Democracy can't be taken for granted. Charlottesville proves that. - Macleans.ca
 

Democracy can’t be taken for granted. Charlottesville proves that.

Opinion: The tragedy in Charlottesville is a reminder that democracy requires constant commitment—even in places like the U.S. and Canada


 
People gathered in front of the White House to hold a vigil on Sunday, August 13, 2017, in Washington, D.C., a day after the violence in Charlottesville, VA. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

People gathered in front of the White House to hold a vigil on Sunday, August 13, 2017, in Washington, D.C., a day after the violence in Charlottesville, VA. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This past weekend, white supremacists and fascists marched in protest of the removal of a statue of a Confederate general. The march was met with a counter-protest that was attacked by a domestic terrorist who struck a crowd of protestors with his car, killing a young woman and injuring several others, the capstone atop two days of tension and violence.

All of this took place in Charlottesville, Virginia—home to the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. All of this took place in America, where such things seem so incongruent, at least in theory, with what we expect from a liberal democracy in our century.

But it’s no surprise that things turned violent very quickly. There is a widely held and misguided conceit that’s particular to our contemporary, developed world conception of democracy: that individual rights and freedoms can be protected and preserved without the constant, vigorous participation of citizens in public life, and a corresponding commitment to privileging our own needs over essential collective ends—like, say, not allowing armed white supremacists and fascists to march through a town.

In the United States—and elsewhere, too, including Canada—we have come to take democracy for granted. We think of it as “set-it-and-forget-it,” as if democracy is inherently self-renewing rather than the product of sustained work by those who live under it. Instead, the promise of democracy is a bold one—and indeed, it may be a conceited one, the idea that a large, diverse group of people who fundamentally disagree with one another can not only live together in peace and prosperity but can also self-govern. And yet its history is the story of many such attempts by groups of people to self-determine, to build solidarity and trust, and to channel would-be violence through legitimate political institutions. None of this happens by accident, and all of it happens through work. No democratic form of government is guaranteed—a fact we ought to remind ourselves of often.

MORE: An obituary for American greatness, 1776-2017

There is, after all, a bug (or a feature, depending on who you ask) in liberal democratic government, the version of democracy enjoyed today in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and other elsewhere. Our democracy is a combination of two sometimes-antagonistic ideas crammed together. Liberalism, as a political philosophy, is primarily concerned with freedom, rights, and a focus on the individual—summarized these days as “leave me alone.” Democracy is primarily concerned with collective self-rule, either directly or, as is more common these days, through representatives—summarized historically and today as “Let’s decide how to live together.” The two bits of ideas that form liberal democracy are often in tension with one another—for instance, when individual rights are limited so that some collective good can be achieved (hello, taxes). We try to strike a balance between liberalism and democracy, but far too often we let the former crowd out the latter. We tend to be great liberals and lousy democrats. So, when we’re called on to practice democratic citizenship, we either shirk our duty or fail to distinguish ourselves with anything resembling passable public engagement.

That’s troubling and dangerous. Imagine democracy as a marriage. Now, imagine if the parties in that union decided that the work of binding themselves to one another ended with their marital vows. That’s us—far too many of us, anyway. We nod to the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence, or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—whatever the document may be—and then we go on with our private lives, as if we owe nothing, as if the words written or implied or read into foundational texts will do the hard work of self-government for us. We take our interests as prior to and above the public good. We expect that our worldview is the undisputed expression of what is good and right and true and beautiful.

MORE: It wasn’t a lone, unusual flare-up. Charlottesville really is America.

The violence in Charlottesville was the product of white supremacy rooted in a racist, colonial history, and not merely a failure of democratic citizenship. But robust citizenship is essential as a bulwark against the worst elements of a society. The marchers in Virginia were enabled by the (admittedly legitimate) presidency of Donald Trump; indeed, David Duke, a racist icon and former politician, credited Trump on the day of the march: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump….that’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.” All of this nastiness comes from somewhere.

When The Economist downgraded the United States to a flawed democracy earlier this year, the magazine noted that it was not because of Trump; rather, the drop “was caused by the same factors that led Mr. Trump to the White House: a continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials.” Declining trust was one factor in the U.S. decline; another was a lack of political engagement and participation, and a combination of democratic malaise, declining trust, the rise of a white-supremacist right wing, endemic racism, and economic inequality and anxiety now has a stranglehold on the United States. Charlottesville is a symptom of a very ill democracy, and it isn’t obvious that the body politic is healthy enough to fight off the infection.

There’s an impulse here at home to declare that none of this could happen in Canada. We are not the United States, plainly. And yet, we are not immune to democratic decline and the ensuing malady. We too have a colonial and racist history; we too suffer economic inequality and anxiety; we too take our democracy for granted far too often; we too harbour citizens—even certain leaders—who preach hatred and ignorance, and who thus enable violence.

Carl Sagan once noted that human beings are all descendants of the Big Bang—of nearly 14 billion years of cosmic coming and going. Nearer to our own time, we are also descendants of a democratic tradition that began more than two millennia ago. As a human achievement, democracy is not a miracle: it is the product of promise, work, and blood. It has been lost before and it can be lost again—perhaps permanently.

The violence and tragedy in Charlottesville should serve as a reminder that the contemporary democratic project is an ongoing endeavour that demands that we continually renew our commitment to citizenship, inclusiveness, and liberty while offering to sacrifice, participate, and cooperate, joining others in being a part of collective self-government. And for those in government, the tragedy and shame that unfolded in Charlottesville must encourage the provision of sufficient resources to allow citizens to faithfully and meaningfully engage with their democracy.

As former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson put it: “Each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.” That is the democratic project: participation in a form of government that is ultimately much bigger than ourselves. It’s a project that preceded us, and it will—if we work hard and are fortunate—succeed us, too.


 

Democracy can’t be taken for granted. Charlottesville proves that.

  1. ??? It was quite democratic.

  2. We are essentially a democracy of the stupid.

    Not because we are incapable of intelligence, but because information is power and we are under attack, and have been for 100 years. Misinformation has become normal and polarizing.

    The only thing we can all hope to share in peace is truth.

    While our enemies, our government, the media and the elite, lie to us, our only defence is truth.

    But the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled twice that truth is no defence. So what is?

  3. All citizens must be aware and prepared in the face of this onslaught by neo nazis.
    Maybe the backlash has already had some impact, Ezra Levant and the Rebel, chief propagators of hatred and extremism in Canada are suddenly chastened and renouncing the actions of the violent racists in Charlottesville, the same ones they had been glorifying just a day or so before.

    Has their increasingly xenophobic and reckless behaviour at last gone too far and made them toxic to the politicians they were always so cozy with such as Andrew Scheer?

    It seems the rats really are diving off that sinking ship. Brian Lilley co- founder and chief promoter of the Rebel has cut ties . Will the rest of the political writers of the Sun do the same? Most of those writers appear in the Rebel as well as the Sun. It will be interesting to watch,

    But whatever happens to the Rebel and other hate mongers in Canada it is also worth remembering that Muslim men at prayer were murdered by one of our own home grown neo nazis. We have no reason to be complacent.

  4. I find it interesting that when a Muslim goes and kills a few dozen people at a gay club, it’s “#NotAllMuslims”. When Antifa thugs beat people unconscious, spray innocent people in the face with mace, nothing is said. But when racists start stirring up shit, resulting in the death of someone, now everyone gives a cr*p.
    Come on people, have one set of standards, not 2.

    • If you weren’t so concerned about your blinkered prejudices you would realize that #notallmuslims is equivalent to #notallchristians
      .
      no one is blaming all Christians or all whites for the racist violence of white supremacists. They are blaming all racists. Just like all terrorists are to blame for terrorism.
      .
      it’s not that complicated …. unless you are searching for excuses to spread racism and bigotry

  5. Idiocracy is now filed with the documentaries.

  6. It’s terrible when you don’t get your way. I get quite upset when people I didn’t vote for do things I don’t like, but as they didn’t get in there as a result of a military coup or similar, I suck it up. Those racist groups had every right to march, they had a permit I believe. The leftists who vowed to ‘shut them down’ had no right to do so. Virtually every media outlet described the leftists as ‘peaceful’ but that was far from the case, many came prepared to fight. I doubt very much if this will benefit the left, when voting time rolls around we will see what democracy looks like. I doubt that the author of this article will accept it as such.

    • The left side had two groups involved in this Virginia mess who have been a major force in 90% of the violent riots and protests in the U.S. since Trump beat Clinton. Those were Black Lives Matter (which has morphed into a black supremacist organization) and Anti-fa- a violent anti-fascist organization. Both are funded by the left and supported by the MSM. The latter is disgusting.

  7. And yet — racism is celebrated so subtly in so many ways. How is it the media seems to ignore the garbage being produced out of Hollywood for example?

    #1 money maker of the year — “Get out”. All right — not so subtle racism here. But really — how low can we go when racism become entertainment. Of course the movie portrays an interracial couple where the black boy-friend or groom meet her very liberal parents for the first time.

    #2 (I believe) the movie Logan which very subtly again pushes racism.

    I never saw these movies — but I have read the context in which they are shown. It’s a very sad day that the opinions of media outlets seem to ignore the everyday racism that is pushed by their very own.

    Wow — did I just see an advertisement on this website showing us SportsNet? Does not SportsNet carry MLB? How is it that Roger’s can carry Cleveland Indian games without it becoming a topic of racism? Tsk tsk!

  8. The event in Virginia had nothing to do with democracy. It was a terrible clash between two extreme groups.
    On the left was Black Lives Matter (a violent black supremacist group now) and Anti-fa-a violent fascist opposition. On the right was an equally vile group of violent white supremacists. While the police should have intervened and locked both up, they stood back and watched. This is a Clinton town and the police have a left bias as well. The leftist MSM put all the blame on the right. But Trump was right-both sides had some very bad people. Neither deserve any support or respect.