As Canadians celebrate Canada Day we would do well to consider the state of our democracy. The increasingly chaotic situation unfolding south of the border, in a country once viewed as a beacon of light for the democratic world, should give everyone pause, serving as it does as a stark reminder that democracies are only as strong as the support of their citizens.
As famed political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset noted, democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, are not maintained through force and intimidation. Their stability depends entirely on their citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of their institutions and leadership – the so-called “moral title to rule.” As a result, it is most often some combination of citizens’ Indifference, neglect and a poor grasp of democratic theory, (not armed insurrections or military coups), that contribute to the slow but steady decline in the health of a democratic state.
Liberal democracies are also unique in their underlying belief that government can, and should, be a force for good. Of course everyone is familiar with cases like Hitler’s Germany, Assad’s Syria or Putin’s Russia, totalitarian regimes where the state – and its autocratic leaders — have been a deliberate force for evil. In theory, this should not be possible in a democracy, since promoting the best interests of its citizens is a primary purpose of a democratic state. As a result, when democratic states do begin to lose their way, taking measures that either deliberately or inadvertently become a force for evil, the decline inevitably takes place gradually. And rather than one cataclysmic event, this decline most often results from a series of negative incidents that together erode citizens’ trust in the fundamental institutions and leadership of the state.
In the United States, the reality of a once mighty democracy in decline is becoming all too obvious. Some scholars have even predicted that another civil war may be inevitable if this downward trend is not reversed in the near future.[i] There is widespread agreement that most if not all of the signature institutions of American democracy are in disrepute. There is also widespread consensus that the current hyperpartisan nature of electoral politics has produced a highly polarized society in which there is little or no consensus on the way forward. How has this come to pass?
To begin with, the incredible mismanagement of the global pandemic by so many of that country’s state governments, and a federal government led by COVID-denier-in-chief Donald Trump, was a stark demonstration of this decline. Near total abdication of government responsibility to protect citizens, and especially the vulnerable members of society, led to low vaccination rates, few mask mandates and even fewer lockdowns. Combined with wildly popular conspiracy theories that many elected Republicans at all levels of government encouraged, this crisis brought the country and its health care system to its knees. The richest and arguably most technologically-advanced country in the world racked up one of the worst performance records anywhere, with a stratospheric mortality rate second only to Brazil and more than three times worse proportionally than that of Canada. Meanwhile the open conflict between Republican and Democratic leaders and non-partisan health officials, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, only served to discredit all elected officials.
Another fundamental institution of democracies is the rule of law. Yet in America there is the longstanding issue of police violence and the perceived failures of the justice system. Many Americans believe this failure to be racially motivated, epitomized most recently by the deaths of George Flloyd, Breona Taylor and Daunte Wright and the outcomes of subsequent trials of their attackers. This in turn has led to the dramatic growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which some analysts have described as the most significant protest movement in modern American history, far surpassing the participation levels of civil rights movements and women’s rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s and at least equalling the anti-Vietnam War protests of the same era. Like the anti-war movement, the current Black Lives Matter movement is also seen as a broader agent of social change opposing an unresponsive political establishment. [ii]
Until recently one element of the American democratic establishment that had avoided controversy was the Supreme Court, but that too has changed for the worse in short order. The politicization of the Court was made abundantly clear when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Democrat President Barak Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace conservative justice Antonin Scala after his death in 2016. Although nearly a year remained in Obama’s term of office, McConnell argued it was too close to an election to be seen as credible, and refused to allow the Senate to even consider the nomination. Yet shortly after the election of Donald Trump the following year, McConnell orchestrated a permanent change in Senate rules to allow Trump’s own choice to replace Scala, conservative Neil Gorush, to be confirmed despite a close 54-45 vote. McConnell followed this up with the speedy confirmation of two other very conservative Trump nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, both of whom were again only narrowly approved under the new rules. Adding insult to injury, the latter was sworn in only one week before the 2020 election!
If that had not done enough to discredit the justices, their own remarks and behaviour certainly did. In addition to Kavanaugh’s vicious partisan attack on a sitting senator during his confirmation hearing, the direct and implied promises that he, Gorush and Coney Barrett all made during their confirmation hearings, to respect Roe vs Wade if appointed, were soon broken. In the past few weeks, the now majority conservative Court has not only overturned that landmark ruling on abortion — which polls consistently have shown to be supported by nearly 70% of the American population – but has struck down key legislation promoting gun control and environmental protection. [iii] And Mitch McConnell has proudly taken credit for this fiasco, which has led to untold turmoil in society and protests around the country denouncing the Court. [iv]
Meanwhile Congress has been deadlocked on almost every important piece of legislation which President Joe Biden has introduced since his election 18 months ago. The inability of the House and Senate leaders to arrive at a compromise on measures crucial to the rebuilding of the post-pandemic economy has been publicly highlighted by lengthy and often personalised partisan attacks and total intransigence. With the upcoming mid-term elections in November 2022, this situation is only expected to worsen.
Finally, there is the office of the President itself. Despite good intentions, Democrat Joe Biden is essentially impotent in the face of partisan strife in Congress and a cascading series of international developments beyond his control, such as the war in Ukraine, the soaring cost of oil and substantial post-pandemic increases in the cost of living. Meanwhile, Biden’s efforts to bridge the partisan divide and reduce the polarization of society have been consistently rebuffed by an unrecognizable Republican Party now captured by the Trump cabal. The attacks of that cabal on the electoral system have also been devastating to the credibility of that crucial democratic institution, with more than 40% of Americans continuing to believe that the 2020 election was somehow rigged and Trump was the actual winner. The result was the storming of the American legislature by an out-of-control band of alienated citizens, many of whom wrongly believed they were acting as patriots attempting to ‘save’ the republic and democracy. And, as the congressional hearings on the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capital have revealed, apart from then Vice-President Mike Pence it would appear that only Trump’s senior secret service officer, and his daughter Ivanka, prevented the then president from personally participating in the attempted violent overthrow of a legitimately elected government. [v]
Canadians have a tendency to think none of this could ever happen here in the peaceable kingdom. Clearly we are in a far better situation than our neighbours to the south, and we remain the envy of the world in many respects. But there are increasingly ominous signs that we need to be more vigilant if we are to avoid the insidious slide from democratic norms that is taking place not only in the U.S. but in many European democracies.
Take, for example, the importance of citizens’ belief in the rule of law and the credibility of the justice system. Several local police forces, from Toronto and North Bay in Ontario to Winnipeg and Saskatoon on the prairies, have been subject to numerous inquiries into alleged systemic racism in recent years. Meanwhile a 2019 report found that nearly 30% of individuals in federal penitentiaries were indigenous, (compared with 4% of the general population), a figure reinforced by a January 2022 report that revealed more than 50% of women in federal penitentiaries are indigenous despite comprising only 5% of the population. As for the RCMP, a series of scandals related to sexual misconduct and mistreatment of female officers, as well as several prominent incidents of apparent incompetence in the handling of both crisis situations and lengthy investigations,[vi] have resulted in barely half of Canadians having confidence in their national police force as of June 2022 .[vii]
While the credibility of the Supreme Court is not in question in the same manner as its American counterpart, it is important to note that for nearly a decade the Harper Conservative government repeatedly undermined the authority of the top court by accusing it of an “activist” liberal bias, despite the fundamental requirement in any democracy that the judicial branch of government must be, and must be seen to be, both impartial and independent of the legislative and executive branches. Among other things this has always meant that the decisions of the court are not to be publicly criticized by elected officials, nor are those officials allowed to give political direction to the court. During their time in office, however, Harper and several of his ministers regularly criticized decisions and accused the Court of bias whenever any of their proposed legislation – on everything from immigration and refugees to safe injection sites and “tough on crime” measures — was struck down as unconstitutional. While it was certainly true that an inordinate number of bills introduced by the Harper government were struck down, it later transpired that a primary reason for the Conservatives’ frequent entanglement with the Court was their decision to override Justice department officials. Rather than only moving forward with legislation that those experts deemed highly unlikely (less than a 10% possibility) to contravene any measure in the constitution, and especially the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was the standard set by previous governments, the Harper Conservatives instructed those officials to allow anything with at least a 10% possibility of passing this scrutiny to move forward. Little wonder, then, that so much of their agenda was ruled unconstitutional. At the same time their disdain for the Charter itself, summed up by Jason Kenney’s reference to “stupid Charter challenges”, was well-known.[viii]
At that time the new Conservative Party was widely viewed as the most right-wing party ever to hold national office. Certainly it bore little resemblance to the historic Progressive Conservative Party with which its antecedents, the Reform and Alliance parties, had supposedly merged. However the emergence of another new political party, the Peoples’ Party of Canada, in 2019, put paid to the Conservatives’ claim to the far right. Many of its prominent supporters were consistently described as racist and homophobic.[ix] By the 2021 federal election the new party, led by defeated Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, was promoting an anti-vaccine, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-gun control platform far more extreme than anything Canadians had seen before. Yet in the end it captured 5% of the popular vote, more than doubling that of the Green Party. [x]
Although Canada’s comparatively successful handling of the pandemic[xi] has in many respects increased most citizens’ faith in the potential role of government as a force for good, it must also be recognized that a small but highly vocal minority exists that opposes almost all of the measures taken to protect society and the economy. By January 2022 this opposition had crossed the line between legitimate protest and illegal activity, with the unlawful behaviour of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa for weeks and the many blockades of border crossings established by sympathetic supporters in several provinces. The result has been an intense but largely ill-informed public debate over the meaning of the term ‘freedom’, the constitutional protection of individual rights, the appropriate role of law enforcement and even the definition of patriotism. Sound familiar?
What is worse, the Conservative Party – traditionally the party of law and order — is now setting a dangerous example for Canadians by consorting with these same protesters. At the height of the occupation of Ottawa, former party leader and current MP Andrew Scheer and several of his fellow MPs actually met with the protesters and even had their photos taken with them. One MP, Pierre Poilievre, repeatedly tweeted that he was “proud” of the so-called truckers. Undeterred by criticism at the time, Mr. Poilievre has continued to be associated with many of the leaders of this illegal movement, most recently in advance of Canada Day celebrations when he participated in a “briefing” session by well-known protester James Topp, hosted by roughly twenty of his fellow Conservative MPs in the legislature. Later, Mr. Poilievre actually joined Mr. Topp for a portion of the final stretch of his cross-Canada walk and then tweeted his support for the movement once more. “Today I walked alongside military veteran James Topp, who has travelled the country by foot for free choice. End all mandates. Restore our freedoms. Let people take back control of their lives.”
Yet Canada is consistently rated among the freest countries on the planet and Poilievre knows this, just as he knows that his call to remove the “gatekeepers” is meaningless and his commitment to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada is guaranteed to cause economic difficulties for the country in international markets. His brief flirtation with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, was not only senseless but reckless.
Given that Pierre Poilievre is now almost certain to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, the implications of this MAGA-like Trumpian behaviour – ignoring reality and promoting disinformation – is all the more disturbing, as former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and Senator Marjorie Lebreton, among others, have warned[xii], albeit for partisan reasons. While they have expressed concern that this lurch to the right might make their party unelectable, many other critics are more concerned about the impact this behaviour might have on citizens’ underlying faith in our democratic institutions. And, as recent public opinion polls have indicated, the disinformation campaign may be working. Support for the Conservative Party in public opinion polls is actually rising, even as Poilievre looks increasingly certain to become the next leader. [xiii]
In sum, while Canada may not be Texas and Poilievre may not be Trump, progressives should be concerned about the damage Poilievre is doing to the political process, and all Canadians should be concerned about the potential for the growing disillusionment of citizens with the institutions that underpin our democracy. Food for thought on Canada Day.
[i] Stephen Marche. The Next Civil War: Dispatches from America’s Future. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 20220.
[iii] “Look Back: Barrett, Kavanaugh and Gorush Asked About Rove vs. Wade at Confirmation Hearings” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMpGEwwQNbM
[v] L. Martin. ‘A Stunning Portrait of Depravity Puts Trump Near the Tipping Point”. Globe and Mail. June 10, 2022.
[vi]See for example https://www.terracestandard.com/news/lost-emails-delays-nova-scotia-mass-shooting-inquiry-uncovers-new-rcmp-snags/ and https://www.newmarkettoday.ca/national-news/money-laundering-report-points-to-government-rcmp-failures-but-finds-no-corruption-5480081
[viii] For more details see B. Jeffrey. Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda. ( Montreal: MQUP, 2015). Pp. 155-168.
[xi] See previous Blog, “Freedom Convoy Supporters Take Note: Canada’s Tough COVID Measures Kept YOU Safe” June 25, 2022 for more details
[xiii] Hopper. “Poilievre gains appeal among swing voters.” Ottawa Citizen. June 29, 2022.