The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

Democracy in a Box

Those of us in the affluent West hold to the belief that certain political realities remain sacrosanct. Rule of law, political representation, will of the people, elections, civic duty – these have become so entrenched in our thoughts that we believe them immutable. And situated at the peak is that one great word that encompasses them all – democracy. For all its many flaws, it remains our preferred method of government.

The problem is that none of that is certain anymore, as the decades have introduced complexities that confound even the most stable governments. When Alan Moore, in his V is for Vendetta, wrote that, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people,” it was assumed that only one of these could exist in a single moment. But we are now learning that our modern democracy is furthering both at the same time. Rampant populism is only the most recent example of how the great democratic experiment of the last two centuries has slipped its moorings and sailed into troubled waters.

The term democracy can now mean many things, not all of them true to its original intent of citizens being granted certain rights regardless of who is in power. Indeed, the protection of these liberties by way of constitutions, civil rights, and separate branches of government was democracy’s greatest responsibility.

Yet while most countries call themselves democratic today, a good number of them use force and coercion to keep their people in submission to their autocratic rule. By delinking government from its responsibility to the individuality of its citizens, these rulers – most of them ironically elected – have taken democracy off in new directions for which it wasn’t intended. For a century, Western governments attempted, often crudely, to persuade less-developed nations to extend more liberties to their people. Leaders of those receiving nations most often justified their need for Western resources in order to free their nations from the more brutal practices of history. They then used those tools designed to enhance democracy and drove their people back into the shadows of a despotic past.

Efforts to export democracy to struggling nations were frequently mixed with ulterior motives and an almost complete lack of understanding of a region’s history. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Sudan, Rwanda, are but some of the more recent examples of naïve foreign policy run amok.

Troubling as these developments were, Western governments necessarily drew a certain comfort by comparing their advanced democratic institutions with the perceived crude efforts of those they were attempting to assist in other corners of the world.

Now such comparisons are often moot. It remains a very difficult thing to assert you have the political and economic solutions the developing world needs when you tolerate growing poverty levels, increases in violence, gender inequality, and the blind disregard of your own indigenous people. This becomes a democratic nightmare when it is your own citizens that express their disenchantment in huge number. Political instability becomes the present companion in every election and politicians adopt the torturous process of trying to be all things to all people, while ending up as bland versions of their former principled selves.

Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past week revealed just how confounding this whole democracy definition has become. The sight of a constitution-avoiding Western leader leveraging military and economic deals with a Saudi leadership that has turned civic oppression into something of an art only further blurs the lines between true democracy and it’s many modern pretenders. The result is confusion and hypocrisy. Or as the Washington Post reported: “Trump has preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.” So much for democracy’s moral high ground.

You can’t just unpack democracy as if it’s a “one-size-fits-all” bromide. It remains the most arduous political task in the world today, involving dedicated effort by citizens and those they elect. Professing democracy while denying people their democratic rights shouldn’t be fooling anybody. Voting has little effect when your only emotion towards the political order is one of fear. Mark Twain wasn’t just joking when he said, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” The essence of democracy is turning that vote into the most powerful political act by a liberated and protected people.

 

Catch and Release

This post was originally published at National Newswatch here.

Author Chris Gould, in his Aristotle: Politics, Ethics and Desirability, made the rather sage observation that, “the best promises forever seem to be made by amnesiacs.”  Politics has frequently been measured as the distance between what a politician promises and what is ultimately delivered. As voters themselves move all over the political map, those seeking their approval make ever more outlandish vows in order to secure their trust, and often fail to complete them.

The more this goes on – the over promising and under delivering – the more that essential ingredient of trust slips away from our democracy. We have reached a stage in the modern era life where politics itself has escaped the very democratic system it was supposed to guard and empower.  The generation that endured the deep disillusionment of Watergate and lost faith in democracy’s institutions, its ideals and its pragmatic ability to find commonality, never recovered.

Canadians. who endured years of Senate scandal, eventually grew to distrust and ignore the Upper Chamber, with many calling for its abolition. Even Justin Trudeau’s efforts to reform the Senate have so far failed to restore it to a place of respect, and perhaps more importantly, effectiveness. Trust has yet to be rebuilt.

Europe is currently walking a perilous tightrope as old institutions fall into disfavour, political leaders make outlandish claims, and citizens themselves collectively retreat from the comity that once spoke of a more hopeful future. Current French elections are only the most recent example of the creeping era of democratic distrust.

Throughout democracy’s history were numerous unorthodox figures and statements that frequently served to spice up debate and make the news more interesting. But many of today’s current leaders are, like Nixon, willing to undermine the very integrity of constitutions and revered political practice in order to achieve their ends. For them it is not enough to win; they must trounce the system, drain the swamp, get the voters to detest government itself, if they are to retain their popularity. In Harvard University Law Professor’s Jack Goldsmith’s view, it is now becoming the normal for a political leader to claim that “lawful is awful.”

All of this willingness to push beyond the limits of law and common sense has left the average citizen with the sense that nothing is politically sacred anymore – not common purpose, compromise, personal integrity, even law itself. The goal posts keep moving. The rules keep morphing. The characters keep changing. Yet, in all of it, little seems to be getting done. For all the talk of democratic reform, little changes. Lofty statements on the need to radically challenge the encroachment of climate change remain largely empty. Poverty remains stubbornly present and damning. Calls for political parties to cooperate on our greatest challenges have yet to successfully tear down the walls of animosity between them.

It’s the political equivalent of catch and release: use whatever bait it takes to hook the fish, but once it’s in the boat, toss it back into the water. Do or say whatever it takes to get the vote, even if it means undermining democracy itself, and then govern as though the only thing that matters is political survival.

Founding figures in both the United States and Canada launched their precarious experiments in democracy in the belief that only a commitment to high standards of human behaviour and respect, along with maintaining the abiding trust of citizens, could guarantee the success of their efforts.   It is becoming more evident that we are failing in that quest across the board – politicians for making promises that they sensibly can’t make, and citizens for continuing to vote for those moving more and more to the extremes. Abraham Lincoln understood this well enough to say:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Politicians around the world are going to have to work exceedingly hard to regain the trust of the voters and that will mean making sensible promises and working in collaboration to achieve them. And citizens must begin the process of finding and building on the common ground that was once the most expensive piece of public real estate, but one we are increasingly in danger of losing.

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.

Common Ground Remains Democracy’s Most Expensive Piece of Real Estate

Readers and viewers seem transfixed with the more extreme political movements across the world. Far from bringing the world closer together, these new developments threaten to disassociate us in ways we haven’t experienced in decades. All eyes are on politics these days.

Yet something else is bubbling beneath the surface that receives little attention but which is effectively cutting off our collective ability to meet the powerful challenges facing our modern world. For over two decades we have watched as hyper-partisanship has ripped the governing capabilities out of our politics, aligning each party into rigid positions that often make compromise and common ground almost impossible to achieve. That inflexibility has now spilled over into the citizenry and the results are eerily similar.

It was almost a year ago that Bill Clinton and journalist David Brooks labeled hyper-partisanship as the “governing cancer of our time” and little that has occurred in the past twelve months alters that reality. Brooks talked about those who “don’t recognize other people … don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions … don’t recognize restraints … want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.” We’ve all been around long enough to see the results of that kind of politics, but can we spot its emergence among citizens?

Repeated studies over the past decade have highlighted just how the different liberal and conservative temperaments in people have caused them to pull further apart from one another, talking past each other in the process.

Intrinsic in all of this has been our penchant to meet only with those of similar feelings to our own, to only befriend or follow those on social media who agree with us. A natural tendency, the results of such social isolation into similar outlooks has come to look more and more like those political parties who sincerely dislike one another and refuse to find that essential common ground that is necessary for progress. The negative effects of this in the political class prompted Irish playwright Sean O’Casey to note: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.” More than a few are now worried that this practice has carried over into how we treat one another as citizens.

While the operating principle in our modern politics has been partisanship, its equivalent in our communities has been polarization. There are good people in our communities who run solid businesses, create loving family environments, volunteer at charities, and pitch in to help their neighbours. The thing is that they might not agree with us on some issues of policy, but do retain many shared values which we hold. While many of these individuals remain silent, they are nevertheless fellow citizens who ride the same buses, have kids who play on the same sports teams as our own, and are just as patriotic as those who hold to different political persuasions.

The reality is, of course, that there are millions of such people around us. But what if our present course continues as citizens retreat from their shared culture of consensus? What happens when we need to come together for the sake of our children over some great universal challenge and discover we can’t?

Perhaps our greatest task as citizens is to show that we are actually capable of establishing a civic culture that eventually accomplishes what our heavily partisan politics lost. But that will require talking with respect, not trashing. It will need understanding, not umbrage, intelligence and not incitement. There’s nothing wrong with protesting; indeed, it’s our right and obligation as citizens. But so is the task of finding news ways of coming together. As Mike Sasso would put it in his Being Human: “Originality is the best form of rebellion.”

Protest we must because that is part and parcel of any healthy society, but added to our desire for change, or principled opposition, must come the willingness to sit down and deliberate together. The reaching out must start happening now before it becomes impossible. It was our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who said that, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should private citizens if we are to attain the country we all seek.

Down to You and Me

There is only one way that civil society makes sense, and that’s if we disagree – a lot. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but consider the average coffee shop banter in any local hangout.   You hear friends disagreeing all the time, most often with good-natured humour, but crossing verbal swords nonetheless. If civil society is to work, it must include everyone who wants to take part, and since we are all unique in our opinions and outlook on the world around us, it’s inevitable that there will be just as many points of view as there are people.

A troubling trend in recent years has been the propensity for citizens to expend great energy with those who mostly agree with them, primarily online. It’s natural that human beings seek out likemindedness in others, but if we only end up in separate camps of thought, how can a neighbourhood, a city, a country, even the world, bring all of these constituencies together? Historically, civil society organizations – service clubs, churches, neighbourhood associations, even community-minded businesses – brought together great varieties of people for causes greater than just giving opinions. And to a large degree they worked, not because one viewpoint won out over another, but because people attended to take on a vastly bigger task than merely gathering – supporting charities, building schools (or fighting to keep them open), helping flood victims, holding fundraisers for hospitals or soup kitchens, and so many more worthy initiatives.

It’s important to be civil when in public, but that only serves as the springboard for greater things. To comprehend this better, it’s good to consider how the word civil and polite came about.

Civil originally came from the Latin term civilis, which meant “relating to a citizen” and to his or her ability to move through public life. Politics and polite have similar beginnings. Essentially polite meant “smooth,” denoting the idea not so much of sophistication but the ability to get along well with others. Put all this together and we see that civil society is designed to be populated and empowered by citizens who developed the ability to work together for the community’s good.

It is this precise element that seems to have gone largely missing in our professional politics of the day. Whether it’s due to gross partisanship, animosity, or lack of fitting work experience, the dysfunctional politics on display today can hardly be defined as “smooth” or “civil.” Around much of the world harsh political conflagrations seem to have become the order of the day. With Donald Trump’s inauguration only a few days away, and with the sabre rattling emanating from both sides of the political spectrum, it remains a difficult thing to hold out much hope that the democratic decline in recent decades can be reversed. And as long as citizens themselves remain deeply divided on issues it could be that democracy’s best days are now behind us.

It is up to citizens to see what they make of this – any political success will now depend on their ability to choose and channel their elected representatives towards the great task before us. This isn’t about parties so much anymore but people and it’s unknown if we are up to the task. The old sage Walt Whitman comprehended this truth better than most when he wrote, some ironically, in his By Blue Ontario’s Shore:

O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,

Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,

Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,

Its Congress is you and me …

Natural and artificial are you and me,

Freedoms, language, poems, employments are you and me,

Past, present, future, are you and me.

 

I dare not shirk any part of myself,

Not any part of America good or bad.

Democracy can only be functional when the great, moving mass of humanity somehow discover a way to bring themselves and their differences to the table and hammer out a future together. Realistically, politics is all about conflict – each person or group or association with their own likes and dislikes. The secret is to manage the tensions – not by merely electing representatives, but being polite and civic ourselves, as citizens. If we can’t accomplish that, then chaos can’t be far off.

 

 

 

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