The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: progressivism

Game On

Yesterday I received a phone call from a CTV reporter in another part of the country – a friend from the old days. He said he wanted to pick my brains about the Ontario election because he had been reading my recent blogs and wondered if I really believed progressivism was alive and well in this country.

He was basing his argument on the belief that Canada is becoming more Conservative as the years pass, effectively isolating people like me in the process. I laughingly told him he had drunk too much Kool-aid.

Why had he arrived at such a simplistic conclusion? Didn’t Prince Edward Island just finish an election in which Liberals, under Robert Ghiz, were returned with a majority government? What about Manitoba, where the NDP were returned with another majority? Today is Ontario’s turn, but it’s unlikely the Progressive Conservatives under Tim Hudak  will win or form any kind of majority. Why? Because he isn’t a “progressive” Conservative at all, but a slash-and-burn retrofit from the Harris era.

Each party has its strengths and weaknesses, yet in reality it’s getting harder to detect a Conservative sweep across the country. In fact, it appears as though some voters, long dormant, are beginning to fight back against an ideology. The stirrings of a backlash are beginning to make themselves felt. Voters might not take to government or politicians much these days, but they detest even more those who would threaten to take away any remaining vestige of the public space from them. They are tired of a politics of constant attacks, especially when it’s the subtle kind that seeks to suppress voters, turn them into ideological partisans, or ignore their own personal needs altogether in pursuit of power.

The Conservative slant in this country has angled towards what Benjamin DeMott calls “junk politics.” It never demands fair play, a fighting chance for the middle class against corporatism, or the right to call together the various regions of the country. Heck, it’s now at the point where it doesn’t even demand that its political candidates show up for public debates, where they can be tested against other platforms and have their facts checked by media sources. It personalizes issues but never clarifies them. It pretends to fight for the little guy while at the same time rigging the game against him. It pretends to care about the poor while institutionalizing poverty. It finds it real strength in the anonymity of the corporate state and it is determined to prevail, regardless of the national decline.

This isn’t Progressive Conservatism I’m talking about, but its radical, right-wing cousin that is seeking to infiltrate the progressive ranks by introduce rampant ideology. Progressive Conservatives are waking up to this reality and soon enough there will be push back from within their own circles.

When others trumpet the rise of the Right or the inevitable slide towards Conservative ideology, they ignore completely what happened in PEI, Manitoba, or likely Ontario. But they can’t ignore what’s developing within their own cloistered circles. When a true Progressive Conservative like Alison Redford wins the leadership of her party in Alberta, a slow change is afoot. Radical Conservatism’s efforts to effectively dismantle the institutions of social democracy are flying into stiff winds in Canada as compared to the United States. There comes a point where if you continue to kill public institutions you effectively kill citizenship as well. It is too soon to tell whether this rise to progressivism is in fact strong enough to actually become a trend of strength. That will depend more on the desire of citizens than the appeal of political parties. But we have now been at it long enough to detect the feet of clay in the rampant desires of the radicals on the Right. We are in a state of flux, but at least as provinces like Ontario, Manitoba or PEI reveal, there is now a true fight for the heart of the citizen. That, at least, is progress.

Today, I head to the voting booth with my family to vote for a Liberal candidate and a provincial Liberal party that I feel is best positioned to protect my children and those who society has forgotten. You, too, will vote your conscience and for the party or candidate of your choice. But I suspect there will be a growing reticence to opt for an ideology that continues to undermine our public performance. Regardless of the result, it’s game on, and progressives across the land, including those from all political parties are no longer having to struggle so hard against the wind.

The Thirty-year Memory

For many citizens, especially the progressive kind, there remains a deep and latent desire to rediscover a Canada that is not so divided along economic, social and regional lines. As the years pass, it feels as if it’s becoming more of a dream than a real possibility. Ottawa doesn’t so much reflect the divisions of Canada as it exacerbates them, willfully promoting the seeds of animosity as opposed to finding new levels of cooperation whereby we can all pull together to prepare for the gathering storm.

Enough money exists to solve our most basic problems – more than at any time in history. Yet an increasing amount of the wealth created has gone to the people at the top and this lies at the heart of our predicament. Our real challenge isn’t so much balancing a global economy, presently sailing too close to the rocks, but to actually restructure it so that its benefits are shared more widely by all Canadians, as it once used to be. It was never perfect, but it was more equitable.

Taken in historical perspective, those years in which the economy was on the move, and with it the prosperity of most Canadians, occupy merely a short parenthetical phase. From the very beginnings of humanity, at least as they’re recorded, it had always been that the power and wealth went to the few. Look at any age, even the glory days of Pericles and Greek democracy, and you’ll see the same principle holding true – a few benefitted while the rest made do with little. It went on century after century, millennia after millennia.

Although World War One was a global phenomenon and shook up the economic and global order, it shifted little from this practice of the few wealthy and the many poor. The seeds of the next great war were planted in this soil of wealth inequity. Science was bringing massive knowledge, not only of a broader world, but of the inner workings and possibilities of humans themselves. Efforts to attain this new era for average citizens were quickly tamped down by those who benefitted the most from wealth creation.

The financial mismanagement of those supposedly in charge of the economy eventually led to the Great Depression and opened the doors for Franklin Roosevelt to usher in the New Deal. We know all this already, but it’s important to see it in perspective. The fundamental restructuring of economies that took place in Europe, the U.S. and Canada in those years quickly elevated a small middle-class into the mainstream, lasted all but 30 years. Economists tell us that it ran the span from roughly the early-1940s to the early-1970s. Thirty years, that’s it. They were remarkable times and along with the money generated post-World War Two, there was the expansion of society in almost every dimension. An empowered middle-class bought the products, deepened their own potential, and voted for progressives in ways that kept the deeper enrichment of places like Canada growing.

Thirty years later we began the process of losing it. The new corporatism, global in scope, returned with a vengeance and used its influence wherever it could. Industrialization and manufacturing were suddenly on the decline. Economies sagged. Political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher waged war on the excesses of the earlier order but cut into the very sinew of the middle class in the process. From that point on, middle class families would watch as the greater wealth moved steadily beyond them. They made do with “things,” but their real purchasing power would remain stagnant until the present day. Cheap credit meant they could keep buying, but they have now ended with the largest private debt in the world.

Thirty years – that’s all it was. So when progressives talk about restoring a societal order that was as equitable as it was empowered they are really talking about a blip – a remarkable period where history was turned on its head, the wealthy were forced to yield up some of their riches for the benefit of society as a whole, and average citizens found themselves as co-creators of a new destiny.

Is that memory of those brief decades enough to recharge us again, to cause citizens to fight for the progressive track they once travelled but which appears to be slipping away? Will they begin to sit up and take notice that the flaws of our modern economy are imperiling our political and social order, and that large numbers of citizens now feel the game is rigged against them. And will they then serve notice that they refuse to support an economic order that calls for the privatization of everything public when it can’t even run its own shop?

It’s time we started focusing on the real economy and not just the financial one. Thirty years wasn’t a long time, but it was enough to build dreams and to remember them. People who can’t even run the world or national economies are purposefully and shamefully dismembering our public heritage in hopes that the days of Roosevelt will never be repeated. Our only real hope against that is responsible citizenship and even more responsible government.

Already things are stirring, with demonstration on Wall Street, in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro and at some point in places across Canada. This is no way to run an economy but we as citizens were too busy shopping to notice. But that 30 years still burns in our memory and we must live more responsibly in an effort to get them back. It’s time we started talking and fighting for the real economy.

The Mythical Middle

The parliamentary cycle begins once again and already the Liberal Party is getting its fair share of pundits offering advice on how it should renew itself. Time and again we hear of how Liberals must begin the process of finding the “centre” or the “middle.” I understand the allure of it; after all, it was the Liberals themselves who held the middle ground during many recent decades. Yet one wonders if there is a point to such a pursuit anymore.

Let’s just state at the outset that there is no such place as a static “centre” of the political spectrum – it moves with the times. Jean Chretien’s middle ground was far to the right of Lester Pearson’s, just as Mulroney’s was to the left of Harper’s. Provincially, in Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s policies are much more akin to those of Bill Davis, and Tim Hudak’s to Mike Harris. To those in power the centre has been a moveable feast; to those outside of it, it’s been more like a moveable target.

Put succinctly: the centre is whatever the government in power makes it. The longer it retains the reins of administration, the more it cements in place its own version of the political centre. As long at Stephen Harper could only reside over a minority government, the political centre remained a difficult reality to nail down. With four years of majority ahead of him, the PM will get his chance to define that advantageous position.

All this is just to say that the Liberal Party should talk less about recapturing the centre and locate a more permanent position to concentrate its still considerable expertise. Chasing after voters when they say they want one thing and then vote in a fashion that gets them the opposite is a dangerous political proposition at any time and a rather precarious way of putting out good public policy.

Then again, the political dynamic has changed so much in Canada that it’s not about healthy competition between parties but rather a steady state of war to either retain power or overthrow it. “War,” as Herodotus put it, “is the father of all things.” It is likely true that no single phenomenon throughout history has produced so much upheaval as war itself. There are economic and social cataclysms as well, but neither contains the sheer ability to overthrow, maintain, or alter states as war itself.

Whereas politics in Ottawa was once a very serious set of contests, it has now become the political equivalent of war on a 24-hour basis. In such a setting the political centre isn’t the place of most effectiveness in public policy but the pyrrhic strategy for maintaining power at all costs. Democratic institutions, cheques and balances, voter accountability – all these become obstacles to a political party desiring power at all costs because they limit its ability to wage an all-out campaign with little ethical consequence.

As long as Liberals opt into such a campaign, the reduction of the public space will only follow their efforts. The old Hebrew prophet mulled over the question all Liberals should be asking: “Thoughtfully I pondered what goes on within this world whenever men have power over their follows.” Indeed. No moral test can have such dire consequences as the temptation to misuse power over others, and that is especially true of governments, given the resources as their disposal. Like it or not, holding power is tantamount to a massive ethical burden, for it opens the door to self-indulgence. Power’s possession only creates the thirst for more of it. When the only way to get and retain power is to undermine, even repudiate, those democratic institutions meant to protect society’s overall health, then we suffer national decline.

I witnessed it all first-hand in Ottawa. Power has the pervasive influence to harden people’s hearts without them being aware of it. Those that have power find it remarkably difficult to understand the challenges average citizens actually face; eventually some even lose the capacity to care. It is just such manifestation of power that the great moral leaders of the ages renounced. If history has proved that reality repeatedly, there’s no point in Liberals mulling around the centre in pursuit of it.

One of the great mysteries of history is how the same conditions that can promote change, creativity and entrepreneurship can also activate abuse, inequality, injustice, and eventually social upheaval. Canada appears headed in that direction, albeit slowly, and Liberals will have to present a stronger alternative to such an outcome than just striving to possess the middle. The old admonition that “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” hardly seems to apply to the government in our national capital and many of its members know it.

Liberals would be better advised to pursue the advantage of progressiveness instead of just the centre. It connotes the idea of moving on an evolving path that leads to the enfranchisement of all citizens and not just a few. Politicians have the power to help people or hurt them, to lift them up or cast them down to despair through sheer bad governance. It is time for the Liberal Party to embrace the high ideal – one that empowers all citizens and refuses to just see them in economic terms. The only cure for any struggling economic power is to make it work for all citizens, and that includes its cultural, educational, ethical, citizenship, environmental, and health dimensions. Liberals must build a new structure for Canada, based upon the empowerment of all individuals to pursue a collective life together that is progressive. It’s not about the variable power located at the centre, but the moral stamina to govern effectively in all our communities. If Liberals can’t establish it there, winning power in Ottawa won’t change anything.

Tomorrow: The Muddled Middle

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