In a recent column, Paul Krugman of the New York Times makes a persuasive argument that the U.S. is beginning a slow drift into “soft” authoritarian rule under the Trump administration and the Republican controlled Congress. He further argues that if the Republicans maintain control of both the House and Senate in the mid-term elections in November, that drift could accelerate. According to Krugman:
“What Freedom House calls illiberalism is on the rise across Eastern Europe. This includes Poland and Hungary, both still members of the European Union, in which democracy as we normally understand it is already dead.
In both countries the ruling parties — Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary — have established regimes that maintain the forms of popular elections, but have destroyed the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption and effectively delegitimized dissent. The result seems likely to be one-party rule for the foreseeable future.
And it could all too easily happen here (the U.S.). There was a time, not long ago, when people used to say that our democratic norms, our proud history of freedom, would protect us from such a slide into tyranny. In fact, some people still say that. But believing such a thing today requires willful blindness. The fact is that the Republican Party is ready, even eager, to become an American version of Law and Justice or Fidesz, exploiting its current political power to lock in permanent rule.”
But could the drift towards a “soft” authoritarian state happen here in Canada? At first blush, the notion seems ludicrous. But then it seemed equally ludicrous in the U.S. until January, 2017, when the Trump administration took power and the Republicans took control of Congress.
Soft authoritarianism in Ontario – the Ford government in action.
The best example of the new authoritarianism in Canada is Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, which arbitrarily cuts the number of City of Toronto ward boundaries from 47 to 25 just ahead of the Oct. 22 municipal election. This change is largely viewed by observers as disadvantaging progressives and advantaging Ford supporters on Toronto City Council. It continues a personal vendetta against progressive Toronto councillors that goes back to Ford’s days on Toronto City Council when his late brother, Rob, was mayor.
This abrupt change in Toronto municipal election rules was done with no consultation of Toronto City Council – or of the people of Toronto for that matter. In fact, Toronto City Council, reflecting broad popular opposition to the unilateral Ford move, voted 27-15 to legally challenge the bill.
Council also voted 25-17 to exhaust all legal avenues to challenge the Ford government’s legislation, including appealing any rulings. A majority also voted to seek to postpone the upcoming municipal election if a delay becomes necessary in order to carry out the legal challenge.
Toronto Mayor John Tory – himself a former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario – supported the court challenge, and called the Ford government’s decision to cut Toronto city council’s ranks “wrong and unacceptable”.
On September 9, an Ontario Superior Court judge declared Premier Doug Ford’s move to cut Toronto city council in half in the middle of a municipal election unconstitutional.
In his decision, Justice Edward Belobaba called Ford’s move to cut the number of city councillors to 25 from 47 “unprecedented” with a municipal campaign under way, declaring that the Premier’s intervention “crossed the line.” His ruling would have reverted Toronto’s municipal election to the 47-ward structure for the Oct. 22 election.
Premier Ford’s response? Within hours of the court ruling he announced that his government would immediately recall Ontario’s Legislature and introduce legislation that, if passed, would invoke Section 33 of the Constitution and ensure the Better Local Government Act is preserved and Toronto City Council is cut in half against its will.
Section 33 of the Constitution is better known as the “notwithstanding’ clause. It allows a provincial government to enact a law even though a court has found it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Never before has an Ontario government used this power.
Ontario Premier Ford’s justification in invoking the “notwithstanding” clause to cut Toronto City Council in half suggests a leader who seems to think his electoral mandate entitles him to do whatever he pleases and any opposition to his government’s actions is illegitimate. He seems to be suggesting there is something wrong with judges overriding government decisions – even when those decisions are found to violate the Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
And Ford said in his speech announcing the move that he would use the “notwithstanding” clause again in the future if his government is challenged.
And he almost certainly means it.
Ford authoritarianism on the education front
The Ford government’s authoritarian tendencies are also manifesting themselves on the education front. In his fight with the province’s teachers, Ford has created what critics are calling a “snitch line” for parents to report teachers who refuse to stop using the repealed 2015 sexual education curriculum.
Ford calls the “snitch line” an online portal for parents “to report any concerns” about what teachers are teaching in classrooms.
But the claim by the Ford government that the portal is aimed at improving classroom teaching is laughable. The form that parents use to express their concern about what is going on in the classroom is anonymous, so it’s of little use to parents genuinely concerned about something wrong in their own children’s classroom.
The online form also presumes parents have “concerns about the current curriculum”. Moreover, it was all announced in a government news release that came with the threatening words from the premier. “Make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.”
That’s clearly a threat to teachers — along with their union representatives — who had indicated that they wanted to continue to teach the 2015 sex education curriculum instead of following the government’s directive to go back to the outdated one first introduced in 1998. Many Ontario school boards have voiced similar concerns to those of the teachers and their unions, so the premier’s threat should be taken as a warning to them as well.
Unfortunately, the Ford government’s education provications don’t stop there. Earlier this summer, Ford promised “the largest consultation ever in Ontario’s history” to develop a new sex education curriculum.
But later, he expanded that consultation to include numerous other hot-button issues in education: the math curriculum, standardized testing, the legalization of cannabis, cell phones in classrooms and a committee to create a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”.
To initially set up a consultation essentially to hear from a socially conservative faction of parents who want less detailed sex education in schools and expand it to include a series of other education issues included only to mobilize the Tory conservative base, is not just bad policy making but demagoguery of the worst sort.
Ford and Immigration
But Ford is doing more than just manufacturing politically motivated crises in our schools and at Toronto City Council.
At the same time he is stirring up the Tory base on education, the Ford government is also waging a rhetorical war with the Trudeau Liberal government over “illegal border crossers” in official statements that misstate reality and incite hostility towards all immigrants.
Ontario’s new Minister of Children and Social Services, Lisa MacLeod, attacked Prime Minister Trudeau for supposedly triggering a mass migration when he (according to MacLeod) “tweeted out that everyone was welcome here, and as a result of that, we’ve had thousands of people cross the border illegally.”
Again, more demagoguery by an Ontario government politician that ignores the facts and yet another effort to stir up the Ford government’s conservative base.
“Soft” authoritarianism in the Conservative Party of Canada
For another example of the drift of the Canadian right towards soft authoritarianism, take the non-binding motion passed at the recent Conservative Party convention asserting that children born in Canada should not be given Canadian citizenship unless one of their parents is Canadian.
There is no doubt that immigration has become a significant issue in Canada, and that it is the Conservative Party – at both the federal and provincial levels – that is making it an issue. Remember it was past Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch, who suggested the incorporation of a “values test” for immigrants.
The idea that you can only be Canadian if you can prove your Canadian heredity moves beyond the common conservative concern that “Canadian values” are being swamped by waves of immigrants with “foreign values” and into the dangerous terrain of “purity” testing. Let’s be clear, binding or non-binding, by passing this motion at its policy convention the Conservative Party of Andrew Scheer took a real step towards an illiberal authoritarianism completely at odds with the basic liberal democratic values of Canada and, at least historically, of the Conservative Party itself.
Donald Trump’s presidency and the almost complete acquiescence of the Republican majority in the U.S. Congress to his agenda, has raised a question that few thought would ever need to be asked: Is the U.S. drifting towards a “soft” authoritarianism? This soft authoritarianism consists of a Republican majority party in both Houses in Congress which refuses to hold a president with clear anti-democratic instincts to account, an independent media which is under daily assault from President Trump and his party, a Supreme Court stacked by the Republicans with judges with a literalist view of the U.S. Constitution, and a presidential election manipulated (perhaps with the knowledge of some of the Trump campaign team, perhaps not) by the Russian government.
And what can be said of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s startling invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” to restore Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, within hours of Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba’s ruling that Ford’s legislation to cut the number of Toronto city councillors to 25 from 47 was “unprecedented” with a municipal campaign under way, declaring that the Premier’s intervention “crossed the line” and violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
Again, the “notwithstanding clause” has never before been used in Ontario.
The fact that conservative party leaders in Canada such as Doug Ford – and many of the drivers of the successful Brexit campaign such as Nigel Farge and Boris Johnston – have many of the same authoritarian political tendencies as the Trump administration and the Republican controlled Congress, suggests a growing trend throughout the English-speaking political right towards a kind of “soft” authoritarianism.
Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore these worrying trends in the English-speaking political right and elsewhere in their important new book, “How Democracies Die”. They believe that:
“Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms”.
Danger signs of precisely this sort abound in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The questions that need to be asked are whether the forces for Canadian democracy will see these signs for what they are – as a real threat to liberal democracy as we’ve known it – and what they will do to fight it.