During the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, new democracies suddenly erupted across the globe. The turbulent year of 1973 saw only 45 of the world’s 151 nations were reported by Freedom House to actually be “free.” Portugal, Spain and Greece were subjected to dictatorships, the Soviet Union and its satellite nations appeared secure, Mao Zedong still ruled China with an iron grip, and Africa was replete with corrupt dictators who had themselves installed permanently. Latin America was primarily led by military dictatorships.
And then it all changed, almost in a heartbeat. The Soviet Union collapsed in on itself. China began the process of opening itself up to the broader world. That was just the tip of the iceberg. By the turn of the millennium more than 60% of global independent states – some 120 countries – had morphed into democracies. Frances Fukuyama called it the “End of History” as liberal democracies swept the globe. We all recall that era and the sense of optimism it introduced into our collective mindset.
Now it has all changed again, as almost one in five countries shifted back from democracies to authoritarianism. Freedom is declining around the world.
And in liberal democracies like Canada, the EU and America, disenchanted publics have begun to believe and express the opinion that democracy isn’t really working anymore. The research on this topic has been both expansive and troubling and few doubt it.
Our current federal election has raised some serious undercurrents, leaving our more peaceful kind of democratic governance taking direct hits. We had been told that this was going to be a negative campaign. Even the party leaders warned us that it was coming. Yet it has become something worse than we feared. Third party political groups have entered the advertising field, equipped with outright lies, plenty of cash, and little care about the effects of their electioneering carpet-bombing efforts. There’s no need to list these attacks on the integrity of the democratic process here because we all know them and are sick of them.
Party leaders feel they have no choice, since their refusal to live by the sword only ensures they will die by it. Yet it has been the political class and its failure to deliver on the promise of democracy for everyone that has opened the door to the black arts of advertising hitmen.
Our family voted in the advanced polls earlier this week and encountered a growing and troubling phenomenon: nobody wants to talk about their choice. Where elections had once been community free-for-alls for average citizens, now people are quietly shuffling to the polling booth, making their mark, and heading home without any desire to talk about it.
We have social media to thank for much of this. The constant attacks and disinformation ads on Facebook, but primarily on Twitter, have been relentless in their effect on the public spirit, effectively ripping apart what had once been the benign Canadian sense of public trust. Voters now aren’t only dubious about the choices they are offered but also refuse to talk about them. They will vote, but their arms grow tired from holding their noses.
The support of political parties for the global capitalism we have today has now come back to bite them. For decades, globalization brought fabulous wealth and opportunity for those who could enjoy it, but it all came with an alienating sense of elitism, financial profiteering at the expense of people’s livelihoods and jobs – not to mention the odd crippling financial crisis that ruined the savings of millions.
What all this is amounts to is a political and financial failure. For all the power, wealth, opportunity and aspirations, democracy itself was hit below the waterline and is taking on more than it can pump out. As with most other developed nations, Canada is now in the awkward predicament of watching a political system that historically worked effectively overall to provide consensus to have the directly opposite effect.
What we are left with is average people going to the polls and having trouble feeling elevated as a result. They don’t want you to ask them who they voted for in case they are attacked online for their choice and they don’t wish to tell because there are already too many political groups and operatives telling people what to think and who to vote for anyway.
And, yet, vote we must, lest our birthright be taken away from us. Our vote is that one sacred bastion we have left to keep from being overrun by a politics run amok. It remains our only hope of bringing our democracy to its senses once more and forcing political parties to cut the dubious shenanigans and get on with the process of governing for all instead of dividing things to benefit the few. Respect, decency, tolerance, fairness – these are democracy’s greatest allies that for whatever reason our political parties often feel content to ignore, even degrade. “Don’t ask and don’t tell,” is hardly the harbinger of a vibrant democracy, but its very opposite.