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Even here we need vigilance to protect democracy from its many threats

A provincial election less than two months away, Ontarians don’t seem particularly interested.

That despite Kathleen Wynne’s repeated attempts for a “look at me” moment, desperately promising anything and everything to hold on to power. Her win-at-all-costs (to taxpayers) approach sees Wynne in poo-flinging mode: throw stuff around and see what sticks.

We appear indifferent, largely because we don’t believe a word of it, and know full well what she’s up to. Or most of us do, proving you can fool some of the people all of the time.

That approach having failed, Wynne and her paid-for supporters are now focused on attacking Doug Ford, an eminently easy target, but one ironically immune to the dirt Liberals will dish out. The government sees the Tories as the real threat to its 15-year hold on power, and will do anything to keep a place at the trough.

Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, is trying to get noticed. The NDP platform released this week makes promises that outflank Wynne on the left, attempting to avoid a repeat of the last election.

None of this is capturing our collective imagination.

It’s likely that Ontarians are simply jaded by years of poor governance, and unimpressed by the options they see.

We suffer, I’ve noted on many an occasion, from a dearth of good leaders. Even passable ones.

That’s true from the federal government right on down to the local level.
This is not about charisma or the ability to give rousing speeches, though that is a selling feature for far too many voters. No, proper governance means looking out for the public good rather than the interests of the a few, whether that’s the donors, the lobbyists or the self-serving politicians and bureaucrats themselves.

All of the parties are hoping for something, anything to stick – none more desperately than the incumbent. Unfortunately, instead of dismissing all of it as useless vote-buying nonsense, we give credence to the endless stream of promises, half-truths and blatant lies – again, out of one mouth more than others.

The result? We end up with much less than we deserve, in part because we like to think we make intellectual choices, using our brains, but invariably default to our guts and our hearts.

That’s not to say our impressions aren’t important. We want politicians with real messages that resonate with us. Then there’s the beer test: who could we see ourselves sitting down and having an enjoyable conversation with?

That also presents something of a conflict, in that we want our purported leaders to be better than us on some level, but not act as though they are. When politicians routinely act like they know better than us, that really gets our collective goat. Worse still, they start to believe that they are better than those they govern.

It’s an imperious attitude – and actions that show flagrant disregard for the public good, as we’re seeing now from most governments – that has historically led us to be perfectly fine with watching leaders hang by the neck until dead. In fact, such is the basis of much of our modern democracy: they grab power, steal our money, make useless wars and impoverish the people for the benefit of themselves, their paymasters and their courtiers … and then we chop their heads off and start all over again.

A revolutionary spirit – the willingness to do away with those who have lost any moral claim to power, despite attempts to hold it by force (see the rise of today’s police state here and in other countries) – that defines our modern democracy. Only that kind of grassroots movement is likely to affect any real change.

Sure, things are much worse elsewhere, including in the United States, but we’re not immune to the unresponsive governance that shows callous disregard for the public good and consistently makes poor decisions federally, provincially and regionally.

It’s important to remember that democracy is not the default situation – it was hard fought, and we’re very much guilty of letting it slip away.

In the democratic system that ostensibly applies in the West, from Greece to Waterloo Region, our elected officials, bureaucrats and assorted hangers-on are supposed to represent the public good, the will of the people. We set them up, finance the system, and in return we get good governance. That’s the theory. The reality, we know, is much different. Self-interest and cookie-jar raiding are the norm. There is little, if any accountability. No long-term thinking. And our indifference and inattentiveness are taken as endorsement to up the ante.

With the rise of authoritarian/fascist movements – often a reaction to economic failures and demographic changes – the very nature of democracy is at risk, in large part due to our own ignorance and lack of vigilance.

Such risks are the topic of How Democracies Die, a new book by Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They argue that even as old-school dictatorships and military coups are becoming less common, there’s a more insidious trend towards a gradual corruption of democracy.

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine,” they write.

“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d’état, as in Pinochet’s Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped.

“On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

Such moves are technically legal in that they are approved by bodies such as parliaments, but the ultimate goal is to subvert the system. It’s the veneer of democracy without the actual bother of fair elections and accountability.

The risks are real and efforts to bypass democracy are at work, even here. Our disconnection from the process makes it easier. We don’t trust politicians and bureaucrats. We don’t trust them with our money. We don’t trust them to be ethical. We don’t trust them to do what’s right for us. On the contrary, most of us feel we’re paying too much for too little, not getting value in return for our taxes. Instead of demanding more, we grow indifferent even to casting a ballot once every four years.

Those with ulterior motives eager to take the wheel have a clear path.

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