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Things fall apart in the United States — and Canada takes a hard look in the mirror

John Turner, who passed away in September, was particularly fond of a phrase that could stand now as an abiding lesson for everyone who has watched the chaotic last four years of the American experiment.

“Democracy,” the former prime minister used to say, “does not happen by accident.”

He seemed to have meant that as a call for democratic and political participation. It works equally as well as a broader statement on democracy itself and the steady progress it’s supposed to facilitate — neither of which can be taken as automatic or inevitable.

“America is no fragile thing,” former president Barack Obama said nearly four years ago as he prepared to leave the White House. “But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

The United States has offered the world a demonstration of how things can fall apart — not in one cataclysmic moment, but slowly and steadily over a long period of time as institutions and ideas erode and crumble.

Every other country on earth has to deal with the ramifications of what’s happening now in the U.S. But beyond those consequences, there’s another question for every other democracy: how do you make sure your own country doesn’t end up like that?

An age of optimism ends

Everything was not all right for the United States before 2016 — but it was easier to take a great many things for granted. “Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same,” the American historian Timothy Snyder wrote in On Tyranny. “We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.”

Four years later, the United States is a global symbol of political and state dysfunction, “constitutional hardball,” corruption, misinformation, tribalism, racism, nationalism, conspiracy theories, falsehood, distrust and civil unrest.

In the past six months, more than 225,000 Americans have died of a contagious disease — at least in part because their government could not be roused to properly confront it — and the governing party’s members and supporters were not willing to abandon it in response.

Paul Benson, left, clashes with Eric Artmire, one of many protesters who came to support a Back the Blue event happening at the same time and location as Democratic Congressional candidate Hank Gilbert’s Protest for Portland rally on the downtown square in Tyler, Texas, on Sunday, July 26, 2020. (Sarah A. Miller/Associated Press)

Now, at the conclusion of another presidential election campaign, the ability of the United States to fulfil even the basic requirements of democracy — free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power — is in doubt. “Democracy is on the ballot in this election,” Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris recently said.

How did it come to this? There’s no shortage of possible explanations. Legislative gridlock. A poorly designed electoral system. A lack of regulation over the use of money in political campaigns. The treatment of politics as entertainment or sport. The weakening of mainstream media and the rise of partisan outlets and social media. A failure of major media outlets to properly grasp or respond to the challenges of the moment. Maybe even a national history of conflict.

Norris has argued that populist authoritarianism has been on the rise around the world because of “a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change.” In other words, those who fear losing power or being left behind have turned to leaders who speak to their grievances.

The four horsemen of a political apocalypse

In their book Four Threats, political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman point to four broad issues that have defined every moment of crisis in the history of American democracy: political polarization; conflict over social belonging and political status along lines of race, gender, nationality or religion; high and growing economic inequality which spurs the wealthy to protect their own interests; and excessive executive power. Only now, they argue, have all four of those threats been active at the same time.

There are reasons to believe the Canadian democratic system is better designed and more durable than that of the United States. But no system is foolproof — and centralization of executive power and the overbearing nature of party discipline are longstanding concerns in Canada.

Chadwick Workman leads chants as protesters march down Monroe Street during a “Manifesting Our Momentum” event at the Lincoln statue in front of the Illinois Capitol building in Springfield on Sunday, June 7, 2020. The rally and march featured U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as well as other community, faith and elected officials. (Ted Schurter/Associated Press)

It’s not obvious that our institutions and media would respond effectively to a populist authoritarian leading one of the country’s major political parties and trampling democratic norms and rules at will. For that matter, it’s fair to ask how well our political system has responded to challenges over the past decade — everything from aggressive parliamentary tactics like prorogation and omnibus legislation to policies that specifically target immigrants and ethnic minorities.

If public cynicism is a concern, there was some solace in survey results released this week by the Samara Centre for Democracy — which found that 80 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the state of democracy in this country. But significant skepticism remains: 63 per cent of those surveyed agreed that the “government doesn’t care what people like me think,” while 70 per cent said that “those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people.”

Canada is not necessarily immune to any of the forces that might be driving what has happened to the United States, including polarization.

As Mettler and Lieberman write, differences across political parties can be good and healthy. There’s a downside to fetishizing centrism or bi-partisanship. But the system can start to break down when politicians and citizens view each other as enemies rather than rivals.

Mutual contempt

“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition that can force us to change our minds,” American journalist Ezra Klein wrote in Why We’re Polarized. “We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”

There is evidence that Canada’s federal parties and their supporters have polarized — though not to the same degree as in the United States. “As our political parties have become more ideologically distinct, their strongest partisans have tended to feel more distant from each other,” a team of researchers reported last fall.

Climate change activists and a few counter-protesters supporting the oil and gas industry gather for a march and rally with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Canadians themselves have not become more extreme in their beliefs, said Eric Merkley, a researcher at the University of Toronto — but the ideological beliefs of party supporters are now more distinct and partisans in Canada increasingly dislike those on the other side of the fence.

Americans still register higher levels of discomfort with the idea of a close association — like an in-law — being a supporter of the other party. One other possible difference, Merkley suggested, is that the social identities of Canadians — such as race and religion —are not nearly as aligned with political identity as they are for Americans. It’s also possible that American institutions are “not as capable of dealing with polarized parties” as those in other systems, such as the Westminster parliamentary model in Canada, Merkley added.

When ideology meets regional alienation

Merkley said he’s not worried yet about polarization in Canada — in some ways, it only makes sense that partisan sorting has occurred — but it is still something to keep an eye on.

In the Canadian context, stark political differences might manifest as threats to national unity — like the current split between Conservative voters in the Prairies and progressive voters elsewhere.

Consider the not-unrelated debate over climate change, which still threatens to be less about how to solve the problem than whether to even try. The challenge of transitioning to a low-carbon economy while holding the country together remains profound.

A protester wearing a yellow vest was one of a few hundred people who gathered on Parliament Hill on July 1, 2020 to protest the Trudeau government, mandatory mask policies and other issues. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Canadian politics still seems downright placid in comparison with the United States. But the evolution of fundraising techniques and social media have also put a premium on inflaming passions and resentment to drive dollars and clicks. That sort of trend does not foretell a crisis, but it’s also not perfectly benign.

There are other reasons to worry as well. A study released by the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions this week found that, out of a sample of a million tweets sent to candidates during the last federal election, 16 per cent could be classified as “abusive.” Concerns about the safety of MPs and their staff were raised even before a Canadian Armed Forces reservist crashed through the gate at Rideau Hall and allegedly threatened the prime minister.

Are we forgetting how to disagree?

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, have argued that democracy depends on the acceptance of two basic norms: “mutual toleration” and “forbearance.” Mutual toleration requires an acceptance that one’s political rivals are legitimate. Forbearance means that leaders will practice “self-restraint in the exercise of power” — that they will not abuse their authority to do everything they might legally do because of the real and lasting damage that could follow.

In that respect, political leaders should be regarded as stewards of the political process itself. The very fragility of democracy should impose a duty of care.

“We cannot take it for granted that democratic politics will endure if we do not pay careful attention to the democracy-enhancing (or democracy-eroding) consequences of the things we do in politics,” Mettler and Lieberman write.

American politics is Canada’s second-favourite spectator sport. And we have long defined and measured ourselves by how unlike the United States we are. Though the term fell out of use during the Obama era, it used to be that accusing someone of participating in “American-style politics” was a grievous charge in Canada.

That oppositional tendency might serve Canada well now. But this is hardly the time for anyone to feel smug. The United States is reminding us now that nothing is guaranteed, nothing can be taken for granted.

Democracy can be silly and entertaining and a wonder to behold. But it is not a game.


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