The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: partisanship

Election 2015: Have We Passed Our Peak?”

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THE SUBJECT ABOUT WHETHER AMERICA has peaked as a nation consumes much of the airtime south of the border in the run-up to their election. Repeatedly in Canada’s long election campaign the subject is being heard from various voices as well.

We’ve already referred to former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark’s current book outlining how we’ve lost our national and global prestige, but there is a chorus of others from across the political spectrum pointing out our tragic slippage, including a book released just yesterday by former Ontario premier and MP Bob Rae, titled What Happened to Politics?

One would expect former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis to be concerned about our national direction over the past two decades, but lately it’s become clear that he’s upset, not merely worried. Lewis has his reasons and they’re compelling.

He took the gloves off recently and it would be intriguing to witness this 77-year old champion of public life take on our present political class while in combative mode. Lewis focused on five key areas to make his point and they formed a powerful narrative concerning how we have fallen in collective and international stature.

He opened up by reminding his audience that Canada’s image on the global stage is in free fall, then moved effectively to how the Harper government has denigrated Parliamentary traditions in a fashion that is has caused serious damage to the public spirit. He recalled his years as an opposition leader in Bill Davis’s Ontario Conservative government, when respect emerged from the top-down and how Davis built on that trust by providing solid government.

It was then that Lewis jolted the audience by reminding them that this country’s behavior towards its aboriginal communities has been merely benign and paternal, but outright racist. Climate change was his next subject, one he wasn’t required to dwell on because our loss of effectiveness both domestically and globally on the file as been a matter of record.

Finally, Lewis talked about how civil society itself has been humiliated by a government that neither seeks public partnership nor transparency our accountability in its dealings with the electorate.

There will be those who will say, “What do you expect? It’s Stephen Lewis, a socialist, and an NDP to boot.” Well, it’s not just Lewis. Add to the list the likes of Conservatives like Joe Clark and other former ministers from the Mulroney government, former Liberal PM Paul Martin, NDP lion Ed Broadbent, and scores of public service leaders who are emerging independently in an effort to remind Canadians that not much time remains before Canada itself becomes irreparable.

When Lewis says his emotions run “from rage to rage,” he’s hardly alone. Upon adding that all this, “does us damage. It does us shame,” there was a loud chorus of assent and concern from all parties and civil society.

Lewis wrapped up his speech with a compelling urge that an increasing number of Canadians are attempting to voice:

“Somewhere in my soul, I cherish the possibility of a return to a vibrant democracy, where equality is the watchword, where people of different ideological conviction have respect for each other, where policy is debated rather than demeaned, where the great issues of the day are given thoughtful consideration, where Canada’s place on the world stage is seen as principled and laudatory, where human rights for all is the emblem of a decent civilized society.”

These are powerful words, made more pungent by the growing state of unrest within the Canadian citizenry and a concurrent desire to “return to a vibrant democracy,” as Stephen Lewis phrased it. But before we return to such a place of meaning we must first detour by the ballot box in October and claim through our rightful ideals the kind of politics we want.

 

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.

 

 

 

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