Pierre Poilievre and the Growing Threat of Illiberal Democracy

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Pierre Poilievre has often been compared to Donald Trump by his critics. While Mr. Poilievre may consider this a badge of honour, Canadians should be worried. An even more unsettling comparison could be made between Poilievre and several far right European leaders, such as Hungary’s Victor Orban and Marine LePen of France. What all of these controversial politicians have in common is a willingness to not merely stretch the truth but to indulge in arguments based on what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway so blatantly referred to as “alternative facts.”[i] This in turn leads them to create an “alternate reality”[ii] based on conspiracy theories and popular beliefs rather than scientific evidence. One in which the media, experts, bureaucrats and other “elites” are portrayed as the enemy, where political opponents are demonized and where constitutions, the judiciary and minority rights are seen as something to be either ignored or undermined. In short, a reality in which liberal values are rejected.

Why is this important for Canada? Because, as award-winning journalist Andrew Cohen has argued, there is every reason to believe this trend is spreading and may soon infect us all. In one recent article he warned “the West is losing the fight for democracy”, one country and one manipuIation of democratic norms at a time.[iii]

Until recently it was possible for most of us to be complacent. Since World War II liberal democracies have been the norm in the West. Elsewhere in the world the number of such democracies grew steadily in the second half of the 20th century, standing in stark contrast to other states under the control of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. However, in the last twenty-five years many of these new and emerging liberal democracies have succumbed to a series of unexpected developments that have severely constrained the rights of their citizens and undermined the democratic process. The result has been the democratic election of essentially undemocratic regimes.

In most cases these new governments are led by popular (and often populist) “strong men” intent on gaining and exercising autocratic powers, ignoring the rights of minorities and polarizing their societies by promoting ethnic conflict and xenophobic nationalism. Classic examples include Hungary under Victor Orban (recently re-elected for a third time with over 60% of the popular vote) and Serbia under Aleksandar Vucic, not to mention Turkey’s stunning reversal of democratic progress under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.    

In a seminal article published in 1997, political scientist Fareed Zakaria coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe this paradoxical phenomenon.[iv] In essence he argued that the electoral component of democracy in these regimes has been separated from essential aspects of liberal democracy, including respect for civil liberties and constitutional government. His conclusion has been reinforced by the observations of countless other scholars, who have variously termed the perverse outcome “electoral authoritarianism”[v] or “soft authoritarianism”.[vi] They all agree that the liberal values underpinning western democracies are being trampled beneath the feet of this new brand of illiberal leader.

How is this possible?  Do citizens not object? The answer appears to be by moving slowly and gradually. Other academic studies of this phenomenon (such as Sajo’s Ruling by Cheating and Guriev and Treisman’s Spin Dictators) have stressed that the dismantling of many liberal elements of these democracies has also taken place by stealth, or without the apparent understanding by citizens of what is actually happening. 

Liberal democracies require free and fair elections offering citizens a real choice between two or more political parties. But they also require much more. Majority rule must be tempered by minority rights. The power of governments must be tempered by constitutional limitations and the existence of an independent judiciary. Citizens must have the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, and access to accurate information provided by a free press. In short, liberal democracies require the existence of both free elections and free citizens.      

Illiberal democracies do not have “free” elections because the  electoral process has been rigged or manipulated and the independent media that would provide accurate information have been muzzled or eliminated. Nor do their citizens enjoy many standard civil liberties such as freedom of speech or association, and minorities may also be deprived of equality rights. In addition, both the constitution and the judiciary in these illiberal democracies have been weakened or rendered impotent

 As noted British historian and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash has warned, the emergence of illiberal democracies in much of central and eastern Europe should be a serious concern for liberal democracies everywhere. He stresses the presence of illiberal elements in such established democracies as France, with the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, and similar support for the AfD in Germany and the Freedom Party in Austria.[vii] Mainstream European politicians have heeded this warning. In advance of an unexpectedly tight French presidential election between current president Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen, the leaders of Germany, Portugal and Spain published an open letter to French voters in which they wrote “the choice is between a democratic candidate, who believes that France is stronger in a powerful and autonomous European Union, and a far-right candidate who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and our democracy — fundamental (liberal) values that come directly from the French Enlightenment.”

Then there is the United States, where many state legislators are rigging the next federal election through voting constraints, where the stunning growth in popularity of alternative media such as Fox News is compounded by the fact they are no longer legally required to tell the truth, and where the once mighty Republican Party has been captured by Trump supporters who continue to promote the myth of the stolen 2020 election.

Pierre Poilievre’s recent and widely reported campaign to “axe the tax” on pickup trucks — a tax which does not exist and which the Trudeau government has repeatedly stated it has no plans to introduce — is a classic example of this type of alternative reality, as are his bizarre claims that Canadians can beat inflation by investing in bitcoins or that he will make Canada “the freest country on earth.” So too are his patented diatribes against the “gatekeepers” and “global elites” like the World Economic Forum, and his repeated personal attacks on the prime minister, whom he has accused of being a “corrupt tin pot dictator” and a de facto tyrant who has deprived Canadians of their civil liberties.[viii] Perhaps even more disturbing is his ongoing vehement support for the illegal blockades and occupation of Ottawa by what he continues to call “the truckers.” [ix]

Many will see Poilievre as a buffoon. Others may see him as someone who will hand the Liberals the next election on a silver platter if he is elected leader of the Conservative Party. What we need to see about him is that he is dangerous, whether he wins the leadership or not.

Using his platform as an elected MP — and as the frontrunner in the leadership race of the only other political party capable of forming a national government — his claims are inevitably seen as more credible, and disproportionately influential compared with the claims of societal outliers such as the organizers of the Ottawa occupation. Even if his supporters constitute only a small percentage of the electorate, his rhetoric and misleading claims are likely to be accepted, repeated and internalized by a much larger segment of the population, leading to an even greater polarization of society. As leadership rival Jean Charest declared, this is not someone who is capable or worthy of governing.[x]

On the contrary, this is someone who is leading the attack on liberal democracy in Canada. Yes, it is still on a much smaller scale than elsewhere, and certainly than the United States, where the erosion of democratic process, judicial credibility and faith in almost all institutions of government has snowballed since the January 6 assault on Congress. But already the impact of Poilievre’s influence has been felt more widely than within his small circle of supporters. Not only the Conservative Party’s central office but several other Conservative MPs, along with Alberta United Conservative premier Jason Kenney, have repeated the false claims about the truck tax. One of Poilievre’s caucus colleagues, Alberta MP Rachael Thomas, recently stood in the House of Commons and argued that the prime minister fits the dictionary description of a dictator, namely “a ruler with total power over a country, especially one who has gained it using force.” [xi]

Meanwhile former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and five of his caucus members met with participants in the Ottawa occupation and posted photos of themselves speaking with them. Earlier in the year, premier Kenney’s government spent millions of taxpayer dollars to conduct a “referendum” on equalization which was both blatantly misleading and meaningless, deliberately fanning the flames of western alienation against the “elites” of central Canada, the Liberal Party and the prime minister. Now Kenney is one of Poilievre’s most important supporters.  

The right wing Conservatives who took over the old Progressive Conservative Party have always disliked the CBC. Poilievre has promised to “unfund” it. Stephen Harper mistrusted the mainstream national media to such an extent that he gave interviews to local and regional media instead, and refused to participate in the traditional leaders’ debates organized by the mainstream media. Harper also repeatedly broke with liberal democratic norms to criticize the independent judiciary, including members of the Supreme Court and its then Chief Justice. Needless to say no celebration took place under Harper on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 2012, and neither Pierre Poilievre nor Interim Conservative Leader Candace Bergen recognized its 40th anniversary on April 17 of this year. Instead, Bergen, like Poilievre, has continued to focus on what she has repeatedly and incorrectly described as the Liberal/NDP “coalition”, a discredited term which Stephen Harper earlier managed to convince most Canadians was not only unparliamentary but undemocratic.

One obvious lesson to be learned here is that knowledge really is power. The abysmal lack of basic knowledge about our system of government that the Ottawa Occupation protesters demonstrated – with their bizarre plan to replace a democratically elected government with a cabal of unelected senators, the Governor General and the protesters themselves — is a cautionary tale. Far more Canadians, as Stephen Harper demonstrated with his diatribe against coalitions,  have no idea how parliamentary governments work. And, as some Conservatives demonstrated after the 2019 federal election, even many politicians lack some basic understanding of representative democracy.

Clearly the educational system needs to do a better job providing future voters with the information necessary to participate meaningfully in the democratic process. Civics classes are not merely desirable but crucial. In addition, governments must do a better job of communicating accurate information about issues and policy initiatives proactively.     

And, as the travails of Democrats and progressive voters in the United States have made clear throughout the Trump era, the media needs to adapt its reporting principles to the new reality. In the face of the deliberately misleading and incorrect statements cheerfully cited by some far right politicians, the media’s traditional objective of ensuring “balance” must be abandoned in a debate where one side has undermined the basic rules of the game, and more attention must be devoted to “fact-checking.” Failure to counter each and every one of these misleading statements and outright lies can have serious consequences. If we are not vigilant about the small measures that are chipping away at liberal democracy, it may be impossible to stop the trend to increasingly illiberal regimes in the West, and even in Canada.       

[i] https://www.smh.com.au/world/donald-trump-introduces-world-to-alice-in-wonderland-era-of-alternative-reality-20170123-gtwktg.html

[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewsolender/2020/10/27/all-the-ways-trumpworld-is-crafting-an-alternate-reality-in-the-elections-final-days/?sh=740c02f61afb

[iii] A. Cohen. “The West is Losing the Fight for Democracy.” Ottawa Citizen. April 14, 2022

[iv] F. Zakaria. “the Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Foreign Affairs. Nov-Dec 1997.

[v] Neil DeVotta. “From Civil War to Soft Authoritarianism”. Global Change,Peace and Security. 22(3) 331-343.

[vi] Andreas Schedler. Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. (New York: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006)

[vii] T. Garton Ash. “Can Europe Get Tough on Russia and Hungary at the Same Time?” Globe and Mail. April 6,2022

[viii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/great-reset-trudeau-poilievre-otoole-pandemic-covid-1.5817973

[ix] https://nationalpost.com/news/im-proud-of-the-truckers-says-poilievre-in-lambasting-justin-trudeaus-response-to-protests

[x] https://ottawa.citynews.ca/local-news/charest-says-poilievre-unfit-for-party-leadership-after-support-for-freedom-convoy-2022-5258345

[xi] https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/some-conservatives-disagree-with-mp-calling-trudeau-a-dictator-in-house-of-commons-1.5841623