The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: populism

Sanders and Trump: The Jig is Up

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IT’S TIME FOR ALL POLITICIANS TO LISTEN to Nick Hanauer, an American billionaire who actually came out last month to say, “When they (the financial industry) say that the better profits are, the better it will be for everybody, I’m the one who can say ‘That’s a lie. ‘ “

And a lie it is. Those pundits studying the tea leaves to ascertain Donald Trump’s or Bernie Sander’s appeal are looking in the wrong place. They simply have to walk through most neighbourhoods, or sit down in coffee shops throughout America, to figure it out.

Here’s how Leonard Steinhorn from American University laid it out.

  • the Great Recession “flatlined” the lives and aspirations of millions of Americans
  • comparable jobs just didn’t come back following the financial downturn
  • one-third of Americans making between $30,000 – $100,000 per year report that their finances haven’t recovered
  • middle-class families saw their median wealth drop by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013
  • the middle-class is now effectively on the outside looking in
  • the top one percent captured 58 percent of all income growth between 2009 and 2014 – a greater share of the national paycheque than at any time in the last 100 years
  • employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years
  • according to a 2015 Pew survey, 7 in 10 Americans say government has helped large banks, financial institutions, corporations, and the wealthy and done little to help the average family

There we have it – a powerful narrative that doesn’t emanate from some political leader but from the experience and lack of expectations of most citizens in the United States. This is what happens when good people who played by the rules feel out of the loop. Even now the Republican candidates are collectively calling for a relaxation of financial restraints for the big players, and more tax cuts for them as well. And the Democratic Party is seen to be complicit in the present sense of stasis in the nation and have governed federally over the decade of malaise.

Put simply the “jig is up” and Americans from all sides of the political spectrum are railing against a political elite they have come to regard as sluggish at best, uncaring at worst. It is this pressing reality that the media establishment never spotted on the horizon. Now they can’t get enough the populism that is erupting behind Sanders and Trump.

Canada has just been through a pivotal election, but even in this country the political and media elites underestimated just how deep the current for change ran throughout the country. The opposition parties learned to their regret that a makeover of the status quo would suffice to placate this angst in voters. While the Trudeau Liberals caught the wave of change on their way to majority government, the great danger they now face is to lose touch with that raw nerve of a citizenry that brought them power and now appears anxious for something more substantial than they have received in years.

Note: This blog post is also available to be read at National Newswatch here.

The Ticking Time Bomb Sanders and Trump Both Share

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WATCHING WHAT’S OCCURRING IN THE POLITICAL primaries south of the border is like nothing we have really experienced before. Those who thought just a few years ago that Sarah Palin was likely the most extreme establishment candidate to come along now stare agog at how Donald Trump has blown up the long-held “rites of passage” in American politics. It is likely few believed in this era that a serious political candidate running for president would run so afoul of facts that he could say what he wished and get away with it. Moreover, his willingness to entertain the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., or banning Muslims from the country, would have been thought of as political suicide only a few short years ago. But here Trump is, in vital contention for the presidency, and with a large following.

Like Trump, Bernie Sanders is an independent political force establishing himself within the mainstream of traditional party politics in an election year. But the Vermont senator has been an experienced, savvy, and proven political operative compared to Trump. In late 2014, most American media franchises said that Sanders simply didn’t have the clout or the connection with the average voter to turn in any kind of serious campaign. They were all wrong and now each one is covering him in equal measure to Hillary Clinton. Sanders is also promoting ideas that traditional Democrats would have thought unworkable a decade ago. His policies can find acceptance with the party, but it’s his perspective that is the true challenge. It’s not what he wants to build, but what to break up that makes him a true revolutionary – big banks, media monopolies, billionaire democracy.

So, we have an evolving set of political phenomena south of the border that serves as a direct challenge to politics itself and how it has functioned for decades. Traditional candidates in two established parties are struggling for some kind of footing, while two independents, different as night and day, continue to capture the hearts and minds of voters.

We are witnessing a populism explosion that few expected and which could be signaling the demise of democracy in America instead of its rebirth – we just aren’t sure. To maintain that the traditional parties have embedded themselves in a deep collusion with big money, with Wall Street, and with vested interests would be correct. They guarded and guided a political system that over a few decades tolerated, even shaped, the great challenges we face today. So, yes, some kind of “reset” is required.

What both Trump and Sanders have tied into isn’t so much a change as it is a shaping of the burgeoning anger average people feel towards the political and financial institutions themselves. Just as in Canada, where many overlooked or dismissed the deeper yearning for change felt by Canadians and which the Liberals surfed on to majority, Americans, too, have caught the pundits unprepared for how they have expressed similar urges.

To say that populism is on the rise would be an understatement, but it is what it truly wants that can be troubling. Bernie Sanders understands that Americans are fed up with the political and financial classes, but his solutions to that angst revolve around reforming the institutions themselves into workable units that can strengthen employment, education, the economy, healthcare, even tackle climate change. He understands that political parties, colleges, financial businesses, and healthcare institutions have arisen out of legitimate need to assist citizens to move forward in life. When they are broken, fix them.

Trump, on the other hand, sees institutions as a kind of roadblock to popular rule. Somehow he has been able to parlay voter anger into a kind of weaponry against elitism when he is, in fact, the ultimate elitist himself. It defies full understanding, but it is a reality, and it is now a force.

This is what Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous 19th century French observer laid out in his now infamous book Democracy in America. He believed that a free people required restraints if they were to progress their way into the future. And he believed that a healthy people live their collective life out in institutions as the best chance for advancing society – they touch one another through them.  Ultimately, he fretted that the “tyranny of the majority” would someday destroy America by removing the very civil and legal rights that had initially made it a light to the world. He perceived mob rule as eventually doing away with the historic lessons of inclusion America had come to represent. It would seem that building walls and deporting or banning entire cultures of people would fit into that category.

We don’t know how the American election will work out, but this much we understand: people are angry. Should that anger focus itself on making institutions relevant again, then democracy will find its renaissance.  If it results in collectively avoiding or ignoring institutions, or the primary responsibility of citizens towards one another, will have the opposite result. Right now those two possibilities are playing out in real-time in America.

Devouring Social Capital

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WHEN CANADIAN MARK CARNEY LEFT his post as the head of the Bank of Canada to take on the prestigious role as the Bank of England’s governor, it was like he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. That was almost 18 months ago and times have been turbulent for the world economy, including Britain’s. He was deemed a typical mild-mannered Canadian who would bring a sense of stability. So when he was asked to speak at England’s prestigious Guild Hall to the country’s elites no one was expecting anything out of the ordinary.. They should have been better prepared.

He surprised everyone when he launched into his view of how capitalism itself is at risk. “Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself,” he offered at the beginning of his speech, to which the room grew deathly quiet.

Carney talked about how the affluent nations had subtly morphed from being market economies to market societies and how that fundamentally changed everything. He said he worried about the “mistrust” that was clearly growing between citizens and the global financial order..

Then he went on to describe how investment needs to change if capitalism is to save itself. “Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital.” In case people wondered about what he meant by “social” capital, he defined it as, “the links, shared values and beliefs in a society which encourage individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.” The eerie silence in the room continued..

Carney reminded his audience that six years after the economic crisis, the core problem remained, with little desire among the financial elites to remedy it. And the longer they took to address it, the more populists movements were growing, both in developing and developed nations, and they were getting increasingly angry. What else should we expect, he argued, “when bankers make enormous sums, while taxpayers pick up the tag for their failures.”

And then he gave his prescriptions to remedy the ailment. 1) recreate fair and effective markets with real transparency and make every effort, through codes of conduct and regulatory obligations, to instill “a new integrity;” 2) curtail compensation offering large bonuses for short-term returns; 3) end the kind of investment that overvalues the present and the discounting of the future; 4) above all, understand that “the answers start from recognizing that financial capitalism is not an end in itself, but a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity for all.

Governor Carney closed by reminding those listening that human beings matter. He found it ironic that in an age that has seen poverty getting better in the developing world there has also been a spread of new poverty in the affluent nations. He concluded with the belief that it is the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world, and capitalism itself.

Then the mild-mannered Canadian sat down following prophetic utterances that not only showed his human grasp of capitalism, but served as a warning that if economies are all about money and not people, then there is no way out of our present financial mess.

Experience: The Lifeblood of Leadership

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SHE DIDN’T START OUT WITH HER PRESENT position, but where she has ended up has placed her at the epicentre of the political/economic debate in America. In 1978, Congress had passed a law making it easier for individuals and companies to declare bankruptcy. It had upset Elizabeth Warren and so she, “set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters and that those declaring bankruptcy should be exposed, “because they were just taking advantage of the rest of us.”

She was smart, shrewd, and had research assistants to prove her case. The problem was, she was wrong. The research revealed that the vast majority of those in bankruptcy courts were from hardworking middle-class families, or from small businesses, who had their life savings wiped out. “It changed my vision,” she said. With her researchers she set about to explore what those forces were that were creating all the financial havoc. Things were convoluted at first but it wasn’t long until she came to understand that the lending and financial institutions had successfully worked themselves a sweet deal. It was this “Damascus experience,” as she called it, that redirected her life until she ended up in politics.

What most forget is that Warren is a senior, born in 1949 – a reality that saw her witness both the rise and the fall of the great American middle-class experiment. Her own personal life tracks the experiences of that journey and she not only tells it convincingly, she still bears the scars of that narrative. Her age and her intelligence are precisely what qualify her for speaking to all generations about the great economic turbulence that has turned a once stable middle-class world upside down. “If we hollow out the middle-class,” she says, “then the country we know has gone.”

It’s that language, coming from a voice of experience and poignancy, that has created enemies unlike any she has faced previously. One Republican congressman called her a liar on national television, even though the statistics proved her correct. She has also been labelled incompetent, power-hungry, ignored, and perhaps worst of all, a media whore. The over-the-top comments aren’t reserved merely for Republicans; some officials in the Obama administration have proved equally as ignorant. One member of the banking association who is one of the few members from the sector who supports her call for reform, Roger Beverage, put it plainly: “They are all blaming her for something they all swore would never happen.” Exactly. This isn’t something that merely happened to the financial industry; they helped cause it and pave the way for the fantastic earnings it would bring their elite members. Politicians on both sides of the divide have facilitated this injustice against financial equity and they jointly speak out against anyone who points out their culpability – especially a woman as eloquent and powerful as Senator Warren.

She is more than intelligent, more than courageous, and more than tough. Warren is haunted and motivated by the experience of watching as her country’s greatest asset – a remarkable and robust middle-class – is permitted to slide into despair by financial and political barons that should have known better. Nothing is more powerful than a woman or man empowered by ideals seasoned by personal experience.

Do yourself a favour and read her remarkable story and insight in A Fighting Chance. Better yet, listen to the audio version as I did (downloaded from our local public library for free). There is something about her voice that has the timber of a woman who openly admits her shortcomings but refuses to shy away from her beliefs. The first half of the book chronicles the very human story of a woman attempting to juggle so many responsibilities but who could never permit the lessons of government and financial failures to be put to the side. Warren is one of those remarkable people who fights for more than her own survival and empowerment, offering her life and experience to an entire country despite the personal cost.

Citizens will only trust those who, in turn, trust them. In 65-year old Elizabeth Warren, millions of women and men have at last encountered a politician whose experience has mirrored theirs, but whose courage to fight for all has given hope in a troubled age. In most cases, experience matters far more than opinion and she has it in abundance.  The secret to political reform lies not in the politician but in the citizen who demands the best for their family and community. In this one seminal woman comes the reminder that it’s never politics that changes citizens, but the other way around.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

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FOR THOSE POLITICAL AND FINANCIAL LEADERS who don’t necessarily like hearing that the status quo is under deep suspicion by citizens, communities, and groups worldwide, here are a couple of other headaches for you. Your problems are growing.

Universities have always been seedbeds of reform and activism, but many will be surprised to learn that on campuses across Europe, in Tel Aviv, and New York, students of economics have gained ground in raising their opposition to their peers and mentors who feel that their field is a science and that there is little can be done. Not so, says the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics – a fancy name but with a gutsy mandate.

We want to ultimately create a space in which economic solutions to society’s problems can be generated.  United across borders, we call for a change of course in economics.

You can’t get much more resolved than that and I trust capitalist leaders are listening.

The student’s movement, and those like it, are saying it’s time to take economics out of the sterile lab and into the highways and byways of where people actually live. And they are driven by anger. Following the economic crash of 2008 and the financial sector’s quick return to business as usual, these movements called for change, only to be ignored across the board by those in the very field they were studying in universities across the globe. Of course economics is something of a science and these students are learning their craft, but it is also about people and populations, environmental degradation and poverty, community decline and the lack of political will. They are marching to the call that it’s time science and humanity came together for economies that actually work and don’t just leave these challenges in stasis.

In another development, on May 22, a conference titled, “The New Populism” is being held in Washington D. C. and features the highly popular Senator Elizabeth Warren as its keynote speaker. It’s a tough conference for the financial and political elites to ignore when people like Warren are participating.

Two years of polling has revealed that Americans are becoming increasingly more populist in political outlook and community-driven in their economic priorities. They, too, are angry and starting to fight back over what they perceive as huge indulgences among the elite when so many citizens have fallen by the wayside following the economic meltdown. It was their hope that things would change following the financial calamity, but when corporate and political leaders managed to protect their increased financial rewards from legal scrutiny, people began organizing at significant enough levels to capture national attention.

In so many ways, Elizabeth Warren has unleashed the floodgates of populism and is a rarity – a popular politician prepared to take on the system and call it to account. Her bestselling book and frequent pointed questions at committee hearings have given confidence to citizens who previously stood on the fringe in their anger, but who now have come together to accomplish exactly what Warren has called for – a citizen’s alternative to the prevailing elitism. The website populistmajority.org unveiled some polling that, if true, speak to new tensions ahead. Among the findings:

  • More than half of those polled think the problems that led to the financial crisis have not been fixed
  • Two-thirds believe that Wall Street financial institutions actually make it harder to find good jobs
  • Two-thirds believe there should be more government oversight of financial institutions
  • Nine out of ten believe it is important to regulate financial services in order to ensure fairness toward customers
  • 83% believed financial leaders should be held accountable for actions that result in considerable negative effects on society in general

It’s no accident that most of the interest in the movement finds its source on the centre-left side of the political spectrum, yet the targets of their outrage including well-known Democratic and independent leaders like Bill Clinton and even President Obama for coalescing around the financially comfortable when so many have been thrown under the financial juggernaut.

As you would expect, there are many naysayers, and yet these two movements – students of economics and populism – are gaining a level of attraction and attention unseen in years. And they are going right after the heart of economic and political indifference. Their real power might not be in their astute arguments but in the sense of fervor they can create in societies growing restless for economic and political change. Even if they are doomed like those manning the ramparts in Les Miserables, shouting: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again,” they will ultimately usher in a movement of social and financial equality that can yet capture the hearts of a citizenship remained dormant too long. The next generation is coming and hopefully it gains success before we have wasted our human future.

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