Ideas or Ideologies

“Ideas or Ideologies”  a sermon on Democracy

Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton October 22, 2017

Unitarian Universalism boasts seven Principles that guide us.  The fourth affirms and promotes, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

So as we continue our examination of democracy, we begin by noting it as a key aspect of our Unitarian religion.  But it is important to remember that this is but one of seven Principles woven together.  Collectively they are meant to help us work through the challenges of living responsibly and as people with integrity.  Without the balancing effects of the other six principles, democracy fails.  It cannot exist without affirming the equality and inherent worth of all our fellow citizens…not just the ones in our church, our neighbourhood or our political party.  It cannot exist if not underpinned by justice, equity and compassion.  It cannot succeed without personal freedom in belief and action.  It is doomed to fail if there is not a larger vision that encompasses peace and justice for all citizens of the planet.

As the Catholic writer Stephen Schneck observed in the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies journal (AUG. 2010)

Democracy requires from its citizens special virtues, without which it fails. Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole. For traditional Catholic thought, that good of the whole is called “the common good.” In this sense, democracy depends upon citizens in possession of civic virtue that directs them to the common good.

If I have a criticism of western democracy in the 21st century, it is that this idea of ‘the common good’ has eroded – if not substantially died – in the face of partisan politics.  In federal, provincial and state governments, the common good is now defined as ‘my good’ or, at best ‘our group’s good’.  Instead of being virtuous citizens stepping up to serve the wider community, politicians are now pretty much forced to be professional campaigners whose first job is to seek reelection and whose first loyalty has to be to the party that supports them. Ideologies that defend the party have become more important than ideas that build communities. 

I am not so cynical to say that the needs of the constituents don’t figure in the motivation or their decision-making of all politicians.  There are good people seeking office.  I am cynical enough to think constituent issues might not always be the deciding factor when the time comes to vote..

Civic government might be an exception, but I will get back to that.

In our reading Eduardo Mendlata spoke of civility in the public sphere, “Civility, in other words, is an ethics of respect for strangers. It therefore follows that how you treat strangers is the measure of your moral excellence.”

There seems to be a distinct lack of moral excellence in the political sphere these days.  In the increasing polarization of partisan politics, the gentle and defenceless virtue of civility has become the first casualty.

It is unfortunate that in both Canada and the United States winning a majority government seems to mean, “We now have a mandate to do it our way!”  Our one vote cast on polling day is license to push their complete agenda, much of which was never discussed during the campaign. 

They don’t seem capable of understanding that the people are complex.  We might be fiscal conservatives and social liberals, or vice versa.  Our one vote does not grant blanket blessing on their ideologies.  And since very few politicians are elected with 50% of the support of the voting age public, their talk of “the people have spoken” or “I have a mandate” is puffery.  As far as governments are concerned, the voice of the citizenry pretty much ended when they marked their X…at least until the next election begins to loom.  And frankly, we citizens are not all that good at holding them to account.

Still, because another election is somewhere down the road, politicos always do have an eye on image.  They want their names recognized.  So, they have become more focused on image than substance.  With the introduction of CPAC and C-Span and other legislative TV channels, thoughtful political debate has been converted to media events. Complex policy discussions have been reduced into one line sound bites designed to demean opponents rather than to advance debate. Question Period has become less an opportunity for challenging government and more a game of “Gotcha!” caught live and in colour.

I have privately often promised myself that I would vote for any politician regardless of party if I could only hear them proclaim of their opponent, “Hey, she has a good idea! Let’s do that!”  Even when they vote in support they won’t typically give credit to anyone else.  

The lack of civility between political opponents in their public discussions is disheartening at best and a cause of personal despair at worst.

Legendary Green Bay football coach once famously said, “Winning isn’t the most important thing…it’s the ONLY thing.”

Should that really be true in democratic politics?  It shouldn’t, but I fear it is.  Ideologies triumph over ideas, and that just feels wrong.

A basic high school text book Magruder’s American Government defines five core principles of democracy

1. Recognition of the fundamental worth and dignity of every person; 

2. Respect for the equality of all persons

3. Faith in majority rule and an insistence upon minority rights

4. Acceptance of the necessity of compromise; and

5. Insistence upon the widest possible degree of individual freedom.

Anyone who follows the circus in the United States might well agree that presently American democracy is failing on all five points.  Freedoms, except when it comes to having guns, is being curtailed.  Minority rights are ignored and protesters like football players taking a knee are shamed.  The President himself routinely demeans the character and person of his opponents.

On the matter of “the necessity of compromise,” the text expands:

Compromise is an essential part of the democratic concept for two major reasons. First, remember that democracy puts the individual first, and, at the same time, insists that each individual is the equal of all others. In a democratic society made up of many individuals and groups with many different opinions and interests, how can the people make public decisions except by compromise?

…Compromise is a process, a way of achieving majority agreement. It is never an end in itself. Not all compromises are good, and not all are necessary.

In the last decade or so there has been a rush to partisanship and winner take all politics in the United States.  It has sadly been creeping north of the border as well.

During the Obama administration, the Republican Party openly declared that their mission was to thwart any legislation coming from the president and the Democrats.  Suddenly ‘compromise’ joined ‘civility’ on the scrapheap of out political principles.

Since the election of the 45th President of the USA Democrats voting as a bloc to impede the Republican repeal of things like health care access have been branded as obstructionist.  Their own GOP senators who voted with Democrats and on behalf of their constituents – you know, doing what they were elected to do?- have been demeaned and branded as traitors.

And now we frequently see attempts at government by presidential order.  The US is slipping towards authoritarian autocracy, and it’s frightening me.

Canada seems to be managing better.  Perhaps it’s because our PM and premiers are aware that they can do little without the support of their caucus, and the caucus members are closer to the people. We saw an amazing thing this week where the federal government rewrote proposed tax legislation because enough people spoke out against the flaws of their ideas.  It was a week where ideas trumped ideologies for once.  Our democracy may be bruised, but it is not yet broken in my view.  Values still seem to matter- at least a little.  As long as some kind of moral imperative guides our leaders, we have a hope that the principles of democracy will still have their place.

So how can we restore democracy?  First we have to rethink the system.

Two weeks ago I described the new rise of cities, how they are major deliverers of service to the population no matter who funds it.  As a former Toronto mayor put it, mayors and council have to be activist because they are the ones expected to do things, to build roads and transit, to build community amenities and so on.

This expectation to actually do stuff marks city politicians as structurally different from their provincial state and federal counterparts.  In order to get things done, they have to compromise, negotiate and discuss the ideas that are best for the city.  And there is something else.

Consider the geography of government spaces.  In Parliament the government faces their opposition across a floor traditionally separated by a distance of two sword lengths …to prevent bloodshed.  The very nature of Parliament is oppositional, argumentative and aggressive.

Consider now the municipal council chamber.  The mayor and councillors sit on the same side of a long curving table arranged so they can see one another.  Across from them are the clerks and administrators who support them and behind them, the citizenry.  The people are on the same level, not tucked up in some second floor gallery.  Unlike Parliament, the people often have a chance to speak directly to council.

This geography says that the council is meant to get along, to literally be on the same side, not of every issue, but on the side of the city they serve.

In all but a handful of cities in Canada, people run as independents, not as members of a party.  After last week’s elections I read a regional newspaper from Red Deer.  In virtually every article the elected mayor said how much they were looking forward to meeting the new councillors and finding out what they bring to the table.  Little gets done at the municipal level without meaningful discussion and compromise.  Councillors perceived as continually obstructionist tend to not get reelected.

We need to rethink the usefulness of party politics and, if not dispense with parties, at least consider ways to push them back to ideas and deemphasize ideologies..

And, what can we do?  We have not only a say in all of this, but a role to play.  I quoted Stephen Schneck earlier, “Foremost, democracy needs citizens virtuous enough to transcend self-interest in pursuit of what is good for the republic as a whole.”  We have to be those citizens.  We have to model an understanding of the common good to one another and then show it to our political leaders.  We have to put our own self interest to the side and look at the issues under discussion on their merit.  

Our city has a goal of creating 10% affordable or social housing in all areas of the city.  In some quarters this plan has sparked bitter NIMBY backlash based on assertions about crime and danger that are easily proven to be untrue.  Sure, our self interest matters, but if we are to support the common good, we need to look at issues from all sides.  And if we don’t adopt a belief in the common good as a virtue, how can we ever expect our elected representatives to do the same?

We must demand civility and responsibility from them.  The best way to do that is to show by our actions that it matters to us. If they won’t consult with us, we must start the consultation with letters and calls, with peaceful protest and petitions.  And we must show them what can be done civility and in a morally responsible way.

Our government will reflect our values.  If we won’t embrace and promote civility and the basic principles of democracy we are fools to think they will.