Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Threat of Illiberal Democracy

Apologies for not posting a Worth Reading last week. I was on the road for work and my hotel’s internet was less than optimal. My personal laptop was not exactly eager to cooperate with their wireless system. By the time I got home Friday evening I did not feel the motivation to write, and so here we are.

Back in university I wrote a paper about the August Putsch in 1991 in the Soviet Union. I argued that the traditional interpretation of Boris Yeltsin as a democratic champion was terribly flawed, and that the years immediately following his rule did not reflect what we would typify as a liberal democracy.

In the spectrum between liberal democracy and totalitarian dictatorship there is a great deal of variation. Much of that middle spectrum can be called illiberal democracy. In the initial definitions this was seemingly democratic states who restricted the freedoms of their citizens. Russia is a good example of this, and Singapore is sometimes held up as part of this phenomenon. Basically the government intrudes into the lives and freedoms of the citizenry. However, is it possible that illiberal democracy could form from citizens’ disinterest in the state?

I think the threats to modern liberal democracy are manifold and as opposed to the state encroaching in our freedoms we have a disengaged populace who is allowing institutions to decay and fail on their own. The government is the easiest one to begin with. Decreasing voter turnout, declining participation in formal politics, increased ignorance and apathy towards our politics means that political leaders are given a freer hand in abusing our system.

Prorogation is an obvious example here. Putting aside Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) tenure in office, there is evidence elsewhere that the conventions that used to govern our system are in absolute freefall. British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly sat 36 of 576 days, is this really evidence of a healthy, vibrant democracy? If you heard that about somewhere else, what would you think? If that comment was about Zimbabwe you would dismiss as an obvious truism of an undemocratic society.

A free press is also a critical component of a liberal democracy. Even if you accept the presence of strong redoubts of meaningfully critical, thoughtful media, it is safe to say that the lowest brow, least critical, least relevant media is gaining traction over anything thoughtful. More people probably get their news from Buzzfeed than the Globe and Mail, or their local paper. Institutional, thoughtful reporting is in a real crisis. The consolidation of papers by large companies, and the diminishing market share, along with sad appeals to market increasingly disinterested in news has hurt our free press.

The state is not particularly interested in silencing the freedom of speech, but very few citizens care to listen (or speak) anymore. Most of my participation in political events consists of myself and the usual suspects. Freedom of assembly is only somewhat battered, but no one cares to participate. While you may reject my premise that Canada, and other countries, are progressively sliding towards illiberal democracy, I don’t think it is possible deny that the vibrancy of our democracy is fading.

Accountability at the federal level now seems to be defined by whether or not criminal charges have been laid. This type of arrogance is only possible because so few people care. The Mayoralty of Rob Ford can continue blithely because he can be rest assured that the huge number of Torontonians will not vote and he can still carry the day despite his abysmal behaviour because people have such a low opinion for our system already.

The passivity of citizens must have some sort of long-term impact. I do not blame the government, or some other boogie man. Some sort of socio-economic/technological change is dramatically reshaping the culture and leading to the shocking erosion of traditional institutions. This loss of faith and acceptance is having a tangible impact on how we are governed and the lives we lead. Sadly, I see no averting these changes, and those who are expressing concern may be crying into deaf ears of a public who prefers to not listen. 

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