Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Patrick Luciani: Ukraine’s inspiring fight proves democracy isn’t dead yet

Commentary

When I planned this piece a few days ago, I intended to write about the fall of democracy worldwide and the difficulties it faced around the world. Is democracy over? Are we looking at a new world order driven by authoritarianism? Although there are over 100 countries that classify as some form of democracy—from complete, flawed, or hybrid—many are losing ground and losing it fast.

Until last week.

We now live in a new world, a world unintentionally created by Vladimir Putin when he decided to upend the old-world order and declare war on Ukraine.

We are witnessing a global political shift. More importantly, we are seeing a resurgence of democracy itself, a renewed loyalty to the principles of freedom and the right for people to determine their destinies. A bit romantic, but true nonetheless. Democracies around the world have found their voice. Every country in the EU supports Ukraine’s right to join the European community and choose its own future. The citizens of Ukraine show that they would rather die than live under Putin’s authoritarian regime and his band of sycophantic oligarchs. And free democracies are joining the fight. Germany has broken its longstanding commitment not to ship arms to conflict zones. They are now sending anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine’s army. That’s a head-spinning reversal in Germany’s defence policy that shifted in just 48 hours.

Democracy is not only not dead, it has found its voice, a voice many believed to have been buried under the weight of economic, political malaise, and indecision.

In their book, How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued that authoritarian leaders like Trump had attacked the very foundation of trust that provides the glue holding democracies together. One of those principles is respect for the electoral process. Vote counts are never perfect, but Trump’s constant attack on the system’s integrity began to tear at the fabric of the Constitution that has lasted over two centuries. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the unwritten rules of forbearance and trust are the main principles that hold democracies together. They are the rivets that kept constitutions together. Trump was ripping away at those unwritten rules.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder argues that democratic backsliding in young and old democracies, along with aggressive political extremes, are chipping away at the democratic norms and structures, not much different than what happened in Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s. Throw in some modern social media and authoritarian rulers like Orban, Putin, Trump, and you begin to see a different future where democracy slowly fades away. Cambridge university political scientist David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, sees modern democracy as going through a mid-life crisis, not knowing what to do with itself as it swings from one crisis to another. He may be right that all forms of government eventually disappear. But his speculations about what replaces democracy, including a form of “pragmatic authoritarianism” or something called “epistocracy,” rule by the best and brightest, are dead ends.

There’s little debate that democracy has many flaws because most political and social issues are complex. What isn’t under question is democracy itself as a popular form of government. Runciman reminds us that casting a ballot is still the only way to confer respect for the individual’s voice. As flawed as democracy is, Ukraine shows that people will fight hard to retain that voice.

Before the war in Ukraine, I intended to point out that history seems to produce leaders when we need them, but this time we were out of luck. I was wrong. Who could have imagined that an actor and unassuming comedian would become a symbol of courage and leadership worldwide, or that Angela Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, would surprise the world with a resolve to lead Europe against tyranny? Even Switzerland and Sweden have come out of their self-imposed shells of neutrality—that even Hitler couldn’t budge—to join the fight. Democracy has a way of surprising.

Steven Penney: We are watching another revolt of the public

Commentary

The Great Canadian Trucker Protest was a national embarrassment. The police were unprepared and overwhelmed, the protestors harboured a non-trivial proportion of kooks and insurrectionists, and governments swung wildly from perplexed resignation to panicked overreach.

But despite its peculiar (and peculiarly Canadian) features, the protest was just the latest in a series of intense yet amorphous populist uprisings that have roiled the globe in the 21st century. As presciently described by Martin Gurri in 2014’s Revolt of the Public, the internet, mobile phones, and social media have dramatically eased people’s ability to communicate and organize to strike back against (what they perceive as) incompetent, self-dealing, and contemptuous elites. While the ideological valence and normative legitimacy of these movements vary, their dynamics and trajectories are remarkably similar, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Yellow Vests to Black Lives Matter to January 6.

Unfortunately, the main effect of these movements has not been to spur constructive policy reform or renewed social consensus. Rather, it has been to foster political polarization and institutional distrust. It is not crazy to think that, left unchecked, these trends threaten the continued viability of liberal democracy and the unprecedented peace, prosperity, and equality that it has engendered.

Unpacking the many technological, economic, and social roots of this problem are well beyond my ken. So are the long-term solutions (if there are any). But there are at least two simple steps that governments, politicians, and police agencies can take to reduce the odds of another trucker-like fiasco.

First, governments should refrain from needlessly antagonizing ordinary people. The proximate cause of the trucker protest—the federal government’s refusal to exempt cross-border commercial drivers from mandatory vaccination—is a case in point. With a high proportion of Canadians (including truckers) fully vaccinated, and with Omicron proving to be both markedly more transmissible (even for the vaccinated) and less lethal than previous variants, the public health rationale for mandatory trucker vaccination was extraordinarily weak.

The fact that the U.S. imposed the same requirement is beside the point. The Canadian government’s intransigence sent the message that those opposed to vaccine mandates do not deserve its respect. As dissident Liberal MP Joël Lightbound might have phrased it, the trucker policy seemed designed to placate those who “can earn a living on a Macbook at the cottage” rather than to protect the health of those who cannot.  

The government’s divisive and exclusionary message was amplified when Prime Minister Trudeau chastised the truckers, not for illegal conduct, but for their “unacceptable views,” including “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, homophobia, and transphobia.” To the extent that individual protestors professed such beliefs, they deserve opprobrium. But by painting the entire movement in this light, Trudeau reinforced the perception that anyone deviating from pandemic orthodoxy, however reasonably, is a deplorable rube.

The second thing we can do to avoid a repeat of Truckergate is to press governments and police to recommit to the impartial application of the law. The weeks-long occupation of central Ottawa, along with the border blockades in Windsor, Coutts, and elsewhere, should remind us of the centrality of law enforcement (including the imposition, where necessary, of state-sanctioned violence) to the maintenance of order in a liberal polity.

The criminal law sets out the baseline, consensus norms required for peaceful coexistence in any complex, pluralistic society. While it is a blunt instrument that should be used with restraint, there is nothing more corrosive to social trust than the appearance of impunity for widespread and systematic lawbreaking. While many Canadians were initially sympathetic to the truckers’ cause, most were ultimately (and understandably) repelled by their intransigence and disrespect for these basic social norms.

In response to considerable public and political pressure, the police eventually mounted an effective and proportionate response. But their initial paralysis hints at a culture of excessive risk aversion and some measure of ideological bias. Police are rightly independent of direct executive control and must exercise their discretion in light of resource constraints and competing social interests. Ultimately, however, that independence hinges on people’s trust that police will enforce the law fairly and consistently.

Politicians also have a responsibility to respect law enforcement impartiality and engender respect for the rule of law, regardless of lawbreakers’ ideological motives. Just as some left-wing politicians demonized the protestors for their heterodox beliefs, some on the political right valorized them and appeared to condone or encourage blatantly unlawful conduct. While it may be naïve to expect principled consistency from our political leaders, we should not hesitate to call out the hypocrisy of the next progressive legislator who counsels inaction in the face of an unlawful railway blockade or the next conservative one who demands an immediate paramilitary response.

Lastly, the failure of police to enforce ordinary criminal prohibitions may also tempt governments to employ more questionable means to quell dissent, such as restricting basic freedom of movement or freezing the bank accounts of protestors and their financial supporters. The further the state becomes involved in monitoring and controlling expression or conduct tangentially connected to concrete criminality, the less legitimacy its monopoly on violence will have.

Citizens in a pluralistic society will often vehemently disagree on matters of policy and conscience. There is always a risk that these disputes will devolve into a Manichean struggle to impose one group’s norms on another. This makes it all the more important to impartially and consistently enforce the few norms attracting near-universal consensus, including the criminal law.