The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Politics

The Process of Becoming

This post can be found in its original London Free Press format here.

“I suppose that a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one,” wrote Mavis Gallant in 1981, to which she added a personal note: “My logical reason is that I have never been anything else, nor has it occurred to me that I might be.”

As we celebrate our country’s 150th birthday today, it’s likely that, in a world full of turmoil and identity crises, millions of Canadians will move through the day in the spirit of Gallant – peaceful, quietly thankful and usually pleasant.

It’s odd that this placid reason for being has survived the tumults of the modern era. Identity struggles are epic across the globe. China, Syria, Britain, Germany, France, Venezuela, and, of course, a deeply divided America – these and many like them are in the throes of questioning their past, fighting through the present, and seeking a different kind of future. This phenomenon has been with us for more some time, causing political scientist Samuel Huntington to ask, “Who are we? Where do we belong?”

Since our birth as a nation we were led to believe that our national character has been formed by three great influences: Britain, France and the United States. We have accommodated the most useful of these societies and tossed out the rest. But only lately have we come to discover that this country’s original indigenous populations were rarely given the opportunity to disseminate the best of their cultural values, natural spirituality, and innate knowledge of this land we call home. For all of our pride about this country, this particular aspect of our past remains our greatest blemish and challenge.

How we have changed in recent decades. We are now far more vast and diverse a people than ever in our history. The world leaves great portions of itself in us as families from every culture expand on what was once familiar and comfortable to us. We are now something “more,” a greater expression of what we once were. We have absorbed so much human character and yet, unlike the current fate of other nations, haven’t come apart – the centre yet holds. We are neither a military or economic superpower, but we are what nations of such magnitude envy – a good people capable of compromise. For all our flaws and imperfections we have refused the path of hatred.

But we are being tested. The greatest changes in our democracy are technology and diversity. We have always had our divisions – East vs. West, North vs. South, English vs. French, rural vs. urban, generation vs. generation – and we have found sufficient accommodation to live in a wary peace. Yet with rapid advances in technology has come the transformational possibility of jumping over historical social boundaries and learning of one another. Nevertheless a new meanness has also been unleashed on the land as citizens use the same technologies to spread animosity, fear, racism and hatred in a fashion that knows no sense of respect, of humility, or even basic decency. These aren’t forces running through our streets, but through our digital networks, and increasingly in our heads. This has become the greatest threat to our bonhomie and will require all of us to raise our standard of collective self-respect.

We have much to protect, attitudes to overcome, and greatness to strive for. But for the moment – this moment – we are the envy of the world for how we have balanced our wealth, our vast natural resources, sense of global responsibility, and our ability to keep it together despite the same pressures that confront other nations. We have become the venerable Swiss Army knife of global utility. Need technological leadership? We are qualified. Peacekeepers? It’s in our national DNA. A righting of wrongs against indigenous communities? We’re working on it, as we are gender equality. An ability to transcend our divisions? That’s been our whole history.

We are fully in the world and an essential part to it. We have been to Dieppe, Dunkirk and D-Day. We flow through the very sinews of the United Nations and global hope. We have invented, skated, taught, sacrificed, and cared for the marginalized of the world, and the respect shown to us is something to which every person travelling with a Canadian flag on their backpack can attest.

We are a people in process and we are not yet as socially just as we will be. But the better angels of our natures still tempt us with the possibilities of sacrifice for the greater good. In an aging and troubled world 150 years is nothing. We are still young enough to believe in our ideals and our ability to turn them into transformation change. We are in the process of “becoming” and a 150th birthday is as good a time to celebrate that as any. Happy Canada Day.

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

This post can be viewed in its original National Newswatch format here.

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

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.

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