Is 2018 the year that democracy reaches its tipping point? -

Is 2018 the year that democracy reaches its tipping point?

Liberal democracy isn’t the only game in town. And 2018 may usher in more decay of our preferred political system.

College students wave national flags as they watch the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China's eastern Anhui province on October 18, 2017. President Xi Jinping declared China is entering a "new era" of challenges and opportunities on October 18, as he opened a Communist Party congress expected to enhance his already formidable power. (AFP/Getty Images)

College students wave national flags as they watch the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China’s eastern Anhui province on October 18, 2017. President Xi Jinping declared China is entering a “new era” of challenges and opportunities on October 18, as he opened a Communist Party congress expected to enhance his already formidable power. (AFP/Getty Images)

If you’re looking for proof that democracy is the historical exception to how humans live together and not the rule, look at the last few thousand years or so of our history. Start with Ancient Athens, circa 508 BCE: the historical and geographic locus at which we situate the “birth” of government by the people. Political mismanagement, war, revolution, and counter-revolution led to decline in democracy’s flagship city-state. Then in 322 BCE—not two centuries after a series of remarkable reforms established Athenian democracy—it was over.

After Athens came the semi-democratic Roman Republic. It fell to empire. Later, democracy slowly emerged in England. Later still, revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries lurched towards democracy and stumbled back, except for in America, with its constrained self-rule remained. Then, slowly, democratic states began to emerge and stick around as workable models and changing norms took hold, driven by populations who wanted better, and backed by countries who had successfully managed the transition to democracy. Recently, fascism and communism challenged those states, and in 1941 there were only 11 democracies left in the world. More recently came a rebound, as decolonization movements picked up steam after the Second World War, and as populations agitated, mostly non-violently, for freedom. In the latter half of the 20th century, the spread of democracy extended membership in the community of the self-governed to billions worldwide.

But while you can find scholars, commentators, and politicians who swear that past democratization means that the species steadily progresses at a slightly upward trajectory, ever inclining towards perfection, we know that popular self-rule has crumbled into dust in our hands before. Now, 2018 threatens to be the year it happens to us once against as trust continues to decline throughout the democratic world, white supremacists, fascists, and fascist-sympathizers rise, and populist authoritarians exploit sempiternal hatred and widespread dissatisfaction in their pursuit of power. In 2015, political sociologist Larry Diamond argued that we were in a “democratic recession,” and had been for some time—then things got worse, nudged downward by economic catastrophe, rising inequality, and a failure of global leadership by the world’s top democracies. Today, despite the gains of the last century, we are in an era of arrested democratic development and institutional decay, perched on the tip of decline as anti-democratic forces continue to gather.

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

In the fall, Pew Research Center released a global survey on political systems. Their results not only capture a sense of distrust—just 51 per cent of Americans trust the government “to do what is right for the United States”—they also pick up on related dissatisfaction with democracy; only 46 per cent of those who live in a democracy are “satisfied with the way democracy is working.” The numbers are somewhat encouraging in Canada (67 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively), but in the 38 countries surveyed, support for “rule by experts” is 49 per cent. “Rule by a strong leader” (without legal or legislative checks) came in at 26 per cent (55 per cent in India, the world’s most populous democracy). “Rule by the military” managed 24 per cent. Digging into the data, commitment to representative democracy appears fragile, with over 40 per cent of respondents falling into the “Less committed democrats” camp in Canada, the United States, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and in several other countries from whom we expect better. There’s too much snow gathering on our democratic roof, and its weight in 2018 threatens to collapse it onto our heads.

Way back in 2016, Freedom House—which has been keeping an eye on governments since 1941—rated 87 of the 195 countries it assessed “Free.” That might seem encouraging, but in its corresponding annual report, Freedom in the World 2017, the watchdog found that 67 countries “suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties,” and that 2016 was the 11th consecutive year in which global freedom declined. Half the world remains “Not Free.” Adding technocracy (for instance, the European Union), the rise of digitally enabled threats to democracy (hacking, fake news, trolling, and so on), and the pervasive influence of lobbyists and moneyed interests on policy and law, the democratic vista has become rather cloudy.

There are, after all, alternatives to democracy. You might not prefer them, but they exist. Billions live under them in China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and elsewhere. China has been of some concern for years, functioning as an alternative political model—and in many cases delivering the goods better than democracies can, though at considerable cost to human rights. To think that democracy—especially liberal democracy—is the only game in town is folly. To think that popular self-government is programmed irreversibly into our being is even stupider. I’m sure many Ancient Athenians and Romans believed they had conquered political self-organization, that their triumphs had reached the end of history. Not long after, history saw their systems collapse.

READ: Why Canada needs to push for change wherever democracy is at risk

Democracy doesn’t just crumble on its own. We, the people, are supposed to be its caretakers, just as we are its beneficiaries. We aren’t blameless in its decay, especially the many of us who believe the collapse of democracy is impossible once it has been established. Yet as we face unprecedented global challenges and threats—climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics among them—and as the battle becomes harder to fight, it isn’t clear that enough us are prepared to stand up for self-government, to struggle and sacrifice for our own good as the question of how we will live together is raised and decided. We are left to ask what 2018 will bring: a push back for robust democracy, yet another year of decline, or the tipping point for autocracy—or worse.



Is 2018 the year that democracy reaches its tipping point?

  1. I’ll choose the Swiss referendum model of democracy that all but eliminates partisan politics.

  2. It’ll be the left that destroys democracy. Liberal/progressive parties are intent on destroying natural and viable economic “ecosystems” in the name of “social justice” or the climate, leaving the people with nothing. Democracy cannot exist without viable, vibrant, and strong economies. Unfortunately, those are the things that “progressives” attack with greatest ferocity.
    In Canada that includes all New Democrats and more than a few Liberals.

    • Wipe off the drool, Bill.

      The extremes at either end are what kills democracy; the desire to force “the right way of thinking” on others. At the moment, in North America, the biggest threat is from the right. As evidenced by Trump’s ascendancy to the south (and the number of Trumpholes here in Canada).

      • You fail at logic. Conservatives believe in the primacy of economic religious,and political liberty, and that government exists largely to preserve those things. Absent those liberties, democracy cannot exist.
        In Canada, the left constantly attacks economic liberty with egregious, invasive, and unnecessary taxation and regulation.
        Religious liberty is under constant assault, to the extent that the left has aligned itself with Islam not because the left wishes to see greater Islamic liberty in the public sphere, but because it sees Islam as a useful tool in suppressing Judeao-Christian thought, however dangerous that alliance might be.
        Political liberty is also under constant attack from the left. Witness not only the attack on Lindsay Shepherd, but how leftist-trained dogmatists within our universities have unleashed violent protests against conservative speakers on our publicly funded campuses. From Berkeley to Ottawa, invitations to conservative speakers on university campuses have been met with riots, and fires, putting the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of leftist thought on full display.
        My daughter is now enrolled in college, with university to come, and has already come hard up against the intellectual and moral terpitude of the left. In order to score good marks on a history essay, she included several demonstrable historical falsehoods so as to assuage the homosexual-aboriginal centric prejudices of the professor. Said professor informed the class early on that non-leftist viewpoints would not be tolerated in his class, as he believes that diversity is too important to allow it to be attacked.
        The left loves diversity, just as long as it conforms to a very uniform set of guidelines.

    • Wow that is the absolute stupidest most ignorant thing I have read all year! Never has one comment been so misguided and flawed as yours Bill. Left or right everyone in the modern democracy depends on the freedom afforded it by such democratic processes. It is ignorance and folly to blame any one side in the modern democracy. Because the so-called left people want to protect the future of the planet and the rights and safety of the poor is exactly why we have a free society. Consequently because the so-called right wants to protect and encourage business the freedom of society is also encouraged. People that ignore the strengths and rights of everyone in society are the true threat to democracy.

  3. Presently democracy is practically worldwide after years and years of socio/political experiments. Good to nudge now and then to remind us of necessary freedoms we overlook on a daily basis.

  4. Underlying this article is the premise that Canada currently operates under a “liberal democracy”. I do not think so . Not when a (man?) can get elected primarily on the promise to change the way the government is run (that is, from “first-past-the-post to proportional representation) , and then breaks that promise. (And why did he break it? — By His Own Words : so that certain sectors of the population cannot have a voice in the political debate of the nation. Remember those words of J. Trudeau : “You wouldn’t want Kellie Leitch to have her own party, and a place in government, would you?”
    Whether Canadians like it,or not — whether they are ready to recognize it , or not , our country is little more than a “banana republic” now — with the free speech of its citizens under attack, with foreign billionaires such as Georges Soros setting government policy, and with corruption the like of which we have seldom seen in this country.

    • I am not surprised that the word liberal in the top of the article would cause you to miss the point of the article and make it about “sides” granted Mr. Trudeau has been a disappointment so was the man before and so will the next in line…

  5. Nice to see that Canada has not slipped from it’s position on the EIU democracy rankings since JT took the helm. Harper transitioned our government well.

    So sad for our neighbours to the south. Obama left the US government in such a mess. And according to the democracy rankings the transition was terrible.

    The U.S. fell in the rankings because confidence in government has fallen to “historic lows,” according to Pew and Gallup surveys. “This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy in the U.S.,” the index said. And U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t to blame for this either, the EIU added. The decline in trust predated his victory in the U.S. election, “but he was the beneficiary of it.”

  6. Ironically, I had a discussion with a very well educated young woman over Christmas who claimed that democracy was useless, because people like Donald Trump could get elected. “There are too many uneducated, white-trash idiots, who believe anything told to them.” she declared. “What would you suggest as the solution?” I asked. “Only people with degrees from real universities, not religious ones, or who have worked their way up in society by doing good for others, would be allowed to vote.” She said, she also thought that women and minority groups be given their ‘turn’ to govern, but only people with ‘humane and intelligent’ views, NOT people like Margaret Thatcher, or “Imelda Trump”. I nodded agreeably, knowing that despite her advanced degrees, she insists that microwave ovens make food “radioactive” and that governments needn’t pay back money they borrow if ‘the people need it more’. When her children are older she’ll be running for the school board! .