Democracy could fail — domestically, globally, anywhere and everywhere. Popular self-government is difficult to achieve, laborious to maintain and easy to lose. There is no reason to assume that the natural order tends toward democracy; it probably tends away from it.
In 1799, there were no states that sufficiently promoted citizen political participation, constrained executive power and guaranteed civil liberties to count as fully democratic, according to Our World in Data. In 1922, there were 21. The count fell down to nine two decades later, resurged to 35 with the postwar boom between 1943 and 1977, and then vigorously rushed to 74 in 1992. The quality of democratic state varies, but the trend through the mid-to-late 20th century was toward self-government and away from autocracy. By 2009, there were 87 such states in the world.
A decade later, scholars speak of a global democratic recession. With the ever-present and increasingly severe threat of climate change, a shifting global order and growing authoritarian populism, democracies around the world are being put to the test — Canada included.
A new report from the Samara Centre for Democracy finds that populism in Canada is neither surging nor particularly populist. Instead, it’s muted and elite-led. While Samara finds that Canadians are cynical toward government — most feel the government doesn’t care about what they think, believe their representatives are out of touch and have little trust in members of Parliament or parties to do what is right — 75 percent of those surveyed remain satisfied with how its democracy works.
Politicians, however, are complaining about “elites” more often and engaging in cynical rabble-rousing. In the 2008 parliamentary session, there were no days in which a member of Parliament complained about “elites.” Between 2011 and 2013, members complained in 3 percent of days. And between 2015 and 2019, this rose to 13 percent. Presumably, they were complaining about their opponents.
As the Samara report indicates, it’s encouraging that Canadians, while cynical, are not convinced that democracy in Canada is moribund. But citizens take cues from their leaders. According to the researchers, elite-led populist messages risk encouraging civic distrust, stoking hostility toward checks and balances and dividing the country into “us” and “them.” The researchers conclude that, among other recommendations, politicians should “stop undermining their own role” by weakening their own institutions.
Representatives exist to serve their constituents. But to do that they must get elected. As a Canadian senator once put it to me, the first role of a member of Parliament is to be elected and the second role is to be reelected. Short election cycles, attentive media coverage of process stories, fragile norms and deep partisan incentives encourage near-term thinking. If politicians think they can secure victory by stoking populist outrage, they will.
But, to adapt a line, what about when the devil turns around on them?
While Canada may not be home to seething, mass populist fervor, the country might be vulnerable to these trends. Earlier this year, Edelman found a growing gap between those who trust these elite bodies and those who don’t. Months later, Proof Strategies released a report outlining declining trust across institutions, including governments and the media. The country is home to a community of distrusters, a segment of the population who feels that the system isn’t working for them — perhaps because, in many cases, it’s not.
While recent data suggests that Canada is doing fine — there is substantial trust in institutions, even if it is fragile — elite-led jeremiads against the system and one another threaten the stability of the country by undermining trust and fomenting discontent. When these attacks are coupled with consistent failures to include citizens in decision-making, sufficiently tackle the climate crisis and address systemic inequality, especially against routinely marginalized peoples, they threaten the well-being of the country’s democracy.
Elites in Canada across media, politics, business and civil society should heed the advice offered by Samara to show restraint and better judgment when discussing politics. They should avoid rabble-rousing and make space to include citizens in government. While Canada is stable today, how many alienated citizens does one think it takes to undo years of careful work? Can our institutions withstand the growing challenges they might face in the future? Perhaps not. And if those challenges swell? Probably not.
Reflecting on recent data and global trends, we ought to be reminded of the old line that the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. And then we should get to work — because it’s getting cloudy.