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Patrick Luciani: Is populism destroying European democracy?

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani takes a look at Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe, by Larry M. Bartels (Princeton University Press, 2024), which tries to assess just how much of a threat populism is to European democracy.

Those who have followed European politics over the past 15 years no doubt felt a significant decline in support of liberal democracy. These years were marked by the emergence of populist governments in Poland and Hungary and the seismic Brexit event in 2016. In Western Europe, the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Vox in Spain, and the recent rise of Chega in Portugal have only strengthened this perception. 

Numerous factors have contributed to Europe’s radical shift towards anti-elitist and anti-establishment parties. The economic disruptions of globalization, the influx of unregulated immigration from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries, and the alarming rise in crime have all played a significant role. Even in the traditionally stable and peaceful Scandinavian countries, immigration has strained the tolerance and budgets of generous social welfare programs. 

This situation has led to a widespread belief that traditional democratic institutions have failed to address the urgent need for reforms. The disillusionment with democratic liberalism is borne by Pew data and further amplified by Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s declaration that “the era of liberal democracy is over,” a sentiment that gained traction after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

But those on the political Right aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with liberal democracy. Those on the progressive Left are perhaps even more disappointed with democratic liberalism’s very roots, which entrenched individual rather than group rights based on identity politics. Ireland’s recent rejection of a change in its constitution’s wording to incorporate group rights is a case in point. What was supposed to be an easy victory for Ireland’s political elites in redefining the meaning of relationships and the role of women in the home was solidly rejected by a public suspicious of an attack against traditional values. 

Though parties on the extreme Right in Europe have increased their vote count, they have yet to see their support garner more than 10 to 20 percent of the popular vote in most countries. 

In his new book on the erosion of European democracy entitled Democracy Erodes from the Top, Larry Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, challenges the prevailing notion that the public is the catalyst for radical reform. He is one of the rare thinkers who goes against the prevailing wisdom that the public is driving radical change in Europe. 

His extensive research, covering 23 European countries over the last 15 years, reveals a stark contrast between the perceived crisis of democracy and Europeans’ actual attitudes. Contrary to popular belief, support for democracy as a system of government has not weakened, and trust in national parliaments and politicians has remained virtually unchanged. Both go against conventional wisdom and general perception. 

People are reflected in a window with the logo of the World Economy Forum on the last day of the forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo.

The real culprits for the turmoil and European political troubles, or what Bartels calls “political backsliding,” lie not with ordinary citizens but with political elites. The author doesn’t conclude that citizens are passive agents in the demand for political change and play no role in demands for democratic reforms. He observes that we tend to exaggerate the threats of populism and the alarmism that comes with it.

He reminds us that the financial collapse of 2008 was routinely compared to the crisis in the 1930s, yet by 2014-15, average satisfaction with the economy in Europe was higher than before the crisis and continued to improve until COVID-19 hit in 2020. Public support for European integration held steady during the Euro crisis in the early years of the 21st century, and even under the threat that Greece would leave the Eurozone. 

What about the highly contentious problem of immigration? Where one would expect a deep deterioration of support and demand for more restrictions, Bartels sees little evidence in public surveys that immigration and asylum-seeking have produced “any significant erosion in public attitudes toward immigrants.”  

The author reminds us that warnings about the collapse of democracy are hardly rare. Popular and scholarly writings about the crisis of democracy have a long history and can be found in articles in Foreign Affairs from the 1930s. Most recent books on the rise of populism, such as David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, have been inspired by Trump’s election in the U.S. or Bolsonaro in Brazil and the threat they and other populist leaders pose to liberal democracies. But populism is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Populists too often make the mistake of believing they are fulfilling the “will of the people” and find there is no such thing. Professor Bartels reminds us trying to discern what people truly believe is hard work. 

Rudyard Griffiths: In trying to save journalism, government risks killing it

Commentary

Readers will have seen this week our appeal for free Hub members to become paid subscribers. Some of you might be wondering: why the push now? And why is The Hub’s news and journalism deserving of my financial support? 

Let me explain, as our campaign is about more than The Hub. It goes to the heart of the now sweeping intrusion of government into the funding of journalism in Canada and its implications for news and information consumers like you.  

The largess began with the 2019 federal budget and the first-ever labour tax credits for producers of written digital news. Fully $360 million was set aside over five years to support media outlets (not including broadcasters), who were able to convince a panel of political appointees that they were mostly engaged in the production of “original news” content. 

The subsidies were snapped up by privately owned media outlets (you can see a partial list here as there is no formal requirement for newsgroups to report they are taking government funds) from Canada’s paper of record, the billionaire-owned The Globe and Mail, to local and regional outlets across the country. Thanks to the media’s aggressive lobbying, the program was enriched to the tune of $129 million in the 2023 fall economic statement so that “qualified” outlets can now claim nearly $30,000 in subsidies for every journalist they employ.  

Around the same time, the federal government established (and just this month renewed for three years) its so-called “Local Journalism Initiative.” This now almost $130 million program currently funds upwards of 400 journalists’ salaries up to $60,000 each who cover “the diverse needs of Canada’s underserved communities.” Participating news organizations must have or adopt a hiring policy “promoting diversity and inclusion” and acknowledge the government’s financial support by featuring the Canada Wordmark (“Canada” with the Canadian flag on the final “a”) in their publications. Editorial guidelines helpfully remind news publishers to display the Government of Canada wordmark “…in print on the front page or in the masthead, and online on the homepage…” How this promotes the best traditions of an independent press capable of holding the powerful to account, including government, is frankly anyone’s guess. 

This surge in government subsidies for the news media ratcheted up yet another notch in 2023, with the debut of the Online News Act. After a torturous legislative and regulatory setting process that prompted Meta to ultimately block news sharing on its platforms, the government was able to extract from Google a $100 million annual pledge (indexed to inflation) to fund news journalism. This time, coerced Big Tech, not big government, will work with a yet-defined news media association to parcel out subsidies to a smorgasbord of publishers, broadcasters, local media, First Nations and French language media outlets, and the CBC, as proscribed by federal regulation.  

The Online News Act monies, combined with the recently enhanced labour tax credits, the Local Journalism Initiative, Google funding, plus tax credits for digital news subscriptions, will bring about a truly bizarre state of affairs for the news media. Fully half of the salaries of most journalists working for private companies will be paid for by, in one form or another, direct or indirect subsidies. In Quebec, thanks to a provincial tax credit, the subsidy will approach 100 percent of the salaries of journalists earning up to $75,000 per year.     

Remember that all this government largess being heaped on private, for-profit news companies is happening alongside the CBC’s $1.4 billion dollar-a-year public subsidy and the massive national news operation it helps to underwrite.

In sum, it is by no means a stretch to claim that in the coming year, almost all the news journalism we will consume will be produced by reporters and editors whose salaries are majority funded by one type of subsidy or another. 

We also know that in the next 18 months or so there will be a federal election. It will be a high-stakes campaign with sharply different visions of the country’s future on offer. And it will be fought for the first time in an information environment where the majority of the salaries of most news journalists—including at private media outlets—will be subsidized by the policies of the party in power. 

To state the obvious, we (the news media) are facing an “own goal” of epic proportions. Specifically, how do we think the only 37 percent of English-speaking Canadians who say they trust the press are likely to react when they suss out that almost all the news they are consuming is directly or indirectly government-subsidized? Will they be more or less likely to trust us? Will they take our reporting as factual, or government-funded spin? The complicity of silence of the “news industry” on these questions, ones that go to the core of what the profession of journalism is supposedly all about, is as appalling as it is inexcusable.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks with reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons, Wednesday, November 29, 2023 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Editors and journalists will protest that they aren’t corrupted by the government’s lucre, and for most, this will be true. But we live in an age of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and bad faith actors. All three will ensure that government-subsidized “news” journalism at scale becomes something far less than what our democracy urgently needs: truly independent, arm’s length reporting.  

There is a good faith argument we’ve encouraged at The Hub about whether news journalism is a public good that merits government support in a moment of sweeping technological disruption. But assuming that conspicuous rent-seeking from government by private news providers is consequence-free strains credulity. Instead of saving journalism, the blind rush to subsidize newsgathering risks destroying what little remains of the industry’s credibility.  

As The Hub enters its fourth year of publication and starts gearing up to cover the coming federal election, we are purposely choosing to hoe a harder row than the mainstream media: producing original news journalism not funded by the current subsidy regime. In the process, we will turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential government subsidies because we cannot in good conscience take these funds and claim to be truly independent. 

This is why we are now asking you, our 25,000+ free subscribers, to become paid supporters of our news journalism. It’s your generosity that helps us hire fiercely independent reporters and editors who know their salaries are paid for by readers like you and not by the incumbent government and its policies. 

In sum, support a future for independent journalism by supporting The Hub

Rudyard Griffiths, Publisher, The Hub