The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: partisanship

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.

 

 

 

 

Smart Sovereignty

 

Cartoon Democracy

THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS PEERS STOOD ON THE VERGE of an entirely new historical era, but the ultimate question remained: were citizens up to the challenge of enhancing the democratic ideal and of intelligently voting for representatives who best housed their values?

Over 200 years later, we look back on those turbulent times and wonder what the big deal was. But that’s only because we have the benefit of hindsight. All that the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution saw when they looked back was a combination of wealth owners and a political elite that basically decided for everyone else how society would function. To decide upon a marked departure and simply “trust the people” approach was a gamble of truly historic proportions and there were no guarantees of success.

Yet Jefferson counted on one key ingredient if success was to be attained: knowledge. Here’s the way he put it at the time:

“If we leave the people in ignorance, old customs will return, and kings, priests and nobles will rise up among us. The diffusion of knowledge among the people is the only hope of success. Education alone will preserve the sovereignty of the people. Without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny.”

Odd as it might seem to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t a given way back then. It was one of the reasons Jefferson himself felt so strongly about the need for public school systems at all levels. He believed that without watchful and knowledgeable citizens those in power would stray and government would no longer represent the will of the people. Worse, they wouldn’t even understand their people. He believed, and time would bear this out, that because people who held office were human, that they would be subject to influences that could tempt them away from the public good and towards special interests. He reserved his greatest concern for rabid partisanship, where people put their minds on hold for the sake of selective interest. Informed citizens guard against such opportunism.

Democracy fundamentally requires an informed electorate. The alternative to that is civic decay, which is what so many jurisdictions are experiencing at present. The Achilles Heel of democracy has always been that it doesn’t force citizens to participate. Worse still, it doesn’t force them to understand the very issues that directly affect their own status.

Much has been written lately, especially on social media, that by exercising the right not to vote people are actually making a choice. Fair enough for the short-term. The long-term consequences, however, will be the dumbing down of democracy itself and the hijacking of communities by those who managed to cobble together enough support to get elected when the majority of citizens refused to participate. In doing so, we begin the inevitable walk back to the Stone Age.

As historian, Daniel Boorstin, once put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Exactly. The tendency to land on the support of a certain political party can be a galvanizing moment; it can also lead to the shutting out of our minds of other ideas necessary for good governance. This is where partisanship is its most dangerous. When handled well, it can provide a personal sense of shared conviction, a welcome, and an opportunity to fight for what one believes in. Handled poorly, there is the inevitable exclusiveness, the shutting out of others, and the demonizing of those that disagree. Sadly, at present, there is much more of the latter than the former.

To be meaningful, politics must call out our convictions. But to be effective it must draw us out of ourselves, beyond the present, and set our minds and intellect to a wider setting that extends farther than our private circumstances and personal gratification. Our communities are worth the best our minds have to offer, but to achieve that we must resist the lure of simple thinking and be called out to the realm of greater humanity.

The sovereignty of the electorate – citizens – over their rulers lies at the very core of the democratic experiment. To waste it on the need to always be right or to vilify others merely sells out that sovereignty to the professional manipulators in the political class. Our community requires more than that and we must be smart enough to realize it.

The Partisan Mind (2)

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It seemed like a sincere enough request.  I was being asked by an MP from another party if I’d like to have a drink with other MPs just to be social.  “Sure,” I responded, and that evening, following a late vote in the House, we retired to a favourite watering hole in Ottawa.  Nine of us had gathered, from every party but one.  I listened in fascination as we all complained about how impossible it was to accomplish any cross-party cooperation because our party positions were so rigid.  Government and opposition MPs that evening bemoaned the decline of democracy but we were all stymied as to what to do about it.  When it was suggested that we take a public stand in the House for more cooperation and less animosity, the response was muted.

This is an all-too-common occurrence in our modern political structure, and not only in Canada.  The majority of elected representatives that I knew during my brief sojourn in politics were decent and hard working.  They easily could have worked together in a company or a non-profit organization.  Instead, all of us were stuck in a partisan world that brokered little innovation. We were as varied as a field full of daisies but, in the end, we had an essential likeness that spoke of timidity and the odd scent of barrenness.

This is ever the problem when partisanship has gone off the deep end.  Individuals caught in its tentacles steer their course by the lesser light of their prejudices.  Their convictions run by instinct and their thoughts run in an endless feedback loop.  There are endless assertions but few enlightened arguments.  Such individuals, wandering in their limited possibilities, always require some kind of prophet – a leader who can fill in the gap between their own emptiness and a hoped for ideal.

We have all experienced this in one form or another.  Our very narrowness and lack of public spirit make those better angels of our respective natures all the more futile because they can only function in conformity.  We achieve a kind of sure trust and yet its field of vision is so narrow.  If we aren’t careful, such tendencies can create a kind of sterility of which we are not conscious – a kind of inner lack that robs us of the kind of comprehensive compassion required to efficiently manage the public space.  And it perverts our conduct in a fashion that can sadly lose the public trust – a reality all of our political parties face at present.

These three blog posts are designed for the average person who is interested in politics but who can feel the temptations that limit public possibilities when private passions are followed. There are always those with rabid opinions who seek to divide citizens and those who desire to stay so neutral that they have little to offer in the way of actionable items in the public space.  These blog posts aren’t for such voices.

Good people function in every political party and seek the best for their communities and the country.  We aren’t guns for hire, nor do we have the wish to defile the public space.  And yet powerful forces are at work in both politics and human nature that can draw us into swirling side eddies by offering us quicker paths to power and influence.  It is in our own best interest, and those of our communities, to take the more complex route of deliberative dialogue and the willingness to compromise.

The reason for all this is simple: the white-hot nature of partisan politics makes it impossible to function on our public streets – the very thoroughfares of community that we all care about.  The public rejects such displays outright.

Modern democracy doesn’t seek to carpet bomb nor demean someone of a different viewpoint. It requires a dedication to the method of inquiry, a certain intelligent detachment, and free exchange of views in respect.   Such an attitude, without our intention or even awareness, is capable of creating a series of mini-revolutions that bring about a catalyst in our politics – a refinement that brings about change through process instead of brinksmanship through major revolution.  Should the political order fail to provide for such possibilities, then it is only a matter of time until more violent solutions are pursued and the moment of opportunity for nuanced progress is lost.

Such possibilities must ever be in the mind of the well-meaning partisan.  If we were honest, we would admit that it is almost impossible to maintain a blind loyalty to a political party if we always seek new research, ideas and renaissance.  It is our enlightened minds that should claim our ultimate loyalty, not a group or an individual with a guidebook of simple equations and answers.  The very fires that rage in our minds and seek change for the betterment of people must never be permitted to burn their own path through the public space, destroying decades of investment in their wake.  Reasonable partisans are better than that and permit their hard-won convictions to be moderated by the well-meaning views of others.

As Chogyam Trungpa put it: “Personal enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.”  Our communities demand our better selves – the part of us that delights in shared accomplishments over private prejudices.  Partisans have a key place in such a world, but only when they understand their respectful place in the broader community.

The Partisan Mind (1)

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The dictionary defines the word partisan as an “adherent or supporter of a person, group, party or cause.  A person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.”  It also carries a military connotation, meaning someone “engaged in harassing the enemy.”  We get our English word from the Latin pars, which means “particular” and which evolved into the word “partiality.”

The term has always possessed a kind of edge, yet previous times viewed a partisan as a loyalist who held to certain views.  Today it accumulates increasingly negative baggage and such a person is frequently viewed as incapable of understanding and blind to further truth.  That’s a shame.  Sincere partisans are everywhere in politics, believing in their cause, and furthering their point of view.  All of us hold opinions and have every right to express them.

Sadly, partisans can sometimes get caught up in a bigger game where larger forces seek to manipulate their leanings, where the stakes are higher and the modus operandi becomes mean instead of meaningful.

The unfortunate part is that even the best intentioned partisans can slide into a pattern of behavior or a culture that makes permissible what would never be accepted previously.  Those larger forces pump us up, and, as time draws on, our need to fight for an ideal gets transcended by the need to see those with opposing views as somehow diminished or even demented.  In willy-nilly fashion our political leanings become a form of blind faith that quietly closes the drapes and depends on interior lighting.  Over time, we sell ourselves into it as a kind of political worshipper, bowing to the leader and serving up the sacraments of our new religion.

By this very process we slowly become drained of morality just at the time we think we are practicing it.  The truth evolves into “our” truth and seeks to view society through the lens we have created.  Yet the more we remain in such a setting, the less effective we become in the broader world.  We sense we aren’t connecting and grow inwardly bitter as we live only for the horizon we see.  Certain intrigues of cruelty breeze among us towards other persuasions and eventually they hardly trouble us.

Over time, as with ingrown religion, it becomes apparent that society at large just isn’t interested in our fervor and this reality frustrates us.  Yet it is a democracy and if we are to succeed we must gain broader support.  And though we can detect the detachment of citizens at large, we can at least conceal our own narrowed identity and pass among them without any real friction.  In living this kind of double life, our pretences become hollow.  We know if we express the true passions of our beliefs that our very ardour will trouble a general audience.  The fervor that we once had plods on mechanically while our reasonable minds slowly leave us. 

You can spot this most clearly in community versus political life.  The modern partisan can work on school boards, charitable committees or broader community initiatives with people of other persuasions, flowing effortlessly through the waters of engagement.  And yet he or she can’t operate in the same fashion in a parliament or even a city council because that would expose a kind of political weakness.

Without realizing it, when it comes to politics we can no longer incorporate half-tones in our visions; we have become a people of primary colours.  And it could be worse than that: we view politics as black and white, monochrome and contrasting.  We know only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without troubling ourselves with the finer shades required for community understanding and usefulness.  We eventually become at ease only in extremes and express superlatives by choice.

The broader community can watch this process from a distance, understanding that our logic, our group-think, is leading us to absurd ends.  They see our imaginations as vivid, but not creative.  But the heavily partisan among us can’t spot in himself what the majority of citizens do in his movement.  Where he once believed in values for their own sake, he now must take the form and custom of the tribe.  In so doing, he loses his relevance and becomes perennially angry as a result.

Soon to be retired New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg witnessed the effect of all this on his own city, concluding:

The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy.”

Our communities require creative thinking not conformist ideologies.  The sincere partisan who holds to valued principles must ever be careful of subscribing to the skepticism of modern politics and moving from the former to the latter.  Unfortunately it is a journey increasing numbers of politically motivated and sincere individuals are taking.  There is a place for partisanship in the modern political structure, but it is not the prominent place, nor even the most important public one.

Expressions of Interest – Citizen Engagement Podcast (34)

True dialogue can begin with positions, but it should end in understanding.  “Before the tongue can speak, it must lose the power to wound,” said an old philosopher, and we need that insight now more than ever.  Free riders come to community engagement exercises with only one purpose: to impose their views on others.  They can’t compromise, no matter how well versed they are on the issues – and so the community suffers for their lack of belief in that community.  Starting with two monologues is okay, but they must end in dialogue if progress is to be made.

Just click on the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

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