Democracy under threat? Not yet, but….

By Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung, PhD, RPP


A word from a concerned friend

Since the election of President Donald Trump, many of us who believe in liberal democracy and related norms, including equality of the sexes and amongst peoples, have been holding our breath in a protracted “Kumbaya”. Four months already and counting, yet the initial feeling of disbelief and alarm has yet to dial down and instead a creeping sense of despair seems more and more justified.

We Canadians are celebrating our 150th Anniversary this year, a very happy occasion for Canada. This milestone has been accompanied by a very successful and harmonious neighbourly relationship across the 8,891 km of territorial boundary which is shared by Canada and the USA. Indeed we should be sharing the celebration together!

Over the years, we generally have chosen to pursue common ground in our relationships, defining ourselves more on relative similarities and complementarity than with respect to the differences in our cultural, social and economic lives. We have also built together an intricate web of governance instruments, internationally, which have served to protect our individual interests and national aspirations. We are partners in continental defense through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), we signed the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in 1988, and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. More often than not, our foreign policies have been aligned. Just last year, we both committed to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. Together we were primed to take action to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by as much as 40 to 45 percent below the 2012 levels by 2025. Our neighbourliness proves that cooperation works.

Therefore, when we witness the daily undercutting of the American democratic system, in full public display these days, Canadians are very concerned and emotionally invested.

The White House’s new restrictions on access for the press corps, include for example, the keeping of the Western press out of meetings, such as the one between the President and the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the US. There was a report in February soon after Trump declared much of the media as “ enemy of the American people”, several news organizations, including the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, the Daily Mail, were barred from the “gaggle” hour with Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary. This White House seems openly prefer to cherry-pick those media outlets of their choice. These incidents at the White House betray disrespect towards freedom of information as a pillar of democracy.

Mr. Trump has broken many norms. He gave both his daughter and son-in-law official roles, making them his deputies for positions for which they hold no apparent credentials. Only lip service is paid, in the person of the White House Press Secretary, to the important distinction between what is family and personal as opposed to professional.

Trump has disturbed the basic contours of the constitutional separation of powers, including those at the uniquely empowered state-level institutions, which carry their own weight of democratic legitimacy through elected office holders. The as yet unresolved issue of “sanctuary cities” is an example of the kind of response to the Trump Administration’s highhanded approach to other levels of government.

The way that the President uses his Twitter account to make unfiltered statements is certainly unique as a mode of Presidential communication; there he can freely criticize court judgements and ridicule judges who displease him, thereby damaging the image of an independent judiciary. Independence of the judiciary is central to barring against executive and legislative abuses of power in any democratic model of government.

Yes, Trump is an extreme example of a democratically elected leader, who is himself, through his actions, a potential threat to democratic institutions.

In fairness, Canadians’ interest in American politics also connects to economic realities, of which political uncertainty in the US has a direct bearing. Just these past few days, financial markets around the world reacted immediately to reports of possible charges, on grounds of obstruction of justice, surrounding the Trump Presidency. To date, the market tumble has yet to settle. There is talk of a longer-term ‘market correction’ emanating from the current uncertainty for global affairs arising from the White House. Does this mean that the collective psychological unease will manifest itself more concretely, as a matter of fundamentals in the stability of the global system?

Thomas Juneau’s recent article, “Dealing with Trump: How Canada has been successful so far” makes the excellent point that whatever calm and continued functionality that exists between Canada and the US in recent months, is due greatly to the competent management by the Canadian civil service and, in no small matter, a manifestation of the collective political will in Canada to make it work for Canadians who vitally depend on the US trading partner and the American market. The US is the trade destination for 76.95 percent of Canada’s exports and 53.80 percent of its imports.

Many Canadians have family members, relatives and friends in the US. The Canadian diaspora population in the US is comprised of approximately 3.3 million individuals who were either born in Canada or report Canadian ancestry. In addition, some research estimates that around 100,000 Canadians are living and working in the US without proper papers – probably a legacy of days gone by when Canadian travel into the US was not so strictly scrutinized. The new political climate and policy direction in the US must be very worrisome to these Canadians, as well as to many Canadians at home.

But enough of doom-and-gloom! The silver lining that is much in our everyday lives has not been interrupted – the threat to Canadians is clearly not direct (as it is to our friends and neighbours next door). For the younger generation, students are graduating on schedule, and the new climate has arguably been a catalyst for a more politically and socially aware crop of youth, who are also more mindful of the intimate relationship between domestic and international affairs. One need only pay attention to some of the media coverage of university convocation speeches, which have focused on social issues like feminism, racism, and human rights. I believe that, after all the public mud raking, the Class of 2017 are more aware individuals and more empowered to make a change in their future professions and pursuits. After all, in the wider world these days everyone seems to have an opinion about how politics is helping or hindering them, as the 24/7 news cycle (and the demolition of credibility through the trope of “fake news”) carries on at full throttle. The awakening of the public consciousness of citizens is an indispensable building block for democracy. It is therefore a good sign when there is debate – even when it is simultaneously polarizing.

Moreover, less apparent but no less true, the institutions and complex mechanisms of accountability and oversight in the United State remain robust. This is in stark contrast to many authoritarian regimes where abuses of power go unchecked and harmful effects are thus more far reaching and immediate.

In the US, now, Americans’ strong sense of national pride and commitment to the US Constitution are palpable, and have been ably mobilized by Americans to protect and uphold the rule of law and civil rights in courts, as well as in the marketplace of ideas that shape public opinion. Citizens are standing up and holding politicians accountable at every level of government. A bond of trust remains that ensures that when public and private actors (in civil society, the judiciary, law enforcement and other arms of government authority), assume their rightful space and obligations for government and oversight, together they can defend vulnerable persons, as well as the system itself, against threats to democracy and the rule of law.

As the saga continues, one rests hope on Democracy in the US through the exercising of checks and balances at the legislative, executive, and judicial levels. We are watching the various inquiries which are ensuing in the House, at the US Senate, as well as internal investigations being conducted by the various US agencies, and court cases. Not only will the outcomes of these endeavours be important for the country as it moves forward, they might well be instructive for the rest of the world.

Several major western democracies have reported foreign interference in their democratic elections already. Clearly the election, as the principal mechanism in the delivery of democratic values, is an attack target. And Canada is equally exposed. The ways and means of chaperoning a person from candidate nomination to becoming elected are vulnerable to manipulations. The US presidential election illustrates how money and guile could produce an election outcome that does not seem to be consistent with or matching the interests of those who elected him. Election campaigning, advertisement and production of multi-media rallies are getting more and more extravagant. Without a doubt the usage of Twitters to reach a large audience is a clever complement. However, the question remains whether someone could rely solely on the Twitters to win an election.

Nevertheless our democratic system needs fine-tuning. Some attention needs to be paid to tamp down the power of funding, to make elections more truly a contest of ideas than mind-manipulation, which has indeed turned the democratic process into a playground for the money-set.

At this juncture, in our criticisms, we ought to pay attention to the importance in the preservation of legitimate due processes. For example, the US election seems by and large to be carried out by the book, and only the element of foreign influence in the campaign is not so clearly legitimate. Canadians have some lessons to be learned from the unique experiment going on in America!

As neighbours and outsiders, who also consider themselves as friends, Canadians are watching developments to the south with bated breath. We have been impressed to date by the strength of your checks-and-balances, it is true. Nevertheless, we do not anticipate that either you or we can breathe easier anytime soon. “Oh Lordy,” to quote Mr. Comey, dear neighbour, when we witness democracy and public trust under attack, we share your worry and anxiety too!

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