The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: political dysfunction

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

In what could only be seen as a stunning defeat, the author of the Art of the Deal found himself unable to close. Instead of “draining the swamp,” as he had promised, Donald Trump found himself drowning in it.

Regardless of which side one stands on the recent showdown in Congress, the event signaled again that hyper-partisanship remains “the governing cancer of our time,” as David Brooks and Bill Clinton each put it. Each side blames the other, year after year, and now decade after decade, but the result always leaves good policy initiatives lying in burning ashes. In his attempt to browbeat a recalcitrant political establishment and special interest groups, President Trump invariably became part of it all, forcing the division even further.

No matter where we look in a modern democracy these days, compromise seems not so much a dying hope as a lost art. The venerable traditions of civil discourse and hard work to attain common ground no longer seem practical to political activity. As a Member of Parliament a few years ago I was proud to second Conservative MP Michael Chong’s beleaguered attempt to reform Question Period. It was sincere, well thought out attempt to recover a saner version of politics that generated a lot of support outside of Ottawa but little interest within Parliament itself. It’s to his credit that Chong has taken his campaign for a more accountable and civil politics to a higher level in running for the Conservative leadership. Still, while respected, he occasionally feels like a credible voice crying in the wilderness in the midst of partisan mayhem and political dysfunction.

It has always been true of our politics that elected representatives joined existing factions and frequently clashed with those who disagreed with them. Yet common purpose was possible and frequently resulted in effective legislation that assisted in governing a diverse and often divided populace. Such occasions are now so rare as to almost be forgotten, despite the nobler intentions of most politicians.

Whether it was the outsider Trump promoting health care reform or insider Justin Trudeau promising electoral reform (both campaign promises), the result has been a lack of closure and more partisan division than had existed before such efforts. When opposition parties performed due diligence in Parliament’s electoral reform committee and sought what appeared to be a sincere compromise, such efforts were ultimately ignored in favour of the status quo. Whether or not this was due to partisan intent, the result was that a unique moment for political innovation and common ground was lost.

As David McLaughlin noted in a Globe and Mail article in 2013 during the previous hyper-partisan effects of the Harper era:

“Faithful to the partisan glue binding them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Yet we voters are often part of the problem, often utilizing social media to fling invective out on anyone who disagrees with us. The dysfunction of Parliament has coursed its way into the electorate in an endless feedback loop of animosity. Traditional media, in order to compete, too frequently places its own emphasis on political conflict in search of readers and viewers.

We all share in this declining democracy that concerns us all. The divisiveness of our politics today can only result in eventual inaction for the public estate. Increasingly, research informs us that the hyper-partisan mind can be a wicked thing, that politicians don’t know how to break out of it, and that our modern societies are receding into dysfunctional isolation. There is no easy way out of the mess we have all accepted or even created.

Partisanship has been a historical player in effective politics, both giving and clarifying choices for voters. But it has now become so pervasive that it seems that no one has a choice anymore. We have all been drawn into the swamp Donald Trump now finds himself in. Only the collective will from both politicians and the people to find common ground can put responsible choices back on the table of our public life. Common ground will only be found when we once again find common resolve.

Democracy Without Conscience Can Only Lead To Chaos

This post can also be read at Huffington Post here

It’s likely time most of us agreed that we collectively have noidea where democracy is going. And if numerous polls are correct, living in such a situation is creating increased insecurity and tensions among citizens around the world.

It’s at times like the present when Vaclav Havel, former independence activist, playwright, and president of Czechoslovakia, might have something to offer us, despite the fact that he died some six years ago. It wasn’t by accident that the New York Times called him the “global ambassador for conscience.”

He, too, lived in a world of turbulence. With the Soviet Union breaking apart, no one was quite sure what would arise to take its place. In such times voices of conscience can become signposts for leading us out of our collective confusion. Or as Canadian author Louise Penny put it: “Don’t mistake dramatics for conscience.” There is a difference between the frenetic actions of the present democracy and the gentle pull of conscience.

In our modern world everyone seems to have an answer for everything, and the more opinions there are the more confounding everything is becoming. That was happening in Havel’s world as well, but he took a step back and urged his nation to consider what was happening around them: “We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved.” In recent years we have journeyed down a political path where policies were supported by evidence gathering, science, focus groups, and research. All these things made it seem like the answers to our problems were there, but that we just had to have the best policies to find and implement them.

It didn’t work that way, of course, since all that looking at the world as some great puzzle got us increased unemployment, environmental catastrophe, a yawning gap between rich and poor, overt racism, terrorism, and costly regional conflicts. Whatever the problem, solutions, even researched ones, were never going to be enough. More important than all of these was the abiding need for a better understanding of humanity. That’s why Havel reminded his own citizens: “None of us are just victims; we are also its co-creators.” These were tough words, but then again, the times were tough, too. He would go on to add: “Freedom and democracy require participation and therefore responsible action from us all.”

And while it is true that we see emerging democratic participation at the grassroots level in most democratic countries, it frequently leads to more contention than compromise, to more heat than light. Somewhere in all the debate, protest, anger, confusion, participation and populism, we must find a way of bringing it all together in a way that can move us into a more equitable future. Havel watched political opinions ripping his country apart, so he cautioned:

“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level, to engage our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”

His question was one for the ages, including our own. And it came from an honest place within his being as he watched anger dominating collaboration and absolutism among various factions replace tolerance and understanding. To counter that growing trend, Havel threw out a direct challenge: “There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another … I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honour one another, just as we are.” In a world of rigid ideologies that can only lead to autocracy and cultish bigotry, this call to a deeper respect for humanity couldn’t come soon enough.

We need not fear the distinctions that exist within our citizenry if all are prepared to accept those differences while building on our far greater commonalities. And to the politicians among us comes one of Havel’s final observations:

“A politician must become a person again — one who can think and act outside of his party. He must learn to trust in the soul of humanity again. Without this, politics itself cannot be overcome.”

All this is ours for the making, but only if we take the time to consider where we are headed, who we are electing to office, and what our own part could be in bridging those divides that are presently ripping us apart.

Is Our News Ripping Us Apart?

My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.

That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.

So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated.   As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:

“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.

Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.

Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.

A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.

Photo credit: Martin Nitalla

Making America Grate Again

Depending on how one looks at it, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of President could be one of the best things to happen to the United States and beyond in some time. Call it “Making America Grate Again,” or “Mourning in America,” but the dynamic nation just to the south of us is experiencing an age of angst and energy that hasn’t been seen in more than a generation.

A couple of observations from comedian George Carlin come to mind. “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.” He went on to note, “That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Well, the United States is many things at the moment, but nodding off isn’t one of them. The rustling, and wrestling, spirit of the country is casting off its indifference and expressing its pleasure/displeasure every minute of the day. Though the opinion of what constitutes the “American Dream” varies widely, the country’s days of slumber have come to an end.

The nation has never been good at standing still. America’s teeming masses have always faced issues that, at times, threatened to split the country wide apart. Racism, slavery, women’s equality, the tragic Civil War, and political opportunism have caused citizens to pull back from the edge of destruction on numerous occasions. Yet because of its great wealth, ingenuity, occasional timely leadership, and fierce independence, it has somehow gathered itself together to fight another day.

But in the modern era, nothing has quite jostled the United States to its core the way Trump’s election has. Only weeks into his tenure, the airwaves and lawyers are alive with the possibilities of a Constitutional crisis. Immigration has become a touchstone of this conflagration. Protest marches have stretched across the country and the globe at the same time.   This list could go on, but we get the drift: everything is in flux.

Well, maybe not. While much of the country went Republican, nine million Californians turned the region an even deeper blue, and America’s most populous state has sworn to fight Trump’s efforts to bypass traditional authority structures every step of the way. International trade agreements can’t be discarded easily. Whether it’s NATO or the handling of Russia’s Putin, pushback is coming because no one person or position should be able to sweep away so unilaterally something that took decades to construct. Donald Trump might yet become the key transformative leader of populism around the world, but if he wants to effect change he’ll have to negotiate those agreements enacted previously by elected Democratic and Republican administrations.

Democratic institutions, for all their ineffectiveness at the moment, exist to provide safeguards against the abuse of power. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us why that is: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Donald Trump has accomplished the first part of that equation; many worry that he might also fulfill the second, and so they are fighting back. For those who think this a bit severe, a recently unearthed 2013 quote by Trump’s chief political architect, Steve Bannon, to writer Ronald Radosh gives pause: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The age of pushback is here, with no one knowing quite how it will play out. It will come from places like the state of California, and from protest marches. In an insightful column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne challenges nations to act with a united front in dealing with Donald Trump and not permit themselves to be treated on an individual one-off basis. He’s right, and he challenges Justin Trudeau to consider such a response. In everything from investments to environmental reform, from global security to foreign aid, a sense of dependability is essential lest things spin out of control.

And then there is the response from civil society itself. It will have to consider what to do with Amit Kalantri’s observation: “In a democracy, there will be more complaints but less crisis, in a dictatorship more silence but much more suffering.” That is usually true, but we have now entered an era where the complaints and crisis are marching hand in hand into the future.

America is more bustling at present than it has been in years. Democracy is grating against autocracy and the sparks are flying. Donald Trump has won his election and has the right to lead. But should he do so at the expense of hard-earned democratic and constitutional gains, only a united global opposition can hope to prevail over the most powerful office in the world.

 

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