Are democracy's days numbered? - Keith Roulston editorial
As Remembrance Day approaches, and we prepare to honour the memories of those who sacrificed their lives and youth to protect democracy from the threat of aggressive foreign dictatorships, it’s frightening to realize that the threat to our way of life today lies much closer to home.
Watching the capitulation of the Republican Party in the U.S. to the authoritarian inclinations of disgraced former President Donald Trump, and his ongoing claim that he is still the rightful inhabitant of the White House, even though audit after audit and court challenge after court challenge has proven he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, makes one wonder if the world’s most powerful democracy could willingly abandon the principles on which it was created.
We, in western democracies, have come to think that democracy – the willing delegation of governing powers from a country’s grassroots public through free and fair elections – is the culmination of the natural progression of humanity. There are many examples, though, such as Nazi Germany, where people willingly gave up their power to authoritarian figures.
Shachi Kurl, Executive Director of the Angus Reid Institute, in a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, brought up a view of democracy from an interesting historical figure I’d never heard of before. Alexander Fraser Tytler was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, who wrote that democracy lasts only about 200 years. Startled by this statement, I looked up a little more information about Tytler (who was a friend of famous Scottish poet Robbie Burns).
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government,” he wrote. “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”
Tytler’s quote seems to be a conservative’s lament about irresponsible liberalism in government, yet the threat to democracy south of the border is coming from the conservative side of the spectrum, rather than the liberals. Perhaps the thinking is that after too much liberal spending, conservatives will stage a coup to put a right-leaning government in charge.
On the U.S. cable news network CNN, host Pamela Brown recently interviewed Rick Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, who is an American legal scholar and expert in legislation, election law and campaign finance and Ian Bassin, an American lawyer, writer, and activist who serves as executive director of Protect Democracy and who previously served as Associate White House Counsel under President Barack Obama.
Hasen said widespread acceptance of the “Big Lie” has greatly increased the chances that “we could see a stolen election in 2024”. Bassin added a global point of view, pointing out that “if you look around the world, democracy is actually in the midst of a grave recession”.
As examples, he pointed to countries like Hungary, Poland and Venezuela. “They’re no longer really democratic, although they still purportedly hold elections. And now three of the four largest democracies in the world – India, Brazil, United States – have been governed by autocrats in recent years,” he said. “The thing that is going to stop us from falling down that path is if we recognize that we are not immune to this global trend. It’s only by thinking that it can't happen here that it could.”
If the name Shachi Kurl, mentioned earlier, rings a bell, she was the moderator of the English-language federal leaders’ debate during Canada’s recent election. She caused a political storm when she asked Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet how he could contend Quebecers were not racist while defending bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones, and allophones.
In reality, the two bills, popular with French-speaking Quebecers, demonstrate the dangers of democracy. Governments have given the majority what they want, even as it discriminates against minorities.
Still, Winston Churchill once said that: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” Cynical as it is, it shows democracy is worth fighting for.
Here’s hoping Alexander Tytler is wrong, but in our American neighbour at least, it’s going to require extraordinary efforts by those who care about democracy to keep this dream of responsible government alive.