HomeArticlesConstitutional Democracy Under Stress: Developing A Resistance To Unaccountable Government

Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: Developing A Resistance To Unaccountable Government

One of the litmus tests of the legitimacy of any government that presides over a “democracy”, is the extent to which it is genuinely and adequately accountable to its citizens.  While this may seem a trite observation, it has sadly become normal, within so-called democratic societies, to find governments that are wanting in the accountability department. 

In Ontario, for example, the Ford Government has, without prior consultation with the relevant stakeholders – indeed, without even having announced its intentions in its election campaign –  introduced sweeping legislation that will have a dramatic effect on a wide range of areas, including cutting the size of Toronto City Council in half, cutting the City’s public health budget, eliminating the budget for a stem-cell research institute, increasing class sizes in public schools, eliminating the funding for environmental initiatives such as mass tree planting, cutting public library budgets, and more.  Perhaps these decisions were wise and in the public interest.  But they were introduced without having generated any authentic general consensus and without evidence of their presumed salutary effect – except insofar as they purportedly reduced the provincial budget.   In addition, the Ford Government has taken to treating Question Period (the opportunity for Opposition Members of the Legislature to ask questions of the Government – i.e., to hold the Government accountable) as a complete charade during which the Government completely disregards the questions posed and simply grandstands and delivers prepackaged announcements on entirely unrelated matters.  The Speaker of the Legislature does not seem to have been much perturbed by any of this and simply lets it pass. 

When the Premier casually announces  – as though pondering whether to use a wrench or a screwdriver – his intention to suspend the operation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to insulate from judicial scrutiny the previously stated decision to cut the size of City Council in half, with the words: “Section 33 [the Charter’s “Notwithstanding Clause”] is one of the tools in my toolbox”,  we ought to sit up and take notice.

When the Prime Minister of Canada denies and then justifies the PMO’s interference in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion by the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecution on the grounds that 9,000 Canadian jobs are at stake in the SNC-Lavalin fraud and corruption prosecution, we ought to sit up and take notice.  

This behaviour, needless to say, is neither unique to this Premier or this Prime Minister, nor more egregious than what is occurring in the halls of power, executive offices and legislative assemblies of countries throughout the west, in societies deemed “liberal democracies”.    

The question that is so bedevilling is not, why leaders and governments behave in this way, but rather, why this does not provoke widespread alarm among the citizenry.   How is it that citizens are not able to separate the issue of where they may stand on a policy  –  say, the appropriate size of City Council or the appropriateness of using a deferred prosecution agreement for a major employer whose criminal conviction might have dire economic consequences – from the question of whether the means by which a policy is proposed or implemented is acceptable or whether it does violence to the cardinal values of our constitutional democracy?

It may be tempting to attribute the lack of public alarm to the hyper-partisanship, heightened ideological rigidity, polarized politics and polarizing discourse that are characteristic of the age.  Add to these factors the disenchantment and sense of betrayal of the so-called “middle class” at the hands of the proponents of globalization, compounded by the public markets’ redistribution of wealth resulting in a concentration of ownership not seen in the modern era.

Perhaps these and other factors explain the uncritical, seemingly unconditional allegiance given over to leaders and “movements” whose agendas comprise a sort of weaponization of popular disenchantment against the so-called “1 percent” – or rather, the 0.001 percent!  We are, after all, living in a new age of populism in which the cultivated sense of powerlessness, victimization and betrayal by the “elites”, compounded by the remoteness of government from the average citizen, breed alienation, cynicism and apathy.

But none of that adequately explains the collective failure to react defensively to the persistent assault on the very democracy that is said to define the societal arrangements established in furtherance of freedom and self-government.

It goes without saying that any adequate account of the nature and character of or determinative influences upon the popular sensibility and political consciousness and inclinations are not reduceable to a few factors – not even to the traditional or obvious ones.  It is important that we first notice and lament the general acquiescence in the retreat from liberalism and the cultivated mistrust of the traditional pillars of western democratic government such as the provisional authority of science, the pursuit of truth and the growth of objective knowledge, the marketplace of ideas and the presumed integrity of a free press and of an independent judiciary, and, of course, respect for the rule of law.  [We do not comment here on the economic precepts on which western democracies were built, including, property rights, the role of the marketplace – including, of the private and public markets, and the regulatory role of the state].   But it is not enough to take notice and to lament.  It is also imperative that we do something about it!

The premise of Section 1 (www.section1.ca), a newly launched civil society/civics education initiative, is that we cannot expect citizens to be alarmed by and resistant to unaccountable governments unless they perceive these to pose some sort of existential threat, that is, unless they respond viscerally to government action that diminishes their standing as free, equal and self-actualizing persons.  Otherwise stated, there are certain “fundamentals” of a constitutional democracy and these must be understood at some level by all members of society in order that any threat to or violation of these fundamentals provoke appropriate notice and corresponding popular response. 

Democracy, which, from Plato to J.S. Mill, assumed an educated and informed citizenry, had been predicated on the universal commitment to freedom of inquiry, to the pursuit of truth, to reason, to criticism and refutation, to science and, ultimately, to the growth of knowledge. That was the philosophical backdrop against which we could comfortably rely on a true “marketplace of ideas” to generate credible as well as virtuous, political visions and policy options.

But the marketplace of ideas is not functioning as it was intended to do.  In a sense, it is on life support. Instead of a marketplace of ideas, we live in a world of “info-wars”!  Propaganda and the appeal of populist demagogues to our basest instincts, our greatest fears and our ugliest prejudices appears to be gaining traction in the public squares – physical and virtual – everywhere and crowding out, indeed, drowning out, rational, fact-based, evidence-based reflection, deliberation and discourse.

Social media, by its very nature and structure, has fragmented the “public square”, cultivating a universe of self-affirming, metastasizing echo chambers.

Partisan politics has become more polarized and entrenched; non-cooperation and, indeed, non-communication across party lines in legislatures and more disturbingly, in society at large, has become the norm.

And hate is on the rise everywhere.  Europe appears, once again, to be a bastion of extreme nationalism, xenophobia, antisemitism and racism the likes of which it has not seen overtly since the 1920s and 30s. And North America is not free from these scourges either.

We seem incapable of joining issue with one another and, therefore, of unifying and healing our inflamed, ailing polity.

What seems clear is that we have lost the capacity for any sort of political communion, any engagement with one another across ideological and party lines, across differing belief systems, across competing values on vital questions concerning our societal arrangements or differing conceptions of the “good life”.  We have lost the capacity to speak and listen to each other, to deliberate together. We have even lost the capacity to disagree and argue with one another. We are, instead, entrenched in an inescapable, intractable Babelesque war of all against all.

We need to return, collectively, to first principles in order to identify the core values and civic allegiances that have, in fact, united citizens and communities for generations . . . those values and allegiances that serve as foundation-stones for the political framework in which institutions were established and laws were passed and in which we have always aspired to regulate our own affairs within a governing system and culture that we call “democracy”.  We must endeavor to identify ground that is hallowed because it is both pre and post-ideological, transcending partisan interests and policy disagreements altogether.

When we re-engage with each other as citizens on this hallowed ground of allegiance to common foundational principles, we are reminded of our shared nature and inescapably shared fate as members of a particular community, as citizens of a particular society, indeed, as members of a singular species that occupies and depends upon the continued viability and health of a single planet.  Such a communion, such a common engagement, such a mutual recognition of interest and allegiance would be nothing if not therapeutic on a grand scale.

Thus, we propose to remind ourselves that a healthy, viable, brilliant democratic culture is one that requires continuous reinforcement of truly democratic and just practices.  In a phrase, such a culture is what we refer to as a “Constitutional Democracy”.

Section 1 is all about constructive disagreement, speaking, cooperating and disagreeing with each other as fellow citizens and neighbors.  Mindful as we must be of our seemingly intractable differences and respective prejudices, we must no longer permit these to set us against each other, nor must we allow others to weaponize our differences, our prejudices, our grievances in the service of evil causes, chief among which is the substitution of authoritarian rule for free and just democracy.

Free citizens must, therefore, be “armed” to safeguard and defend their liberties and their democracies. Therefore, they must take up “arms” against the threat of demagoguery, autocracy, populist nativism, dictatorship and wannabe strongmen bearing gifts.  And with what shall they “arm” themselves? Not with guns and other lethal weapons of destruction, but with knowledge of and allegiance to the non-negotiable values of a just constitution.  

Good laws and institutions cannot be counted on to fend off those who would commandeer the machinery of government for pernicious purposes.  History, old and recent, is replete with examples of authoritarian bait and switch. Democratic processes have always been the pathway for the arrival of undemocratic programs and regimes.

The fundamentals of a constitutional democracy might be thought of as the ingredients in the civic serum necessary to inoculate free citizens – living in a free and democratic society – against the ravages of anti-democratic populism, authoritarianism, racism, nativism, discrimination, xenophobia, corruption, self-dealing and hate promotion.  These “fundamentals” include, inter alia, the doctrine of equality of moral personality, freedom of expression, conscience and religion, the separation of powers, including the independence of the judicial branch of government and the principle(s) of pluralism.

Constitutional democracy is not just any old form of democratic practice; it has a unique logic and certain non-negotiable criteria that lend it both moral legitimacy and political resilience.   And in no modern constitutional writing are these qualities more elegantly and economically set out than in the first article of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  To that bit of nation-building prose does our new initiative, Section 1, owe its name.

Section 1 and MOSAIC PRESS will be presenting a conference at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, on October 5 and 6: CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY UNDER STRESS – A Time For Heroic Citizenship.  We are honored that Asher Honickman, Founder of ARL, will be one of the distinguished speakers.  See www.section1.ca/the-conference/ for details. To find out more about the “fundamentals” of a constitutional democracy and to participate in our effort to engage and promote the kind of civics education that will contribute to the development of responsible, empowered citizens, visit www.section1.ca   

Peter L. Biro is a lawyer, the Founder of Section 1, and the President and CEO of Newcon Optik.