We need to talk about democracy

- June 5, 2023

(stock image, Wikicommons)
(stock image, Wikicommons)

“If democracy is in crisis, why?” asked the CBC’s Vassy Kapelos, a political science grad (MA’06), from the stage of the Rebecca Cohn. The event was the inaugural Stanfield Conversations, an annual speaker series that builds on the legacy of Robert L. Stanfield, a Dal alum, former premier of Nova Scotia, and leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party.

The Stanfield Conversations build on Dal’s leadership in an ongoing conversation about democracy, with work on the subject being done from a variety of faculty perspectives and research areas. The conversation continued with the second annual event on "Technology, Media Fragmentation, and the Crisis of Democracy in America.”

A weighty topic, and one that took host Portia Clark and speakers Dr. Ron Deibert (University of Toronto), Dr. Elizabeth Dubois (University of Ottawa), and Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson (University of Pennsylvania) in many directions. In speaking with some of Dal’s democratic experts, there were many overlapping observations, but imperfect consensus 
on the state of democracy in America and beyond.

Video: 2022 Stanfield Conversation: Digital Democracy — Technology, Media Fragmentation, and the Crisis of Democracy in America

Going back to Kapelos's question, is it a fair assessment that democracy is in crisis? There’s a certain relativism innate in using the term “crisis”; the problems that give us anxiety today may not have registered in decades past.

“I don’t think it’s particularly worse today,” says Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Halpin of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, contrasting the FBI raids on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence to the Waco massacre of 1993 and the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist attack of 1995. He notes the 20th century was one “with many extremist movements and conflicts, a lot of authoritarianism, and yet a rise of democratic movements or social movements like Black Lives Matter.”

Going back to ancient Greece, we see democracies are often the shortest periods" Dr. Robert Huish

Associate Professor Dr. Robert Huish of the Department of International Development Studies adds that democracy has been under threat throughout its history. Considering all forms of governance, “Going back to ancient Greece, we see democracies are often the shortest periods,” he says.

What made 2022’s Stanfield conversation topical was its focus on technology and media fragmentation, which act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand there exists the potential to democratize media and share the power of influence, but on the other both are easily manipulated to spread misinformation, eroding public faith in governance and public institutions.

That decline in trust opens the door to authoritarianism. Even there, Dr. Ajay Parasram, an associate professor in the Department of International Development Studies, gazes further into the past to trace the roots of distrust in systems of governance in the United States, to a time before social media, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

“Colin Powell making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction,” he recalls. “That democratically elected people could stand up and lie publicly. It gave rise to the kind of conspiratorialism we see today.” During the Trump administration, a sitting US president so commonly spread misinformation he was banned from Twitter.

Dal experts draw links between that kind of political manipulation in the United States and recent events in Canada, where we saw the convoy protests across the country against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and related public health requirements such as public masking. While there are clear distinctions between mass protests against the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the convoys of 2022, Dr. Parasram does see “a common belief that we shouldn’t trust our government.”

Exploitation of Apathy Sews Division

In many parts of the world, justifiable erosion of trust in government has created a dangerous situation in which the populace is not enraged, but indifferent to what kind of government they have. “When that system fails to provide essential services, good jobs, clean environment, people lose confidence,” Dr. Huish says. “A recent survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit found Latin America split between those who prefer living in democracies versus those who are indifferent.”

Enter a brand of politician willing to “scapegoat problems on other people, communities—using racism and sexism.” Most will disagree with such extreme positions, but that hateful rhetoric distracts us from “sensible conversation on inclusivity, a better world, progress,” Dr. Huish says.

Dr. Halpin notes that in American politics, “there are people on the right wing who orient materials toward young men who are disaffected.” Much of his research has focused on incels, or “involuntary celebates,” members of an online anti-woman community.

“Incels are big supporters of authoritarian leaders as long as they have policies that are punitive toward women,” Dr. Halpin says. They celebrated last year’s Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which opened the door to state restrictions and bans on abortion. Far-right politicians may not advocate policy with incels in mind, but their anti-woman stance is simpatico, and it further alienates the American public—62 per cent of whom disapproved of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, according to the Pew Research Center.

As Dr. Parasram points out, the divisions between left and right grow even as they share a general mistrust of the government, with little work being done to build community or find common ground. In the US, those divisions went very far for one side on January 6, 2021, when a mob of supporters of Donald Trump, who had lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, attacked the Capitol Building. The world watched televised public hearings of the United States House Select Committee on the events of that day and the former president’s possible culpability.

“This is a major test for their constitution,” says Dr. Lori Turnbull from Dal’s School of Public Administration. “If the system doesn’t punish corruption there will be a sense that we got this wrong. Yet many Republicans seem willing to back Trump.”

That same level of threat to democracy does not exist, at the moment, in Canada. But Dr. Turnbull says we should hold off on patting ourselves on the back. We have the underlying problem of disengagement, apathy caused in part by an electoral system that sees majority governments elected with a minority of the popular vote. “The system provides rationalization for disengagement,” she says. “‘My vote doesn’t count.’”

Recent scandals—SNC Lavalin and WE Charity—surrounding the sitting government give rise to further ambivalence. They also raise the important question of how we handle suspected bad actors. Dr. Turnbull notes that, while the US democracy is in a bad state, “the US constitution is built in a way that assumes bad faith, with so many checks and balances.” It is designed to handle misbehaved politicians.

“Our system assumes good faith,” she says. “A lot of the restraints on decision makers are by convention.”

Although the two systems are very different, it would be naïve of Canadians to ignore the elephant to the south. Turnbull points out the freedom convoys were partially funded by wealthy Americans. Many of the same funders had donated to Trump. “We can’t pretend there’s a container around the US,” she says. Like with the incels, there is a cultural underbelly to antidemocratic forces that isn’t always obvious, that politicians may not consider as they use dog whistles to appeal to certain voters.

The Ambiguous Impact of Social Media

None of these current threats to democracy are quantitatively different from the past. What’s different is the means. “Social media has changed how it’s done,” Dr. Halpin says, “What’s most concerning to me is corporate influence, what’s published and what’s not. Google and Facebook can supress information.”

There is also a strong motivation for tech companies, as large corporations, to favour ideology that channels wealth their way, further stratifying the distribution of wealth. “Corporations in general have tremendous influence on our democracy,” Dr. Halpin says. Such companies often influence all levels of media, social, print, and broadcast, which may be why so many outlets reported in August, 2022, when “The Bank of Canada Governor [Tiff Macklem]…encouraged companies not to increase wages.”

Tobias Schminke, who is completing a PhD on comparative politics and is founder of the election observatory Europe Elects, shares that assessment. He started Europe Elects because as a European Union voter, he found polling information on EU politicians outside his native Germany surprisingly difficult to access.

Schminke says the spheres of political influence have globalized, not only with international parliaments like the EU, but also with multinational corporations having far-reaching influence over politics. “We have companies half the size of states, like Shell and Amazon, with little or no democratic control over them because they work across international borders, exploiting people and polluting.”

The unionization movement at companies like Amazon and Starbucks may provide a check to that power, he says, but even the unions remain constrained by national borders. “They don’t serve global workers in global companies. We are still stuck in our nation states.”

In Europe Elects (and spinoffs Oceania Elects, Asia Elects, and America Elects), he has brought together 90 volunteers to compile and analyze polls and election data and share this information to a massive social media following—145,000 followers on Twitter alone. The organization serves as a democracy watchdog and advocates for thinking beyond borders to consider democracy globally.

Europe Elects shows how social media can be used to support democracy with legitimate, carefully researched information communicated in an accessible manner for the time-crunched modern human, going beyond partisan politics or traditional political structures.

Wanted: New Voices

Authoritarianism has been around at least as long as imperialism, and has always been built around a false narrative of a racial hierarchy. “The last 500 years are riddled with white supremacy,” Dr. Parasram says. “The same period is filled with Black, Brown and Indigenous people fighting back. I am inspired by the Mi’kmaw Water Protectors. Internationally, the Zapatistas; historically, Indians resisting the British.”

This history of colonialism, imperialism and authoritarianism is something Dr. Parasram wants people to learn more about, an important context to today’s challenges to democracy. Each of these Dal experts emphasize the importance of what could be called modern media literacy—understanding the sources and context of news reports—which includes social media, but also a deeper understanding of world issues.

Part of that literacy is realizing the news is only a partial picture of reality. “It’s easy from outside to mistake American mass media for the American public,” Dr. Halpin says. Most importantly, that for every restriction of rights there is grassroots organizing—for example, to maintain access to abortion.

With social media, in addition to the proliferation of convincing fake news there is a heightened silo effect. “People aren’t even reading about the same facts,” Dr. Halpin says. “They’re reading different news, focused on different world events.” On campus, he focuses on training students to become “self-regulated learners,” meaning they are able to properly check and cite sources.

“We set out to give our students a boot camp on how to approach and engage with real information and avoid disinformation,” Dr. Huish adds. Media and political literacy empower citizens. Dr. Parasram also wants to see people do something with that knowledge.

Voting is choosing who you will struggle against. It may be more important than doing your laundry, but it’s less important than protest." Dr. Ajay Parasram

“Voting is choosing who you will struggle against,” he says. “It may be more important than doing your laundry, but it’s less important than protest.” He especially urges people to support Indigenous sovereignty movements, which he sees as far more participatory than first-past-the-post Canadian elections.

Dr. Halpin agrees that direct involvement is essential, not only at protests. “Show up,” he says. “Be involved, attend community meetings, vote. Contact government representatives, send messages to politicians advocating specific policies. Support the education system, where we learn to be discerning, engaged citizens.”

When considering how democracies can protect themselves from authoritarianism and feel more like governance by and for citizens, Dr. Huish comes back to a fundamental purpose of creating a more equitable society. “Democracies are about transitioning power from the wealthy to the poor,” he says.

Everyone must have the ability to see themselves as an elected official. “We shouldn’t assume a politician is someone with many degrees and silver hair. But there are so many structural forces that discourage women, racialized, and Indigenous people from participating. Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the former Nunavut MP, said she never felt safe in Parliament. Security harassed her because they didn’t think she was an MP.”

Having a vote alone is not enough. True democracy gives citizens control, meaning being an MP “should be an option for anyone, not necessarily as a lifelong career, but something you give it a shot and return to your world.”

This story appeared in the DAL Magazine Spring/Summer 2023 issue. Flip through the rest of the issue using the links below.


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