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Is Democracy Doomed?

Nov 14, 2018
Kip Beckman
Principal Economist
World Outlook

Democracy is in full retreat in many parts of the world, a troubling development for a system of government that, for all its flaws, has proved to be the best way to organize society and produce high standards of living.

In Europe, the leaders of Poland and Hungary are gradually chipping away at the institutions that support democracy, including a free press. And Russia ceased being a democracy years ago, as President Vladimir Putin has made it extremely difficult for opposition parties to oppose him. People in these countries can still vote, but an effective democracy requires far more than merely showing up at polling stations.

Even more troubling have been the disturbing developments in the United States, traditionally a beacon of hope for supporters of democracy. While the democratic institutions there remain strong and have thwarted some of President Donald Trump’s more autocratic demands, democracy can never be taken for granted. The strong U.S. constitution doesn’t necessarily guarantee that democracy will prevail. If it could, the United States wouldn’t have experienced a long and brutal civil war in the 1860s.

Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note that to succeed, democratic institutions must be reinforced by two unwritten rules—mutual toleration and forbearance. The first—mutual tolerance—involves politicians accepting that members of opposition parties are legitimate. The second—forbearance—is the using of restraint in the exercise of power and entails pulling back on doing things that the U.S. constitution permits politicians to do. Forbearance is rarely mentioned but is crucial for the operation of an effective democracy. For example, under the constitution, the president can legally pardon anyone he wants to at any time, effectively undermining judicial oversight. A president with a majority in the Senate could expand an unfriendly Supreme Court to more than the current nine judges and then stack it by appointing allies to the vacancies. If a president fails to use forbearance in the exercise of power, it can easily lead to a dysfunctional government and even a constitutional crisis.

The problem in the United States, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, is that democratic norms have become vulnerable to polarization. When societies divide into partisan groups with dramatically different views, and when these differences are viewed as irreconcilable, political rivalries can lead to partisan hatred. Polarization in the U.S. is currently at its highest point in more than a century. Fifty years ago, just 5 per cent of registered Republicans and Democrats said they would be upset if their child married someone from the other party. Today, close to 50 per cent of Republicans and 33 per cent of Democrats say they would be displeased. The parties’ views on issues such as immigration and social policies are dramatically different. In fact, decades of immigration and the shift of religious fundamentalists to the Republican Party have left the U.S. with two completely different political parties—one that is secular and ethnically diverse and another that identifies as Christian and is mainly white.  

The extreme polarization is closely linked to economic insecurity, as many workers in the United States blame globalization and immigration for their stagnant standard of living and weak wage gains over the past few decades. This has made them susceptible to populist politicians, such as President Trump, who provide simple solutions to complex problems. What these workers share is a fear of immigrants stealing their jobs and ruining their culture.                  

The effect of increasing polarization and a decline in forbearance in the United States has led to an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. The numerous government shutdowns linked to failures to increase the debt ceiling, the increased use of the filibuster, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and vicious fights over Supreme Court justices are just a few examples of the breakdown in democracy in the United States.

Could Canada succumb to the politics of tribalism and populism? It is possible, but Canada has some advantages that could help it to avoid the populist wave. There is evidence that countries, such as Canada, that emerged from the 2008–09 recession in better shape than most are better equipped to beat back the appeal of populists. Canada didn’t experience the surge in home foreclosures that took place in the United States. As well, income inequality is not as problematic in Canada as in the United States and has remained stable over the past 20 years. Yet, a strong economy is not a complete guarantee. In Australia, which hasn’t had to deal with a recession in 27 years, the ruling coalition recently ousted moderate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and replaced him with the tough-on-immigration Scott Morrison.

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson contends that the long quest in Canada to reconcile French and English interests has resulted in a culture of accommodation that favours compromise over the hardline views of many populist politicians. Certainly, at the federal level, we don’t hear much of the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by Trump or, in Britain, by the supporters of Brexit. But Canada isn’t entirely immune to the appeal of populist messages, as was shown by the results of recent elections in Ontario and Quebec that saw populists win power. Also, former federal cabinet minister Maxime Bernier recently split from the Conservative Party of Canada and formed a new party based partly on opposition to high levels of immigration and to what Bernier refers to as “the cult of diversity.”

The historian and writer Anne Applebaum notes that, given the right circumstances, any successful country could turn away from democracy. Unfortunately, the direction that many countries are currently heading in suggests that she may be right.

Sources: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Is Our Democracy Wobbly?” The New York Times,January 27, 2018; John Ibbitson, “Divided We Fall,” The Globe and Mail, October 13, 2018.


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