The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: political parties

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.

The Political Industrial Complex

There was a strong reaction to my last blog post on the need for good folks to run for politics. That was encouraging. But we must also be frank. Here’s why.

Following the last post, I received two calls – one from a retired Conservative MP and the other from a city politician. Both commented on how they were in danger of losing hope in the last few years. Their comments were sincere, emotional, and not a little bit sad. Both laid the blame squarely on a growing partisanship and the inability of politicians to find compromise in such a setting. Jane and I were recently visited by a provincial politician who stopped in to see how I was faring following my recent surgery. When the subject inevitably came to politics, there was a sigh, and then the admission that the politics of Queen’s Park (Toronto) is now about as contentious as the House of Commons in Ottawa, making it more difficult to get anything accomplished. “Partisanship from all parties is ruining our chances for cooperation,” he noted.

So, if you want to run for politics, this is what you’ll be up against. Note that all three levels of government were mentioned in the preceding paragraph. If you want to be effective, the political forces arrayed against your interventions will be significant. It’s what comedian Stephen Colbert recently referred to as the “political industrial complex.” What is that exactly?

It was a play on a phrase used over 60 years earlier by outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower. In his farewell speech to the nation, he spoke of how America used to be a more peaceable nation but that it was now moving towards a permanent conflict paradigm. He warned his fellow citizens of the “Military Industrial Complex” – the interplay between government, the military, and the industrial base that produced all those weapons that were consuming an increasing amount of the nation’s resources. He spoke of how political contributions and lobbying for defense contracts were taking the nation away from its more democratic past.

Colbert, by his interesting twist of phrase, was merely acknowledging what people already know: politics has become the privilege of the elite and threatens democracy at its most basic levels. Consider some of Eisenhower’s closing thoughts in the fateful 1961 speech, which you can view here, and see how they speak as much to the loss of democracy as the massive increase of military/defense/government power:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

If you want to run for politics, you’ll have to deal with this reality Colbert is speaking of. Can you do it? Will you run for the sake of those who elected you (and even those in your constituency who didn’t) and place it over party and partisanship? Don’t just assume you can because the political forces arrayed against you will be massive and intimidating. This is what happens when politics and government unite to form such an imposing front that even democratic initiatives themselves cannot hold them to account. Are you willing to stand up for those you represent and fade into anonymity in the party? Gandhi used to say that, “It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” All too many politicians these days hide from their constituencies in the cloakrooms of power and partisan politics.

Political parties must be challenged by their own members to be more sensitive not only to their members but the constituencies those politicians represent. Your job will not be to mingle with your party colleagues alone, but to bring the challenges and opportunities of your riding into the larger mix. Don’t worry about burning bridges; it won’t matter if you’re building your own. It’s just what you do that you will be held accountable for. You will also be judged by how you didn’t represent your community.

Thomas Paine stated boldly in the early days of the American Revolution that, “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” Well, that’s what’s happening right now. Canadians are tuning out by the millions because they no longer trust the political system nor those that represent it. The political industrial complex needs to be challenged, not just by concerned citizens, but by politicians themselves who put representation and accountability ahead of cronyism and partisan pursuits. It must be challenged from without and from within if the political system is to be reformed. That will take courage and you must determine if you have it in enough measure to enter the fray. Political courage isn’t about not feeling intimidated, but rather acting on the knowledge that something else is far more important – your constituents and their possibilities.

If you can, by all means run, but only if you are completely certain who you are to serve. The salvation of politics itself will rest on decisions just like that.

Citizenship – “Tocqueville’s Mistake”

You may never have heard of Alexis de Tocqueville before, but for students of democracy he’s essential reading.  A young political thinker from France, he toured America for two years in the 1830s, arrived back home and immediately published his Democracy in America. It was readily apparent that he had the knack for understanding American citizenry and its institutions like few others. His book became an instant classic and is still essential reading in universities today. His insights were brilliant, full of candor, with a delightful tone of optimism. His observations have gone virtually unchallenged, but I’m thinking he might have been wrong, at least in part.

Enthralled as he was with America, he worried that democracy might not survive because citizens seemed to be too much the same. It was in part for this reason that he conceived of the phrase “tyranny of the majority.” He reasoned that democracy could eventually produce citizens who all had the same tastes, ideas, practices and pursuits. In his view, the more perfect a democracy became, the more likely citizens would desire the same things and the kind of diversity that French loved so much would be lost in America. He went on to state that equality of status would engender a uniformity of thought that would eventually stifle the national creative juices.

I love his writings and agree with most of them, but in this I think he made a mistake. Has America or Canada actually grown more uniform? Because of a lack of a central understanding of our country, there are more special interest groups, more lobbyists, more political parties, more divisive issues and more confusion as to the future direction of the country. We sense more regional divisions, more partisanship, more competition among communities, and a more divided populace than in recent memory. The contradictions among special interests are as legitimate as they are incompatible. What we are witnessing is a splintering of society into separate factions, each battling for advantage and caring little for other interests, or even for society as a whole.

Tocqueville’s vision and concern for society becoming more homogeneous has not materialized. And yet I wonder if citizens themselves are really that divided. My own experience with Canadians is that we are far more similar than we realize, yet the channels of power, interests and privilege have traveled down different corridors, pulling citizens along with them and creating divisions in the process. Politics is a good case in point. Of course there will always be political parties – nothing wrong with that, and they’ll naturally press the populace for support. But when it reaches the point when to attain power certain political types willingly turn citizens against one another or suppress their vote and interest in democracy, then a peaceable people can quickly turn difficult.

As select interests battle it out over the turf of public funds, public legislation and public conscience, little is left for the average citizen but confusion, exasperation, and not a little anger. Tocqueville made a mistake, and in that oversight lies the testing ground as to whether citizenship itself will survive or collapse of its own inability to be nurtured and to expand its lungs.

If responses to these blog posts, both online and in person, have taught me anything it is that a good number of Canadians are actually feeling the same about their country now – worried at the lack of citizen involvement, frustration at political manipulation, fear that we aren’t ready to face the great challenges before us. They possess all of these characteristics but they are isolated from one another, unable to come together to turn things around. They comprehend that the first step toward citizen rediscovery it to free themselves of the cynical expectation of the times, to affirm once again that what we once believed about this country, we still believe, and that we want to make it so.

There are many challenges to our being successful in this quest – apathy, political intrigues, power channeled beyond our reach – but I believe the greatest is our inability or unwillingness to bring it all together in one great national passion. As governments faltered in their oversight, gaps were created in our national fabric that were filled with dedicated citizens fighting for specific causes. They are terrific, whether or not they succeeded in getting government or citizens to listen. But they are isolated and in such a state we can never recapture the public agenda. We must possess an enlightened and public temperament if we wish citizenship to partner effectively with the political process. This is what Walter Lippmann meant when he wrote:

It requires much virtue to do well. There must be a strong desire to be just. There must be a growing capacity to be just. There must be discernment and sympathy in estimating the particular claims of divergent interests. There must be moral standards which discourage the quest of privilege and the exercise of arbitrary power. There must be patience and tolerance and kindness in hearing claims, in negotiation, and in reconciliation.”

Catch the part of “divergent interests?” The best way to assist all of these worthwhile but isolated efforts is by bringing them together in a cause greater than all of them – the rebuilding of Canada by the people of Canada. For that we require a comprehensive vision, not a million smaller ones.

Citizenship – “The Problem of Diffuse Passions”

So here’s where today’s average Canadian citizen is situated. To one degree or another elites have always managed this country, but in recent years their ideological divisions and partisan animosities have begun to degrade both the effectiveness and belief in democracy itself. Since the First World War, people like Edward Bernays have consistently attempted to keep citizens under control of sorts, first by fear and then by greed. Corporatism is now far more global than it is “Canadian” and continues to press for advantages like free trade, lower tax rates and a shrinking work force in order to pursue its profits and efficiencies. Modern media have kept tabs on all this like it was a scorecard, with winners and losers, instead of undertaking the arduous and investigative responsibility of speaking truth not only to power, but to citizens as well. The Internet has shown promise for galvanizing a new spirit of cooperation across the country but has mostly exacerbated the divisions already present.

Which leaves us with the citizen. Politically speaking, we’re in a bind. While the majority of Canadians remain progressive in outlook, the way they vote actually undermines what they seek. By voting for progressive parties like the Liberals, NDP, Greens and Bloc (to name the major ones), they have consistently crossed themselves out, leaving the field open for the smaller but more focused right-wing forces to dominate the playing surface. If anything, this last federal election affirmed again that by splitting the votes the way they do among numerous parties, citizens actually can get the opposite of what they desired. Some resent the present voting system, claiming that new methods such as proportional representation or partial-proportional representation would actually see citizens getting the parties they voted for. Perhaps. But many experts agree that it will lead to more progressive parties not less, thereby splitting the vote even further. Of course, some will forcefully disagree, but I suspect this is correct.

Despite all this, there are citizens groups across the vast country that continue to ply their efforts at bringing new life to a flagging democratic reality. The fact that a winning party can succeed by suppressing the vote in general seems to them to be undermining a sacred trust.  And they grow increasingly angered at the one-upmanship that political parties continue to display in democratic assemblies and the support shown for this type of partisan display by the media and ideologues on the Internet.

There are thousands of such groups of citizens, ranging from environmental gatherings to seniors’ advocates, who continue to press for change but get little in return. They are active and they are empowered, but they miss that one vital element necessary for them to win the day – combined cooperation. I’m not talking about everyone supporting just one party, though it might very well come to that. No, I’m wondering how those of us who truly believe in a more progressive Canada can possibly succeed in isolation? We continue to underperform because we fight our numerous battles to the exclusion of one great plan of cooperation.

I sadly learned this lesson firsthand a couple of years ago as I traveled across the country on a speaking tour of universities on the subject of foreign aid. At every venue, members of the various development groups bemoaned the decline in federal government support for foreign aid. They were all dedicated, as they were equally determined to make a difference, but they were far too isolated from one another. Often there were in competition. I was also disappointed to discover that many of those complaining the most refused to speak up in public because they were getting government funding and didn’t want to lose it. These are dedicated citizens too far apart to tackle the status quo and change the course of public policy. Some pick their own personal causes but refuse to throw their weight behind other initiatives equally as important. In effect, this grouping of organizations is a microcosm of our society at large.

Canada is a nation full of diverse special interests that stand largely isolated, like most other western nations – a development that is proving an uncomfortable reality. Since the end of the First World War, Canada, like other western nations, has been clearly unsuccessful at transmitting to the next generation those public virtues of economic restraint and the benefit of considering the future social growth of the nation. We have instead excelled at distributing temporary wealth and goods galore, often to the detriment of our children’s future. Rather than creating a new romance for the progressive nature of our public life, we have instead grown passionate about our own various sets of special interests, each vying with one another for air time, funding and political clout.

To the extent that the last century broke free of the economic, cultural and social bonds of the past, it is because the hopes of ordinary Canadians prevailed over the vested interests of those running the state. We are in danger of losing that outlook because we’ve been too busy pursuing our own respective interests. How do we bring all these groups, each with a differing task but sharing a clear desire for democratic renewal, together in order to return to progressivism? To this problem we now turn.

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