Many articles have been written lately about the imminent collapse of the world order, and with good reason. Many if not most of the institutions, rules and conventions established after the Second World War — guard rails that have delivered peace and prosperity to much of the globe for nearly 75 years — have been attacked by a growing number of ruthless authoritarian leaders. [i] From Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine and Narendra Modi’s apparent willingness to silence critics in the Indian diaspora, to China’s interventions in the internal affairs of numerous western democracies and Iran’s blatant support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas, the list of bad actors and deeds grows daily.
There are also a number of democratic regimes that have been overthrown through coups or other uprisings, notably in Africa, to the dismay of western aid donors who were supporting them. Then there is the growing number of democratically elected illiberal regimes, from Erdogan in Turkey to Orban in Hungary, who are turning the clock back on the once robust expansion of liberal democracies around the world. Adding to the problem is the disruptive role played by American president Donald Trump, who systematically undermined or overturned many of the fundamental building blocks of this world order during his time in office.
The result of all this turmoil has been a disastrous decline in the number of functioning democracies. As Freedom House reported this year, after more than three decades of progress, the past 17 years have seen a steady decline in the number of people living in free and democratic regimes. In 2022, for the first time ever, the number of countries whose freedoms declined and those that showed improvements was essentially equal, leading the report’s authors to conclude 2022 might mark an ominous turning point in world progress.[ii]
The political consensus is collapsing in established western democracies as well. From the election of a party with close ties to a former Nazi predecessor in Italy and the growing support for the far right party of Marine LePen in France to the actual election of neo-Nazi party members in Germany,[iii] it is becoming increasingly obvious that all is not well on the western front either. Closer to home, for example, it is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the sea change that is currently taking place south of the border, in a country once viewed as a beacon of hope for the free world. One example from 50 years ago may serve to illustrate the enormity of the about face. In 1974, a disgraced President Richard Nixon was obliged to resign, just steps ahead of a threatened impeachment by Congress, after a House committee voted to proceed with the indictment. As Time magazine reported:
The impeachment action came at the end of a week in which the President’s chances of completing his second term in office fell to their lowest point since the Watergate scandal first threatened his political survival. Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had no authority to withhold tape recordings of his White House conversations from Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. The ruling raised the possibility that more evidence damaging to the President may become available.
The degree of bipartisanship in the Judiciary Committee vote was larger than had been expected, and it effectively rebutted the increasingly shrill claims from White House officials that the impeachment inquiry was a highly partisan “witch hunt” and that the committee amounted to “a kangaroo court.” The range of Republican support for impeachment, embracing the Midwest’s Harold Froehlich and Tom Railsback, the South’s M. Caldwell Butler, the East’s Hamilton Fish and New England’s William Cohen, may well influence wavering Republicans when the full House acts on the committee’s recommendation. [iv]
Fifty years later, the United States has somehow transitioned to a troubled populist, hyperpartisan democracy in which a former, and potentially future, president has been impeached twice and is currently facing more than 91 criminal charges in four separate legal cases. Yet his popularity continues to soar. A boastful and unrepentant Donald Trump has actually taken advantage of the situation to portray himself as a victim and even as a messianic martyr.[v] He has also described both congressional committee hearings and judicial proceedings related to his alleged offences as “kangaroo courts,” and denigrated crown prosecutors and judges as “Trump-haters.” Unlike in the Nixon era, however, this tactic is now proving hugely successful, especially with his legion of followers in the MAGA version of the Republican Party.
Meanwhile the basic institutions of their political system have been widely discredited in the eyes of many Americans for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Court has become the object of widespread scorn and resentment after the controversial appointment of several Republican nominees and numerous problematic rulings. Congress itself has become a three ring circus as the majority Republicans indulge in internecine warfare over the appointment of a Speaker, bringing the country’s legislative process to its knees. In addition the mainstream media have been replaced as the primary source of public information by sensationalist newcomer Fox News, and by the wild west of social media. The shocking and unprecedented assault on Congress itself on January 6, 2022 demonstrated graphically how misinformation has helped to fuel lack of respect for the rule of law and the constitution. American society is now deeply divided along partisan lines, with little or no consensus on almost any longstanding values and beliefs on which the country was founded.
In comparison with these depressing realities, some Canadians might consider our political system to be functioning reasonably well, but a growing number of their fellow citizens disagree. There is a surprisingly high level of unhappiness with not just the various policies of governments, but with the longstanding political consensus, and this discontent is being fomented deliberately by a new brand of right-wing populist politician. Where once the major political parties shared the same underlying values and beliefs and would only disagree on the specifics of programs or measures to achieve them, there is now a growing divide between the new right and the old guard mainstream parties over the very nature of these values and beliefs. As former Alberta premier Jason Kenney and his successor Danielle Smith have demonstrated recently with their disdain for the equalization program and the Canada Pension Plan, and Ontario premier Doug Ford with his moves to privatize parts of the health care system, this appears to include a reluctance to support many of the values of the welfare state, once considered a bedrock element of national identity.
At the federal level, a similar divide has emerged with the demise of the venerable Progressive Conservative party and the rise in its place of the much further right Conservative Party of Canada, dominated by western Canadian populists and former members of the Reform/Alliance Party, to say nothing of the emergence of the hard right Peoples Party of Canada (PPC), led by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier. Although far from electing even a single candidate at this point, the increase in the PPC’s percentage of the popular vote, from 1.6% in 2019 to 4.9% in 2021, is arguably cause for considerable concern in and of itself, particularly given that this figure represents nearly twice the vote received by the Green Party.
Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that these various far right politicians, along with the Canadians whom they influence, are now also publicly expressing dissatisfaction with the actual institutions of the state, which they believe (or claim to believe) are either dysfunctional or ineffective. (Or, in the words of the federal Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, “Canada is broken.”) This increasing lack of public confidence in the underlying pillars of our democracy is distressing to say the least, particularly since its origins are rooted in the toxic hyperpartisan political environment of the day and the general low level of civic literacy of the general public, neither of which is likely to improve in the near future.
Take the example of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s repeated criticism of the Bank of Canada and his vows to fire its Governor if his party wins the next federal election. For more than 70 years, (since the Diefenbaker/Coyne fiasco in 1957), Canadian politicians of all political stripes have respected the essential independence of the Bank and its leadership, knowing full well that to meddle in that area would risk Canada’s fiscal and monetary credibility among G7 partners and the broader world. Poilievre, it is obvious, does not care about the repercussions. And repercussions there would certainly be, as the scandalized author of a recent article in Central Banking Newsweek made clear in his report on the Conservative leader’s threat.[vi] But Canadians do not read such a journal, nor do they have any idea what the Bank of Canada actually does. Instead, many are simply convinced by Poilievre’s rants that something is wrong with that venerable institution, and he can fix it. (Quickly dropped, meanwhile, are his earlier assertions that cryptocurrency could go a long way toward fixing the country’s economic ‘problem’ after Bitcoin values plummeted and experts noted that following his advice could have cost someone half of their life savings.)[vii]
This deliberate undermining of democratic institutions for political gain is nothing new for Poilievre. Long before he became leader of the party, when he was Stephen Harper’s minister for Democratic Reform, Poilievre actually introduced legislation, (Bill C-23), which Auditor General Sheila Fraser referred to as antidemocratic. When Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand was called before the Senate committee examining the bill and was asked for his opinion, he referred to it as “deeply disturbing.” When pressed, he listed a number of problematic changes that were being proposed and agreed that it appeared designed to give one political party a considerable advantage. This led Poilievre to immediately lash out at Mayrand and Elections Canada, claiming the CEO was power hungry, and wanted to be given more money with less accountability. A shocked Leader of the Official Opposition of the day, Thomas Mulcair, described Poilievre’s attack as “vicious and totally inappropriate.”[viii] This did not deter the minister from repeating his accusations widely, despite numerous cautions from colleagues that he was diminishing the credibility of the electoral system itself with his unsubstantiated claims. Canadians have plenty of evidence of where that can lead, given Trump’s repeated claims of electoral tampering in the last American election, claims which huge numbers of his supporters still believe despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Nor has Poilievre hesitated to venture into other previously taboo areas of criticism by politicians, such as the Supreme Court. Until the arrival of the Harper Conservatives, the independence (and integrity) of this essential democratic institution was respected by politicians of all political stripes. That quickly changed after 2006 when prime minister Stephen Harper and several of his cabinet ministers, including Poilievre, regularly criticized the “activist” leanings of the court when decisions did not go their way. Harper even accused some Liberal appointees to the Court of “displaying a prejudicial bias, calling into question the Court’s neutrality and open-mindedness.”[ix] When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney went a step further and criticized a specific decision of the Court as having “failed to follow the political direction of the government”, the Canadian Bar Association fought back in an open letter to Kenney and the Conservative government. “Your public criticism of judges who follow the law but not the government’s political agenda is an affront to our democracy and our freedoms,”[x] they warned.
This did not stop the Conservatives from continuing to object to numerous Court decisions that ruled key pieces of their legislation unconstitutional, even though the government’s own legal experts had come to the same conclusion when these bills were tabled, long before they were referred to the Court. Nevertheless even many Conservatives were shocked when Prime Minister Harper and Justice Minister Peter Mackay engaged in a direct and unprecedented attack on Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, (a Mulroney government appointee), whom they accused of interfering in the appointments process when they were thwarted on constitutional grounds in their plans to appoint their own candidate to the Court.[xi]
Not surprisingly, then, Poilievre has continued to express his disdain and mistrust of the Supreme Court during his recent tenure as leader. Disagreeing with a recent ruling on parole eligibility terms for the gunman convicted of killing six people at a Quebec City mosque, Poilievre immediately declared he would invoke the notwithstanding clause to reverse that decision once he becomes prime minister. [xii] For his part, Chief Justice Claude Wagner, speaking to an interviewer at Radio Canada, warned of the potential disruption caused by political interference and cited developments south of the border. “If the people lose faith in the justice system, what will happen?”
Poilievre’s instinctive reliance on the notwithstanding clause is revealing in and of itself, demonstrating once again his ambivalence if not outright hostility towards the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an institution which has surpassed even the flag, the national anthem and ice hockey as a symbol of national identity in public opinion.[xiii] (And an institution supported by nine of ten provinces as well as both houses of parliament and all political parties before its implementation in 1982.) Here, too, Poilievre is following in the footsteps of his Reform/Conservative predecessors, who routinely argued against many of the rights entrenched in the Charter.[xiv] Yet successive governments of all political stripes exercised extreme caution and almost never considered invoking the clause for nearly forty years. Recently, however, there has been a sudden prolific use of the clause by right-wing populist provincial governments in Canada, including those of Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. As an article for the Kennedy School at Harvard concluded, this nearly routine use of the clause to protect problematic legislation, often before a court has even ruled on a specific case, threatens to legitimize its application and effectively render many of the rights contained in the Charter invalid. [xv]
And then of course there is the issue of the rule of law. Traditional Conservatives have long been staunch supporters of this democratic principle, but Pierre Poilievre has stood that idea on its head with his enthusiastic and continued support of the so-called Truckers’ Convoy that occupied Ottawa illegally for more than a month in the winter of 2022. Meanwhile Convoy members themselves provided a textbook demonstration of the need for improved civics classes in Canadian schools when their leadership seriously declared that they were intent on meeting with the Governor General and members of the Senate in order to jointly sign a “memorandum of understanding” that would overthrow the duly elected federal government in favour of their ad hoc arrangement.
While these individuals were evidently blissfully ignorant of the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy, the Conservative political leadership was not. Their blatant disregard for democratic values and institutions is perhaps only exceeded by their distrust of mainstream media, whose focus on facts and scientific evidence often run afoul of conservative beliefs and preferences. In this regard Poilievre, like Harper before him, has demonstrated an obsessive desire to discredit or eliminate much of the mainstream media if elected, and in the meantime chooses to avoid them whenever possible. His “Defund the CBC” pledge and open hostility towards the Canadian Press, for example, have become bedrock elements of a future campaign platform and a highly lucrative source of funding through his vicious and misleading attacks on these institutions on his social media accounts.[xvi]
As both Donald Trump and his wanna-be successor, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida have demonstrated time and time again, transitioning large swaths of the general public from legitimate and independent mainstream media to biased and even misleading sources of information, some of which they actually control, has been a crucial element of their campaign to destroy the political consensus. The last word on this goes to veteran communications adviser and former journalist Robin Sears, who outlined the potentially devastating consequences of such behaviour in a recent article:
A universal tool of demagogues is to demonize and threaten journalists. It’s an effective tactic, especially when aligned with a parallel campaign to create their own controlled media.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been revealed by Florida media and Harvard’s Nieman Lab as the latest threat to an independent media, seeking legislation to intimidate independent journalists by setting minimal requirements to suing them for libel. At the same time, he encourages his base to support a growing network of hyperpartisan media he helped nourish. He has yet to reach the next plateau of anti-journalism: singling out individual reporters for attack, attempting to ban them from news conferences and encouraging his fans to attack them on social media.
Pierre Poilievre took a step toward that unacceptable behaviour last week, attacking a CBC reporter publicly and refusing to answer questions put to him because they worked for Canada’s public broadcaster… Banning reporters or attempting to create your own lapdog media organizations is practically unheard of in Canada. Stephen Harper made a half-hearted effort, encouraging the creation of SUN TV as a captive right-wing news channel. It collapsed quickly, never to be revived.
This is a very dark hole that Poilievre is taking his party down… (The) Conservatives’ increasingly hostile behaviour today moves from being merely pitiable, to the edge of threatening democracy.[xvii]
There are no easy answers to the question of what can be done to stop this insidious slide into authoritarian and illiberal democracies. But clearly mainstream media cannot do this on their own. A well-known axiom of parliamentary democracy is that the role of legislators is to “legislate, legitimate and educate.” At the moment it appears that there is a pressing need for mainstream legislators and party leaders to spend more time on their role as educators. It also appears, based on the egregious lack of knowledge displayed by Convoy participants, that far more needs to be done in terms of civic education in the classroom. At the end of the day, however, voters get the government they deserve. If Canadians are not sufficiently shocked and appalled by what is happening south of the border, or they have fallen victim to the tired belief that the alternative can hardly be worse than the current situation, then Canada is clearly not immune to the siren call of simplistic populist solutions or aggressive attacks on the existing order.
[i] See for example https://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-co-tear-up-the-global-rule-book-international-affairs-world-order-b797ead4 and https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/03/the-post-coronavirus-world-order-230042
[iv] Time Magazine. “The Fateful Vote to Impeach” August 4, 1974.
[ix] D. Gardner. “Harper Could Shape the Judiciary for a Generation.” Ottawa Citizen. May 6,2011.
[x] A. Sniderman. “Harper vs. the Judges”. Macleans. Aug 21, 2012.
[xi] For more detail see B. Jeffrey. Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda. (Toronto: MQUP, 2015). Pp155-164.
[xii] D.Leblanc. “Chief Justice Warns Against Political Attacks on Judicial Independence”, CBC News. June 5, 2022.
[xiv] See Dismantling Canada. pp. 164-8 for more detail.
[xvii] R. Sears. Pierre Poilievre’s Media Bashing Foreshadows His Approach to Governing. Toronto Star. Feb.22, 2023