Socratic Form Microscopy

Liberal Democracy: Not Dead Yet

by Zach Jacobi in Falsifiable, Politics

This post is a response to a recent Slate article.

A quick summary: the coup attempt in Turkey, terrorist attacks in France, Brexit in the UK, and rise of Trump in the US are all connected and can be viewed as the four horsemen of the end of liberal democracy. As the last defenders of liberal democracy struggle with the spectre of illiberal democracy (the will of the people unadulterated by any pesky rights for minorities) they throw up roadblocks in the form of undemocratic liberalism (rights for minorities without any of that pesky voting). Defenders of liberalism need to restore the core promise of democracy – that it will lead to ever increasing wealth if we’re to keep the “fact” that no wealthy, consolidated democracy has ever fallen true.

I didn’t buy the theory. I think some of this came from me having factual disagreements with it – Chile was wealthier than the US had been for most of its history and had over a hundred years of successful democracy before its coup. And if we want to plumb all of history, there are dozen of examples of Greek city-states, rich and consolidated for their time collapsing back into oligarchy, timocracy (in the Platonic sense) or dictatorship. The Roman Republic – the wealthiest and most powerful democracy of the day, cosmopolitan and technologically advanced – collapsed into dictatorship as well.

(I also have minor factual quibbles, such as references to the writings of Socrates, when in fact Socrates detested writing and wrote nothing down)

Some of my disagreement comes from the stunning exclusion of Canada. I can see why. Including Canada would have significantly diluted the point. It really messes with your rhetorical flow to say (after every prediction of doom) “except Canada somehow seems to be doing alright”. Yet while everyone else is (seemingly) going crazy, Canada is safely boring. Our news services are quite happy to point this out to us (and laud it to us).

(It’s not like everything is perfect in Canada. Our unemployment rate is higher than that in the US and Alberta is currently in serious trouble. But the idea of liberal democracy isn’t under attack now and it wasn’t under attack even in the darkest days of the Harper era. I may despise Stephen Harper’s policies, but that’s where it stops. He didn’t weaken the rule of law.)

I’m also deeply skeptical of the assertion that leaders have selflessly thrown up democratic roadblocks in order to protect liberalism. I think it much more likely that no one really planned anything. They just did what was necessary in the moment to keep their jobs.

But even assuming the theory (in general) holds true, why is Canada doing okay? I think any robust theory of the supposed breakdown in liberal democracy needs to include a fudge factor to explain how Canada has (thus far) escaped the fallout.

One theory of mine: systems of government last for a few hundred years, then break down under the strains of events the founders never planned for. The 200-300 year cycle is repeated for almost every empire. Those that survive longer than that change form around that mark. The Roman Republic becomes the Roman Empire. The Ming lose the Mandate of Heaven and become the Qing. The Qing lose the Mandate of Heaven and become the PRC (which I think of as the Mao dynasty, such is its similarity to past forms of Chinese government).

Canada incorporated our constitution in the 1980s. It’s well suited for modern life. But the US constitution and system of government – like those of some European nations – is over 200 years old. It’s reached its sell by date. America’s polarization is largely caused by the design of their government. A switch to mixed member proportional or the Westminster system could do a lot to help with the polarization problem, ending the incentive to please primary voters.

This is just one theory. I have many equally plausible ones:

  1. Canada has had no stagnation in wage growth for the average family, a key difference between it and the US. Maybe therefore Canada still retains the ineffable belief that the future will be better than the past? I thought this was true, but statistics say otherwise. If incomes in Canada really are stagnant, where is our disaffected rage? Why is it absent?
  2. Canadians have something about our culture that makes us innately more compatible with liberal democracy? Populist anti-immigration politicians are more common in Quebec, which has more cultural similarities with Europe. I don’t like this theory, because theories that hinge on one being superior to others tend to be wrong.
  3. This year is a temporary aberration in terms of violence and political disorder. In general violence has been decreasing over the past few decades, and 2015 actually saw a decrease in terrorism deaths. Up until the rise of Trump and Brexit, people in NRX were the ones writing articles about how their ideology was doomed and liberalism would always triumph and that was terrible. Maybe we’re over-reacting and getting scared by temporary reverses in fortune and online publications are reacting to this trend by milking us for ad revenue as we panic. If this is true, at this point next year, Britain will still be in the EU (with no invocation of Article 50 in sight), Trump will be embarrassed, defeated, and gone and we’ll all congratulate ourselves on a victory that was nothing more than a regression to the median. (See: In Favour of Niceness, Community, and Civilization)
  4. Global warming is making everyone more violent, ill-tempered and disagreeable and if we don’t stop the temperature increase we’re all going to kill each other.

In general, I’m on board with the radical idea that radical ideas normally stink, so I will suss to hoping that (3) is the correct explanation.

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable

Tags: canada, liberalism