Since the advent of the neoliberal era, the reign of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, liberal democracy has been left to its own devices. The warning sign, the red flag, was the extinction of any meaningful vestige of progressivism from the body politic.
The last defender of liberal democracy we knew in Canada was Pierre Trudeau who bequeathed to us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that, coupled with a courageous Supreme Court, thwarted the worst undemocratic instincts of subsequent prime ministers notably Stephen Harper and even Justin Trudeau.
The decline of neoliberalism was marked by the evolution of a corporate media cartel, a wholesale shift in the balance between labour and capital, and the development of the corporate state whose leaders preferred to operate in the boardrooms rather than the livingrooms of the nation.
Harper may have dragged Canada's political centre far to the right but both the Liberals and the New Democrats followed complacently in his wake. The Liberals became 'conservative-lite' while the New Dems positioned themselves as 'latter-day liberals.' What Harper had wrought they chose not to undo. In the process the Liberal Party of Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau became untethered from the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. The New Democrats of Layton and Mulcair strayed from the party of Douglas, Lewis and Broadbent. In so doing all three parties pulled the rug out from under liberal democracy.
Across the political spectrum, liberal democracy flourishes in a smallish band located at the centre, neither hard right nor hard left. Picture in your mind a circle. At the very top you have totalitarianism. At the very bottom you have liberal democracy. As you move from the bottom, whether to the right or left, liberal democracy is gradually displaced by authoritarianism of the sort we're seeing in today's emerging nationalist/populist movements. Today we're heading mainly to the right, a path that sees democracy steadily displaced by plutocracy and then oligarchy. Beyond that, well, we'll just have to wait and see.
Andrew Sullivan recently wrote of this movement in Europe and the United States. The article was titled, "Is the World Done with Liberal Democracy?" He makes the case that it is.
At the risk of inviting howls of scorn and derision, I mention today's column in The Globe by John Ibbitson, "Ontario has lost its political centre."
The political centre is collapsing in Ontario, polarizing between social democrats and populist conservatives. We thought it couldn’t happen here. It’s happening here. And it poses a grave threat to the Liberal Party, both provincially and federally.
No party has plans to balance the provincial budget, align new spending with available resources, seek practical, incremental change. For both parties, the centre is the enemy.
Such a polarization between well-to-the-left and populist right challenges the electoral base of the federal Liberals. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be able to work with an NDP government, the PC’s plans to eliminate the carbon tax flies in the face of a core federal commitment to fight climate change.
Maybe a year and a half of Doug Ford would make Mr. Trudeau look good to Ontario voters. Or maybe things would become so toxic that polarization infects federal politics as well.
Is the social democratic/populist conservative schism in Ontario permanent? That’s impossible to say. Had the PCs chosen a more conventional conservative as leader, had Ms. Wynne stepped aside when there was still a chance for the Liberals to renew the party, we might not be talking about schisms.It seems odd to read Ibbitson lamenting developments that he and his kind have done so much to nurture and empower.
Here’s the big question: Would a Ford government enable the haters, even though he espouses no such hatred himself? Would the alt-right interpret a Premier Ford as carte blanche to demand an end to immigration, to target visible minorities, to proclaim that Ontario is Christian and white?Ibbitson is beginning to sound much like the NYT's David Brooks' day-late laments about Donald Trump soiling of the Republican Party. A pox on them both.
We’ll find out the answer if Mr. Ford wins. Ms. Horwath is determined to stop him. All we know for sure is that, at least in Ontario, at least for now, the centre no longer holds.
Yet more disturbing is the notion of Justin Trudeau as the essential gatekeeper of liberal democracy in Canada. There's a huge difference between setting out to destroy liberal democracy and doing anything meaningful to defend it. Trudeau is no Stephen Harper but that doesn't mean that liberal democracy is safe in his hands.
My father planted in his young son's mind the reality that we didn't have a right or freedom that hadn't been paid for, often more than once, in blood. Over the years I came to understand that every right and freedom we hold has a greater value to those who might deprive us of it than we ever perceive it to be worth. Here we are.