The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: voters

Outside the Lines

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Read this post on National Newswatch here

When Ben Hur was launched as a stage play in 1899 it became an immediate sensation. Stagehands were hired to shake tarps to make the background set look like waves, while others rocked the fighting ships back and forth in an effort to make it look realistic. A year of preparation went into the production, with the highlight being the chariot race in the grand arena. People had been practicing for months – the white horses leading Ben Hur and the black steeds powering his enemy Masala’s chariot. Then something went wrong behind the scenes, with the result that Masala won the contest – a conclusion that threw the plot, and the rest of the evening, into disarray.

I thought of that story repeatedly in these past few weeks as so much in politics failed to finish as planned. We weren’t supposed to end up in this place and it appears the political elites have lost considerable control of the political process in a number of countries. The politics of Europe and America now share an equal dose of uncertainty and perhaps danger.

This week’s Republican convention reminds us again that standard politics is no longer a sure thing. For an entire year the Republican Party proceeded as though Donald Trump was a novelty, an also-ran, who would surely bring lots of attention but never be a serious candidate. All that party machinery! All that preparation! All that fundraising to get support for the major candidates! And then the publicity stunt candidate triumphs.

This American campaign is one for the ages, whether people like it or not. But after all the analysis is done, with pundits ad nauseam picking apart the entrails, one key reason stands out as to why Donald Trump achieved what he did: the voter. It was supposed to be the usual kind of campaign that affirms democracy still works by selecting from the choices the political class provides. The problem is that the billionaire wasn’t the figure either the party apparatus or even the media initially preferred to be crowned. On the flip side, in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders was pulling off a similar kind of revolution that to this day carries momentum even following Hillary Clinton’s clinched nomination and the endorsement of Sanders.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump prevailed because he garnered too much support to deny him the prize. This isn’t the year of Trump, but the year of the voter – perhaps more so than even Obama’s remarkable run in the 2008 election.

And now we have Brexit and all the chaos that will go on for months, likely years. With both France and Germany going to the polls next year, the jury is out as to the overall result. In order to achieve his last election victory, British PM David Cameron rolled the dice and promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, likely sure he could control the political process. Except he couldn’t, and now a political Pandora’s Box has been completely kicked over.

It remains tempting to talk about the major personalities in all this bedlam as the collective reason for the unpredictability, but in a very real sense this has been about troubled citizens, not their ultimate leadership choices. Something seismic is clearly going on and its impact is changing so many preset ideas regarding our politics.

The era of political pandering by parties to voters while at the same time ignoring the global challenges citizens face and the values they hold dear is seemingly coming to an end – citizens don’t believe the hype anymore. Readily assuming that political elites no longer understand the profound challenges faced by the electorate, voters are colouring outside the lines and opting for choices that are no longer the safe ones – something Abraham Lincoln deciphered over 150 years ago, as noted by strategist Ariel Moutsatsos:

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

None of this means, of course, that voters have voted objectively, but they have shown the political classes in their respective countries that they’re tired of being duped and want in. The great danger is that their stretch for a collective voice might unleash dominoes of great uncertainty. If in their arrogance the political managers created winds of change, voters themselves must be somber and diligent lest they reap the whirlwind.

Election 2015: The Politics of Everywhere

directionlessTHE MORE ONE EXAMINES IT, the easier it is to conclude that politics of the heavily partisan nature is quickly losing its appeal to the average citizen living in a community and just desiring a good place to live and opportunities for their children. Previously we let political parties formulate their policies on various parts of the political spectrum and then citizens could select their priorities and vote from there.

In many ways it all functioned well: communities were offered choices, parties drew on supporters, and politics involved rigorous debate that clarified the issues. What we have been witnessing in the past two decades is the breaking down of that model for two key reasons.

The first arises when people don’t really know what political candidates and their parties really stand for anymore.

Are parties that once occupied the left-centre-right wing of the political spectrum moving collectively to the right, or is everyone cramming into the middle in pursuit of votes? It’s not only difficult to know who the players are, it involves great perplexity attempting to understand their teams. The pursuit of power has led to a great free-for-all that witnesses every party rushing whichever way the pollsters tell them are a key crop of voters. Practical ambition has taken the place of principled policy and voters are left in a daze trying to figure it all out.

I spoke with a Conservative at a church last Sunday who commented that he thought Stephen Harper “just wasn’t ready” (an interesting twist on the Con ads concerning Justin Trudeau’s youth) to be elected because his administration had become so corrupt and secretive that it put the lie to the PM’s first effort at legislation: the Accountability Act. The party had changed and he knew it. Journalist Chantal Hébert’s  observation on this point is prescient:

“If Harper’s most trusted aides — many of whom are still in place — were willing to use every lever at their disposal to lie their way out of an embarrassment to the Conservative party, how far would they go to sway public opinion on a matter of central importance to the government and the country? And if voters — upon being presented with undeniable evidence of a high-level cover-up designed to mislead them — are content to look the other way, how can they expect future governments to think twice about the risks of fooling Canadians into believing whatever best serves their partisan purpose?”

Our communities have quickly arrived at the point where they have just given up trying to figure it all out. In our desire to have everything – low taxes, affordable education and healthcare, security, independence, pensions, and meaningful investments in research and employment – we have persuaded our politicians that winning power trumps effective policy. Consequently, average citizens have concentrated on their immediate existence instead of their collective life because politics was no longer capable of drawing them together and empowering the communities in which they lived.

But that’s now beginning to change as many Canadians have begun the process of casting off partisan practices in favour of common goals. For our respective communities it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Political parties, by morphing into whatever it took to capture more voters, no longer hold much appeal. Worse still is the increasing practice of pulverizing other parties in order to secure supporters. To the average citizen, politics looks more like a Game of Thrones episode than a respectful appeal to the intellect of citizens.

The greater things of life are what should matter during a federal election, but they shouldn’t be paraded across the country as some kind of travelling bazaar. They are serious and speak to our collective condition as nothing else can, as when John Maynard Keynes noted, “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are already doing, but to do those things which at present are not done at all.”

If politics is to be at all serious and effective it must, above all, be consistent and collaborative, neither of which has been evident so far in this election campaign.  Politics is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Over His Head

negativityOver two years out from the next federal election but the campaign has already begun, as the party leaderships are now clearly in place.  It didn’t commence when the Writ was dropped or the government fell, but by that first action that now seems to signal the coming electoral conflict in the post-democratic era – the negative ad.

We continue to hear that they are used because they work.  Even certain political pundits seem to kind of relish this battle of the combative airwaves, as if admiring the tactic.  They are smart writers and observers, and they know well enough that the goal is to suppress voter turnout, yet they continue to take a certain morbid delight in their use. They mused enough about the cause; now they should write about the effect.  It’s like the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum – a kind of bloody entertainment that actually said more about the decline of the empire than it did the ghoulish tastes of the spectators.  

The use of these most recent ads against Justin Trudeau is all about retaining power, not expanding democracy.  It’s the PM’s way of saying that we’re stupid.  He knows that by airing them that he fans his base, brings in tons of cash from supporters, and gets to spend the next two years framing his opponent.  The stupidity doesn’t come from the fact that we tolerate them as much as it results in moderate and progressive voters turning off and refusing to go to the polls.  He was correct on this in the past, but what it says about the head elected official of the land’s willingness to “dumb-down” the citizenry is more than just a bit troubling to consider.

One of the recent ads is about Trudeau’s being “in over his head.”  It surfaced a mere few hours after the leadership was decided.  This is an all-out war campaign, to be stretched out for 24 months, to convince Canadians that he’s too young to lead.  It troubles me a bit to do this, but let’s use that same litmus test on the Prime Minister himself.

Somehow, a year before this past recession began, he lost a $12 billion dollar surplus that was vitally needed for the upcoming economic downturn.  Under his watch, Canada lost its chance at a Security Council seat.  We lost our vaunted place in international rankings on everything from child poverty to food security.  The Prime Minister lost all of the momentum and goodwill that had been generated from the public apology to the aboriginal people.  He lost the battle against poverty.  We lost Kyoto and we lost any real opportunity for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to break out of the political traps and lift this country’s international reputation by putting the poor ahead of the Canadian corporate interest.

Then there has been the cost to politics itself.  Stephen Harper lost the confidence of the House twice and was found in contempt for the first time in our history.  He somehow lost a 250-page handbook on how Conservatives were to undermine parliamentary committees so that nothing could get accomplished – an embarrassing revelation.  The House of Commons has lost the ability to compromise under his watch.  We have misplaced democracy, lost trust, lost confidence, and in the process we have lost ourselves for a time as Canadians..

So, I’m kind of wondering about who really isn’t up for the job?  How could someone with such a record like that above, established over six years, dish the dirt on someone who only became a party leader not even a week ago?  Shouldn’t the barrels be turned in the opposite direction?

My personal answer to that last question is no.  Should Justin Trudeau ask me whether he should take such negative ads to Stephen Harper, I would say don’t do it.  It’s not because I’m a pie-in-the-sky ideologue.  It’s simple, hardl reality, and all parties do it. The more of these things we send out on the airwaves or in print, or the Internet, the more quickly we hasten our demise.  “Democracy never lasts long,” American founder John Adams said.  “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The realistic facts of the case are that democracy is “murdered” by the countless character assassinations that precede any undermining of moral and popular authority.  Parties and their leaders have every right to run ads revealing the flaws in their opponent’s policy and practices.  Yet it is done most often not as a democratic duty, but as a way of winning an election.  What happens if we hold an election and nobody came?  We are now closer to that reality than at any other time in our history, and it’s not just because citizens are distracted or governments are inept; it’s because political parties have taken to the use of negative ads to suppress voter turnout, thereby robbing democracy of its true owners.

Any leader that supports such a strategy that belittles citizens instead of elevating them should hardly use the “over his head” slogan to describe another when he has been unable to manage the complexities of a robust democracy that we are clearly at risk of losing.

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