The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: political dysfunction

No “Team” in “I”

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WITH THE FINAL NOMINEES SETTLED AND three months of campaigning ahead, this American election season is likely to be one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. That’s okay; political contests, especially south of the border, have ever been tumultuous affairs.

Yet there has never been anything like the showdown that has been building for months, largely because of Donald Trump. It almost seems like nothing new can be written about him. Appearing not to care what people say of him, the Republican candidate speaks with a directness that isn’t so much targeted as scattered about in every direction. This results in his dominating every news cycle, breaking every political protocol, and promoting a political war that seems to break every bond of respectability.

But in very real and concerning ways this election isn’t about Donald Trump at all, but the depths of the absurd millions of citizens are willing to embrace in order to send a message to the political elites of both parties in Washington. That people are upset with the financial bailouts, the fallout from globalization, stubborn unemployment, and political dysfunction, is a given. But is the best choice to send that message an individual who doesn’t respect numerous groups of immigrants and nations, who carries few credentials for the top political job in the land, and who scatters the election landscape with landmines designed to blow up at any time in order maintain the chaos that has so come to characterize public life in America at the moment?

It is likely that there has never been such a year in American political history when so many citizens disliked so many other citizens from all points of view and for such nonsensical reasons. When Trump said, “I will build a wall because nobody builds walls better than me,” he provided the modus operandi of his campaign.

Much has gone into the creation of this condition, but Donald Trump has been its main instigator. Is this really what Americans want, or are they just angry enough to suspend the traditional traits of respect and progress in order to get their point across? If so, then this America looks more like the America of 1927, where a season of prejudice became so combustible that more people were deported from Ellis Island than permitted in.

In tolerating so many lesser evils hoping that they will all add up to the so-called greater good, many good citizens are collectively guilty of bad math. It all merely adds up to political decline by calling for the baser instincts of a once proud nation.

In a boisterous era where citizens around the world are demanding seats at the tables of power more than ever, it becomes a major setback when the nominee for the GOP says things like: “I know what’s best for America,” or, “I will be your voice.” The need for a saviour, a political redeemer, the “great man,” is precisely the kind of political attitude that hundreds of millions of people have been endeavouring to shake off around the world. The fate of democracy lies not in the giant footprints of powerful leaders but in the millions of collective footsteps taken by global citizens interested in sharing power and fighting for a more equitable future among all peoples.

Do Americans truly desire a politics of resentment, where everyone is against everyone else? In a world where hate is as near as a keyboard or a gun, do people honestly wish to put power in the hands of a Commander-in-Chief that could place an army or a grand policy behind his animosities? With tolerant societies now fighting for their lives in Europe and other places, does a troublingly divided America honestly think it can lead from the middle of the pack?

Something is growing terribly amiss in our popular and moral culture when a man who openly insults any woman, race, immigrant, or vulnerable person finds a possible path to the White House. If being president isn’t about the power to divide but the responsibility to unite, then somebody has goofed. Rather than taking the easy way of looking for a voice, citizens themselves must raise their own voices in ways that bring a nation together. And if that nation is a global leader, then there exists also the possibility of working with others to bring the world together.

Donald Trump’s greatest blunder is believing that it is his voice that matters in a time when citizens themselves are craving to find their own articulation – for him there is no “team” in “I”. When a top presidential contender tells a crowd, “Frankly folks, if I don’t win this thing, then it was a total waste of time for me,” what does that say about his view of average citizens and the struggles of their own lives?

Stillborn Democracy

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This post can also be viewed at National Newswatch here.

HIS ELECTION CAMPAIGN SIGNED UP MILLIONS of new voters, partly by the ingenious use of modern communications technology. Being young and vibrant, it was only a natural development that younger generations flocked to his campaign. He had a telegenic wife and young kids. Rather than following the historic pattern of saying that he and his party were the right prescription to get the country moving again, he asked his nation to believe in itself once more, to build optimism into its future outlook, and to engage itself in a new kind of politics. And he won in a fashion that appeared to usher in a new age of collaboration and political accomplishment.

No, this wasn’t Justin Trudeau but Barack Obama, back in 2008 – a remarkable season when Americans responded to the new president’s call of “Yes We Can” by stating “Yes We Will.” It was a fascinating evolution in politics that wasn’t only historic in its implications, but freeing in its spirit.

What happened? Despite his numerous successes, the Obama momentum stalled not too long after it commenced and never reached its expectations. The obvious reason was that the opposition forces circled the wagons and disrupted the momentum from its inception. Or as Obama operative, David Axelrod pungently put it: “For seven years, the GOP establishment knowingly and cynically rode the anti-Obama tiger, feeding the beast with a steady diet of red meat.”

None of this is new to us; it has been playing out in our newsfeeds since 2009 and the political dysfunction resulted in the chaos we now witness in the Republican primaries. Bill Clinton claimed there was a key but overriding reality that undercut everything else: “We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.” Few observations better describe what is currently running rampant through American politics. People are confused and angry, giving a level of credence to Charles Bukowski’s view that, “The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

The question is whether it’s becoming increasingly true in Canada? Judging by the last few parliamentary sessions, there is cause for some concern. The hyper-partisanship of recent years has made it increasingly difficult to forge a consensus, to achieve compromise, or to take all Canadians into account rather than merely catering to party supporters.

Barack Obama believed he could work across party lines when first elected – an assumption prone to naïveté in hindsight. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be, because the goal of collaboration was rigged from the outset. Democracy and politics ended up being two different things: the one, the will of the people, the other, the wickedness of partisanship.

Trudeau’s recent election win provided intriguing insights into the Canadian mindset. One of the lessons was that, though progressivism was clearly on the upswing as a societal force, opposition remained obstinate. We shouldn’t allow the Liberal’s majority mandate to gloss over the sobering reminder that millions of Canadians voted otherwise. This is democracy, after all, and healthy dissent is a good thing.

Mindful of the political chaos south of the border, Canada could nevertheless run the danger of replicating a form of dysfunctional politics through the use of blinded opposition. We won’t get far as long as citizens or their representatives view compromise of any kind as tantamount to surrender. It is nothing of the kind. It is rather the acknowledgement that the people have voted and there is the responsibility of respecting that reality by contributing to healthy government and a vibrant society. Far from being an option, such compromise is the only way modern societies, with all their complexities, can survive.

The Liberal Party’s electoral victory, sweeping enough to provide a majority, has served to raise the expectations of its friends.  Anti-poverty activists, environmentalists, Indigenous advocates, free traders, researchers, electoral reformers, gender champions – these and so many others will have to temper their euphoria with the understanding that any government must delicately balance the interests of all Canadians in ways that are manageable.

As the recent parliamentary sessions have shown, dysfunctional politics is as near as a government that only rewards its friends, or an opposition that cares only for overthrowing the powers that be through the practice of cheap politics.

Only a few months prior to his assassination, President John Kennedy, mused on the future of democracy, saying, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Opinions are important because they reflect the views of citizens. They are damning when they are spiced with a bigotry that can’t hear or respect contrary views. The success of Trudeau’s mandate, and of democracy itself, will depend on that distinction.

Transcending Cynicism

This blog post is also available at National Newswatch here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terrible Simplifiers”

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OVER THE LAST NUMBER OF MONTHS I have been asked when I’m going to compose some blog posts on the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. It would be easy to accomplish, but I hesitate about writing about someone who might not know the difference between hummus and Hamas. We have all underestimated his appeal to the disenchanted, but as his loss in Iowa revealed last evening, he may be more of a polarizing rather than a populist figure.

Donald Trump, along with numerous other seekers of power, forms the embodiment of what Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt called the “terrible simplifiers” – demagogues who seek power and fame by manipulating and exploiting the frustrations of those disenchanted with politics and politicians altogether. To be sure, politics itself these days is often characterized more by underperformance than delivering stable, even inspirational, government. And politicians themselves often appear more willing to play the role of party patsy than to carve out a space in the broader political order for those constituents who elected them.

However else you term it, the decay of politics has led to the age of extremism and polarization, perhaps best exemplified presently in Donald Trump. The hyper-inflated kind of politics is easily spotted in the extremism, crippling partisanship, and sectarianism slowly creeping into what was once historically stable politics. The Republican Party in the United States was one of the most credentialed and able political organizations in the world. Today, as it fires off in all directions, it has shifted its historical ability to unite Americans to splintering them and making effective governing almost impossible.

Canada has flirted with this kind of extremism but seems able to right itself when it seems to matter, keeping us distinctly different from our southern neighbours in ways that are still functional. As CBC writer Aaron Wherry stated at the end of yesterday’s Iowa voting: “American democracy is good for making Canadian democracy seem perfectly reasonable.” We watch our American cousins with interest and perhaps mild alarm at their flirtation with the terrible simplifiers, but we must be vigilant against such incursions into our own political system.

The rise of these great and dividing simplifiers has resulted in countless improvised groups in politics, civil society, and the media that evade proper public scrutiny and hide themselves in the great anonymity of the Web. They create untold opportunities for activities of deceit, confusing a disenchanted citizenry in the process. It all leads to a form of “stupid” politics that cheapens both politician and citizen alike.

Demagogues, charlatans, and hyper-partisan politicians have always been with us. What is new, however, is the environment we have allowed them to create within us a citizens that at least permits them easy access to power. This must be resisted at all costs.

Democracy is messy and never easy. Voters have always grown disenchanted over time with their elected representatives, and politicians inevitably sink deeper into the party structure than their own constituencies. But such developments are repeatedly overcome by a politics that can still inspire and pull from within us the better angels of our natures – individually and collectively. And we are at our best as citizens when we can contain the negative aspects of extremism and oversimplification. For that to happen, though, we need a good dose of that one quality we have permitted to erode over time: trust.

In his best-selling book V is for Vendetta, author Alan Moore notes that, “Demagoguery allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured. Twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate, while culture plunges into the abyss.” Excessive politics might belong to some terrible simplifiers, but culture belongs to us – all of us – and must never be permitted to atrophy because some leaders seek to arouse our anger instead of refining our intellect and our passions.

Election 2015 and the One-Percent

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IT WAS ONLY A WEEK AGO THAT PUNDITS were arguing if “change” was really a factor in the campaign. Things weren’t shaking up much and parties appeared to be in a kind of holding pattern. Not anymore. Movement is showing up in the polling numbers and a sense of new life is emerging in this long campaign season. Voter sentiment is getting aroused and now media coverage is talking about change in its stories.

Will it be enough to set us in a new direction as a country? If you asked someone like American activist Ralph Nader you might be encouraged by his answer. Honoured by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, Nader thinks that citizens really have to think this moment through.

“It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite party propaganda.”

Nader figures that if just 1% of citizens who weren’t mere political robots but people interested in finding common ground would join forces and tell candidates and leaders what kind of country they wanted that the political momentum would swing in favour of a consensus. That seems impossible, yet he conducted a large study in 2012 that provided that 1% figure – “even less than 1% could do it,” he maintains.

He reasons that candidates themselves don’t know how to handle such a development. “They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don’t care if they turn people off if it’s in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, we then leave the control to the political power players and nothing changes.”

Nader believes that two key activities are required by those seeking to find commonalities across party lines: 1) if 1% of the people become very engaged in civic life; and 2) if this same group gathered together and publicly reflected on the areas of what he calls “public sentiment.”

To support that premise, he points out that at least 24 issues are supported by “heavy majorities” of people from the Left and the Right. They include challenges such as electoral reform, climate change, a higher minimum wage, even action on poverty that are supported by some 70-80% of citizens, not politicians. Why, then, can’t we put a civil coalition of something like that together that would effectively challenge the political class, moving it closer to compromise? It’s actually an action plan that could have some serious effect, but the reality is that citizens don’t know how to go about it.

Nader throws cold water on the sentiment that politics is no longer where the real action is. “But that is where the action’s at. Why are the lobbyists all over Congress if they believe politics is ineffective?” He’s right. If a lawful country can have its history altered by powerful interests that fight to alter legislation in their favour, then it makes sense that such forces would get as close to the place of lawmaking as possible.

And there’s the rub. Citizens don’t make laws; their elected representatives do. But if citizens and voters don’t remain in contact with the political process, it is inevitable that other powerful interests will fill in the vacuum left by their absence. If Nader is even close to right about the 1% number, we are far closer to renewing democracy than we realize and we could cast a long shadow.  But it will take citizens who search for a place of compromise as opposed to a partisanship of contention. It’s there, right in front of us. Only 350,000 collaborative citizens (1% of our population, or the size of London, Ontario) could get it done.

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