The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: progress

The Authoritarians

Perhaps more interesting than the subject of exactly where Donald Trump came from to seize the ultimate prize of the American political system is to wonder where were all the people who came out of obscurity to vote for him. The same way that nobody really gave Trump a chance early in U.S. election cycle, the same forces failed almost completely to spot the millions who would emerge to eventually put him into the Oval Office. It’s called populism, and in its own way it’s kind of crazy.

A few years ago, the term “populism” was rarely heard, let alone capable of overthrowing entire governments. But now that it’s here, everyone is jumping on board and talking about how it could realign politics and democracy to work with the average citizen. That’s merely wishful thinking and deserves more consideration.

As Trump surged towards the White House, a CBS News piece talked of a huge wave of populism propelling the billionaire to victory. It also sounded kind of heroic in a way – the people rising up to overthrow the elites and take their country back. It seemed sentimentally revolutionary. But then an exit poll on Election Day by the same CBS News discovered that in South Carolina, 75% of Republican voters wanted to ban Muslims entirely from the United States. A few hours later, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) press release reported that a full one-third of Trump voters supported banning gays and lesbians from the country. More shockingly, 20% said Abraham Lincoln was wrong in his efforts and shouldn’t have freed the slaves. If this was populism, it was hardly what people were expecting. It must be acknowledged that millions of Trump supporters are neither racist or bigots; they are merely looking for change and a better chance at life.

It’s assumed that this new emergence of populism is based on the desire to get rid of the elites in charge of democratic regimes around the world. That’s too simplistic, as two American researchers – Jonathan Weiler and Marc Heatherington – unearthed to their surprise. Following a number of experiments, tests and data analysis, they discovered that most of the great disruption in American politics was not merely the byproduct of partisanship, money, or outright political manipulation, but the presence and emergence of one electoral group that nobody had really counted on – authoritarians.

In other words, much of populism is looking for leaders to take charge, and right now it tends to be more the neo-liberal elites they are after. They want the strong man, or woman, who will just seize the reigns of government and begin casting off the effects of all those Left and Centre-Left political experiments that have been going on in this past half-century. And neither is it merely an American phenomenon.

Back in 1880 to 1900, when the word “populism” rose to ascendancy, it was significant enough that it threw the traditional political system into disarray. Citizens rebelled, insisting on economic equality. That sounds pretty good, but as Conservative author Peter Viereck wrote of that time, underneath all the economic desire for fairness, “seethed a mania of xenophobia, Jew-baiting, and thought-controlling lynch-spirit.” And then when famed “populist” George Wallace ran for office he used the slogan “Trust the People.” The problem was that he was a white supremacist and avowed racist at the time, yet he received a huge following, not regardless, but because of his stance.

This brings us back to the study of Weiler and Heatherington. They looked hard into their data and concluded that the Republicans, initially campaigning on the traditional planks of law and order and family values, unwittingly drew, through Trump’s candidacy, a huge group of voters who were both Democrat and Republican, or neither, and who had a hankering for authoritative values. Where traditional Republican candidates brought out the usual Republican followers, Donald Trump drew from disenchanted voters that just hadn’t appeared on the radar of partisans or pollsters. The two co-authors reasoned that, “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.” As the report concluded:

“This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which ‘activate’ authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.”

So when we’re talking about “populism,” we are talking of a phenomenon that has no real definition or identity, other than average citizens scrambling for change – the very thing that makes the term so acceptable for activists who believe in democracy. It is only over time that societies in places like America, Germany, Denmark, or even Canada, discover grassroots populism might also bring on grassroots bigotry, prejudice, and deep division within the citizenry itself. This is the shadow side of populism that every nation must guard itself against, as Holland proved in its remarkable election this week.

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.

 

 

 

Gandhi’s Seven Sins

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Part one of a new series on Gandhi’s Seven Sins.  Link to it here – goo.gl/6WOp8v

Canada’s Kind of World

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PERHAPS THE GREATEST TEMPTATION IN THE WORLD of government is the politics of the urgent, and in a world of bad news the pressure to “do something” becomes endless. The recent incident in Strathroy, Ontario, of a man suspected of plotting a terrorist attack only provides further fodder for those concerned over the presently precarious state of the world. Turkey, Syria, France, mass shootings, individual acts of madness – all of these occurrences are pressing on the Canadian government at once, with pundits endlessly reminding us that something has to be done before our planet blows up.

But there is another world out there – a global place of collaboration and effectiveness that continues to get glossed over in favour of front page headlines. It is the kind of world that Canada excels at, and has for decades, and which runs concurrently with the other more alarming dimension that seems bent on violence and which gains almost the entirety of media coverage.

We rarely hear of the victories being won against the worst of the planet’s poverty, for instance, but the president of the World Bank, Jim Young Kim, says that it is the “best story in the world today.” In 1993, almost two billion people lived on less than two dollars a day. But as the world came together to support the Millennial Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, in a more coordinated fashion, extreme poverty began to drop fast. And it continues to do so. Today that number stands at 700 million – a drop of almost 60% in just two decades.

How about education? According to UNESCO, the UN’s education arm, the last 15 years has seen a drop of almost 50% – 100 million to 57 million – of those children who had no access to schooling whatsoever. Before 1980, only 50% of girls in poorer countries finished primary school – a number that now stands at 85%. And where less than 50% of women could read and write, that number now stands at 93%. This is a remarkable achievement by any measure.

In a report released by Global Findex, we discover that between 2011 and 2015 an extra 700 million people from 140 countries gained access to finance for the first time. New mobile money accounts are resulting in tens of thousands of new businesses being established where before there was only grinding poverty. A portion of the success has been the access to the Internet that is presently revolutionizing the developing world through cell phones, especially in Africa, which has seen access to the Internet climb 51% in just five years. Right now, some 3.2 billion people can get online, but 2 billion of them are from developing countries. To understand the scale of this, back in 2000 only 300 million people could get on the Internet and only a third of those were from the developing world – an eight-fold increase.

The advances in healthcare are equally as staggering. Malaria cases have declined precipitously – 50% since 2000. Almost 7 billion people (91% of the global population) now are using improved clean water sources – a figure that stood at 76% in 1990. HIV cases have dropped by one-third. In 1960, 22% of children born in the developing world died before their fifth birthday; today that number is 5%.

The list of such advancements could go on and on, including income rise, the political empowerment of women, the decline of war worldwide, and the advance of democracy in developing nations. Better coordination among donor nations, improved ethical leadership in developing nations, and the success of globalization in these sectors have made the difference.

This is the world in which Canada excels and has contributed to in significant fashion. Successive Conservative and Liberal governments, with frequent insights and prodding from social activists in the NDP, Green, and even the Bloc parties have placed Canada squarely in the centre of global improvement. This is the Canadian influence Justin Trudeau inherited and must build upon. More than any other time in world history, success in these areas has risen to remarkable heights – a feat almost totally ignored by modern media.

From global emergency aid to longer-term international development investments, from micro-finance programs to Canadian business investment, and from peacekeeping to the modernization of our military – all of these are presently under an internal review in Ottawa and will take their time to roll out. In the meantime, however, Canada’s decades-long investment in improving the development of humanity is achieving remarkable heights. The Trudeau government, pundits, and Canadians, in general, would do well to keep all this in mind, even as we seek to respond to the immediacy of the global terrorist threat.

 

When Cities Define Us

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“EVERY PERSON IS DEFINED BY THE COMMUNITIES she belongs to,” says author Orson Card. Depending on where you live, that could be encouraging or disillusioning. In the realm of city building, many don’t wish to be defined by municipalities that seem to be falling behind, but would rather be seen as part and parcel of smart cities doing intelligent things as they move into the future.

London, Ontario, is living through such a moment, and some see it as a crucible. The current subject under debate is Light Rail Transit (LRT) versus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Some view LRT as a sign that we are committed to the future, whereas others prefer BRT as a more affordable decision to manage the present. In unexpected fashion it has become a difficult debate over the soul of the city.

Cities can enable us or disable us. They represent the environment in which we must deal with one another, either as a place to merely live or a community in which to grow. In a modern and complex world where everything seems to proceed at the speed of light, the collective decision to take a pass can prove a death knell to cities that are increasingly in competition with one another. It is what happens when communities, like a book, have lots of characters and events but little plot or narrative. Cities can become places where we merely organize collective human life or transcend the daily expectations to create a more dynamic future.

We must build into those places where we live the values that are the most precious to us, not merely those helping us to survive. In effect, a city becomes the ardent symbol of how we see our future or it lingers on as symbol of endless compromise. In a world where politics becomes the prime example of managing expectations, the main goal becomes keeping the peace instead of building a dynamic, fluid place.

I have always had a deep respect for the observation made by Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” But what happens if a good portion of the population has no interest in creating but merely taking from the benefits a city offers? Should this number reach a critical mass, then community begins to die and most times isn’t aware of it.

Perhaps we should ask the simplest of questions: What are cities for? It was a lot clearer in the past. Cities were required for protection against marauding forces. They were the large place where the faithful congregated and created a sense of the spiritual and where clans gathered together. They were the primary source of market economies owing to their larger agricultural setting.

The complexities of the modern world have easily caused cities to rise above these historic limitations in order to become intersections of a more global humanity. If a modern city is to have any chance it must answer this more international call of its citizens. It is a cosmopolitanism taken to new levels by more liberalized immigration and refugee policies, by markets that trade goods in a millisecond, and through technologies that put people in touch with one another wherever there is a connection.

All this creates a new kind of citizen – connected, smart, and collaborative. Cities that refuse to absorb this emerging reality into their fabric, culture, infrastructure, and communications aren’t merely suffering from lethargic leadership but unimaginative citizens – we create our own world. Because of the sheer quantities of creativity in modern cities, leaders must make room for citizens to take part in the designing of their own future – individual and collective.

Cities are like dreams, driven by either desire or fear. Those municipalities that struggle are more often guided by hesitation and insecurity, and that is often a reflection of the citizens themselves. Far better to be incentivized by a sense of the audacious than to be dulled in our senses by the desire to undertake only what’s manageable.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours,” wrote Italo Calvino. Cities begin to fade when their citizens no longer ask questions of how to better live together.

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