this new kind of politics. Our mayor has stepped down and a new interim replacement is to be selected. Some of those interested in the position have acted in ways that directly conflict with the ReThink London citizen engagement plan that saw thousands of citizens coming together to talk about the kind of community they wanted. Yet none of those individuals who oppose ReThink have the courage to just say, “You know what citizens, you’re wrong and I’m right. I’m smarter than you, so give me your vote.” Of course they can’t utter such words because it’s difficult to gain office by insulting the voter.  Beware the charlatan.

I have spoken about the French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, many times in these pages. One of his most poignant observations can be found in his brief phrase, written in the 1850s: “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” This is exactly the point to which most Canadians are arriving.

Democracy is predicated upon one principle above all others: the people hold the ultimate power. Right or wrong, they decide. It is time “principled” dealings with one another descends to citizens themselves. Overt partisanship has had its day and it’s now played out. Effective or not, it is now the time for citizens to learn the intricate machinations of politics and prove they are capable to living a collective life while honouring individual pursuits. E Pluribus Unum – out of the many, one.

 

 

 

 

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