A global summit on democracy led by a country where democracy is under siege begins Thursday.
It’s no surprise China is mocking Joe Biden’s hosting of 100-plus countries as some kind of “joke.” Meanwhile China is claiming – a much bigger joke – that it is a democracy.
The American run-up to the summit – the ransacking of the Capitol, states restricting voting rights, the denial of legitimate voting counts – gives ample fodder to the detractors. The United States posing as the world’s moral arbiter is a bit much.
Of course the gross derelictions are Republicans’ doing, not Mr. Biden’s. Given the distemper of our times, given the rising authoritarian tides, his bid to rally democratic forces is a commendable idea. But by slotting countries into non-democratic and democratic camps, the summit will intensify divisions.
From the Canadian perspective, the virtual international gathering is advantageous. Here’s a chance for Canada to showcase its democratic stature. In various rankings of democracies, this country always places near the top. It’s risen to fifth in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest democracy index, trailing only smaller countries such as Iceland and Norway where challenges are hardly as formidable.
As such, unlike at the recent climate summit in Glasgow, Canada merits strong standing at this conference. Its example – we’re talking about democracy in the broad context here, not the day-to-day shenanigans on Parliament Hill – is one to be promoted.
The conference can also serve to provide Ottawa an archway for influence with Washington. Mr. Biden wants to build on a compact of democratic countries with an in-person global summit next year. Ottawa could work hand-in-hand, playing a major role.
All’s not to say Canada’s democracy isn’t deficient in a great many respects. But in the context of the competition, it holds up well. By comparison with the American democracy, it’s difficult to recall another time when differences stacked up so highly in Canada’s favour.
Democratic traditions have been confronted by dire challenges. Tearing at the fabric have been Trumpism, authoritarian populism, hyperpartisanship, the disinformation epidemic, Brexit-like forces.
Canada – I realize it’s unCanadian to boast about the country like this – has been able to withstand the tests. There were a few isolated outbreaks of violence in the recent election, but otherwise it came off without a hitch. Our party system is intact. Our immigration flows stir no great backlash. Racial discord owing to policies fostering multiculturalism and diversity is held in check. Our top court is not riven with political bias like the one to the south.
Credit to our prime ministers needs be doled out only sparingly. The degree to which power has been overcentralized in their shops at the top over the years has been shameful. The instances of abuse of power are well documented. The list is long and incriminatory.
It’s not the politicians who deserve credit for the relative health of the system but rather the character of the Canadian people. Through history it has been their reliably good judgment, their sense of moderation and fairness that has nurtured and sustained the country’s democratic wellbeing.
In this mammoth, complex country born of compromise, not revolution, the people from day one have stayed the middle course, spurning the ideologies of right or left.
The vision that’s been pursued, if not specifically articulated, is that of the fair society. It’s a vision which is very much a work in progress, the treatment of Indigenous peoples being a foremost example, but one for which big strides have been made.
The left-right polarization in America has seen that country losing the centre, the middle way. That’s where consensus and stability thrive. Canada is on no such trajectory.
Politically, it has been the fortune of the Liberal Party to occupy the moderate middle and they have consequently formed the majority of governments. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole appears to realize this, though a large segment of his party does not.
Canadians stick to their ways. They’re not susceptible to the onset of fraying new forces as other jurisdictions appear to be. They don’t want to be Americanized or, as a poll commissioned by the CBC showed this week, Albertacized.
At the democracy summit, Joe Biden will extol the virtues of moderation, decry authoritarian trends and impose penalties on anti-democratic regimes. But with his country having lost so much moral altitude, he faces a daunting challenge. There aren’t enough Canadas around.
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