Wednesday, November 07, 2018

What Happens When We Take Democracy for Granted?

"The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections. ...the remedy is proportional representation. It is profoundly democratic, for it increases the influence of thousands who would otherwise have no voice in the government; and it brings men more near an equality by so contriving that no vote shall be wasted, and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own opinions." - Lord Acton, 1878
Canadians take our democracy for granted. Most rarely think of it at all. We were born into it and we assume it will be with us forever. History shows that's a dangerous complacency.

I've been reading about life in Germany between the world wars. It's a fascinating era in which a brief flirtation with democracy yielded to first authoritarian and ultimately totalitarian rule.  Good, decent, educated people who grew up without the curse of antisemitism succumbed to the Nazi movement incrementally. Step by step they allowed themselves to be swallowed up. As you explore it in depth you realize that this absolutely could happen to us. You think yourself immune to such a contagion. You may be deluding yourself.

A great article in Foreign Affairs, "After Democracy. What happens when freedom erodes."

Across the world, including in the United States as midterm elections unfold, experts lament that democracy is eroding, or backsliding, or perhaps even dying. But this tells us little about what is most likely to arise, exactly, in democracy’s stead. When democracy erodes, what remains? When a democracy backslides, where does it wind up? When democracy dies, what is born?

The simple answer is authoritarianism. But authoritarian regimes are every bit as diverse as democracies. Authoritarianism is not simply the absence of democracy but its own political beast—really a menagerie of very different beasts—with multiple modi operandi. For this reason, it is safe to say that democracy is under serious threat but that the threat is not a singular one.

From the United States to the Philippines to Poland to Brazil, two undemocratic models of rule are readily identifiable. One is electoral authoritarianism, in which rulers win power through elections, but those elections are either manipulated or the playing field between incumbents and opponents between elections is far from fair. The other is illiberal democracy, in which rulers freely win elections but then abuse both their authority and minority populations with the power they win. To put it most plainly, electoral authoritarians do as they please to win elections. Illiberal democrats do as they please after winning them. While elected leaders and governments often combine both features as democracy erodes, it’s perfectly possible to have one without the other.
The differences between these two undemocratic beasts are legion. Electoral authoritarianism is typically the collective enterprise of a ruling party. Illiberal democracy—a term originally coined by Fareed Zakaria and recently embraced by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban—is more often the individual project of a power-hungry elected leader. Electoral authoritarians use subterfuge to undermine partisan opponents. Illiberal democrats openly assault minority populations and brazenly attack core democratic institutions that would constrain the elected chief executive. Electoral authoritarians will not accept defeat. Illiberal democrats will not accept restraints. Electoral authoritarians cheat so their power will not be lost. Illiberal democrats break norms and bend the rules so their power will not be limited.
Illiberal democracy and electoral authoritarianism can both be seen in practice around the world today. And both of these undemocratic types threaten to take hold if democracy erodes, backslides, or even dies in the United States. Although the specter of illiberal democracy is imminent but could soon evaporate, the United States’ vulnerability to electoral authoritarianism is both long-standing and likely to persist, regardless of what transpires in the midterm elections and in elections to come.
...Observers differ widely on how severe of a threat, if any, President Donald Trump and an increasingly bellicose and norm-violating Republican Party pose to American democracy. One reason for this is that they pose meaningfully different threats. 
Like Duterte, Trump is a consummate illiberal democrat. He attacks anyone who dares to criticize him. His respect for the media, courts, and other democratic institutions of constraint is entirely contingent on their not constraining him. Whereas previous Republican leaders have used dog whistles to excite anti-immigrant and other racist sentiments, Trump uses a bullhorn. He is a personalistic ruler driven by appetites. How and through what deals with foreign interests he acquired his enormous fortune—and perhaps continues to do so as president—is considered none of the people’s business. Yet he has no evident strategy to consolidate his power over a long period of time in electoral authoritarian fashion, if American political institutions could even be bent so far in the first place.
The Republican Party is a different matter entirely. Through widespread voter identification laws and related forms of voter suppression—most blatantly in Wisconsin in 2016 and in Georgia today—the GOP appears to focus more on winning elections than on winning majorities. This antimajoritarian strategic focus fits beautifully with the Electoral College system, which has delivered the last two Republican presidents to the White House without winning the popular vote: a Malaysia-like pattern of loser takes all that cannot be allowed to continue in any electoral democracy worthy of the name.
It's an important essay and I urge you to read it in its entirety. Democracy is under attack in the United States by both Trump and the heinous Republican Party. It is a genuine contagion that didn't begin with the inauguration of the Mango Mussolini but has certainly spread faster, across America and beyond, through his influence.

To me, the rise of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism are real and present threats to liberal democracy everywhere. We are not immune. In their own ways, Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, occasionally echo that Trump vibe.

I am far from convinced that Justin Trudeau is an adequate defender of liberal democracy. He came to power, after all, on a highly progressive platform that earned him the support of almost two out of five voters. Then, having pocketed his false majority, he proceeded to jettison those hopeful promises - everything from electoral reform to social licence, First Nations consultation, and more.

Surely electoral reform in a multi-party state is the sine qua non of a healthy liberal democracy. When a party leader ascends to majority rule on the strength of a minority of voter support and then ditches the lofty promises that delivered him that majority, how can he and his party claim to be governing with the informed consent of the electorate? How can they pretend to have a mandate? How can they claim to be upholding democracy? Just because they use the contrivance of a grievously out of date electoral model, that does not imbue them with any genuine legitimacy. They cannot claim the consent of the governed.

We need to realize that our democracy is not secure and that we cannot afford to take the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as immutable. Until we have an electoral system that assures every voter of a meaningful voice, our liberal democracy is imperiled.


Toby said...

Democracy is always fragile. Fascism can happen here. I have known this since I was 12. Bullies never stop, never go away. When we are fortunate qualified people accept leadership roles for the benefit of all. When we are unfortunate the bullies take power because they like it.

Only a fool thinks Fascism can't happen here. Of course it can.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Toby, it can happen here. The question posed is what we can do to see that it doesn't happen here. How do we fortify our democracy to ensure that authoritarianism is held in check?

Lorne said...

The concept of electoral reform, to really take hold, requires some thoughtful effort on the part of the populace, Mound. Too few are willing to make that effort, content with being mentally flaccid if not completely inert. As for so many others, the current fragile state of democracy creates a deep alienation and low voter participation which, I suspect, people like Trudeau are only too happy to cultivate.

Anonymous said...

There's a very important structural predictor of authoritarian rule that I don't see mentioned: inequality. Have a look at this map.

While inequality isn't a perfect predictor, it has a strong positive correlation to authoritarian rule. Those with extreme wealth lose touch with the concerns of those without it and become more concerned with their own wealth ranking. They are literally able to buy the government they want.

In the US, for example, three men - Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett - have more wealth than the bottom half of the population combined; the top 10 billionaires have more than the bottom two-thirds of the population. It's no wonder that the US is more an oligarchy than a democracy.

Canadians need to pay careful attention to our own rising inequality and stop voting for the tax cutters who enable it.


the salamander said...

.. a link for you, Mound..
I have not heard it in its entirety
but so far so good.. so intimidating..
Chris Hedges of course..
an Intercept podcast
so you may have heard it

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Cap - I think your point is addressed in an item I posted today, "National populism is unstoppable." I would really appreciate your thoughts on that discussion.

The Mound of Sound said...

Lorne, I agree. The referendum on electoral reform in BC is off to an agonizingly slow start. We have until month end to get our ballots in but still.... The scenario you fear is spot on. We'll sleepwalk our way into authoritarian rule. What I've been reading suggests that a great many Germans did just that in the "soft" years of Hitler's rise to power.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sal, thanks for the link. I'm listening to it as I write this. I do appreciate your observations. I might not get all the nuances but I almost always wind up following where you're going. Many thanks for all of that.