Democracies are stronger than you may think, but Canada not all that exceptional
The following commentary piece was published by Keith Neuman in the November 9 edition of iPolitics
Populist, anti-government sentiment continues to surge in many countries with democratically-elected governments — most recently with the emergence of Andrej Babis, the new anti-establishment leader of the Czech Republic.
Many in Canada are now anxiously asking the question: could this dismaying trend take hold here? An answer was recently offered by Michael Adams in his book Could it Happen Here?: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. In it, he draws on historical, political and social scientific evidence to conclude that Canada is on a different trajectory, one that is unlikely to take us in this negative direction.
Further evidence comes from an AmericasBarometer public opinion survey published by our Institute in June showing that Canadians’ confidence in their democracy and national institutions has not only held remarkably stable over the past decade but has improved in some areas since 2014.
This might lead us to conclude that Canada is exceptional in this regard. But how do we really compare on this score with citizens of other countries? Two newly-published research studies can help us answer this question. Their results may surprise you.
The first of these studies comes from the respected Pew Research Center, which conducted a 38-country survey spanning five continents earlier this year. Their findings show that Canada is among the top tier countries surveyed in terms of public confidence in democracy and government.
But Canada does not stand out as exceptional. For instance, in the proportion of citizens who can be considered to be “fully committed” to representative democracy, Canada’s percentage — 44 per cent — places us marginally ahead of the United States (40 per cent), Australia (40 per cent), the United Kingdom (38 per cent) and France (35 per cent), even with Greece (44 per cent) and behind Sweden (52 per cent), Germany (48 per cent) and the Netherlands (47 per cent).
A similar pattern can be seen in the extent to which citizens say they trust their national government — but in this case the highest levels of trust can be found in Asia and Africa. On this measure, Canada (20 per cent have a lot of trust) scores a bit higher than the U.S. (15 per cent) and better than most of Europe (excepting the Netherlands and Germany), but is at the same level as Russia (20 per cent) and South Africa (22 per cent), and well behind India (39 per cent), the Philippines (36 per cent), Ghana (51 per cent) and Tanzania (48 per cent).
The Pew study also found that notable percentages of citizens in many countries would entertain political systems that are inconsistent with liberal democracy (unconstrained executive power, for example, or rule by 'experts' versus elected representatives). Canadians are not among the strongest proponents of such systems — but the support for illiberal governance is there.
Support for a system in which a 'strong leader' can make decisions free of Parliamentary or judicial interference is more than twice as evident among Canadians on the political right than among those in the centre or the left.
One in six Canadians (17 per cent) agrees that having a strong leader who can make decisions without interference from Parliament or the courts would be a good way to govern the country. This figure is lower than it is in the United States (22 per cent) and well below the average for Asia, Africa and the Middle East — but still a bit higher than the European average (13 per cent).
Perhaps it's not surprising that citizens' opinions about democracy and governance are strongly influenced by their levels of education, ideology and views about the health of the national economy. This is somewhat less likely to be the case in Canada than in some other countries — but it's still evident here.
Satisfaction with how the country’s democracy is working is much higher among Canadians who believe the national economy is good (81 per cent) than among those who would describe it as bad (52 per cent). And support for a system in which a 'strong leader' can make decisions free of Parliamentary or judicial interference is more than twice as evident among Canadians on the political right (21 per cent) than among those in the centre (16 per cent) or the left (9 per cent).
This gap between left and right is comparable to the gaps we see in countries such as the U.S., Chile, Greece and Germany, but smaller than in Venezuela, South Korea and Australia.
The AmericasBarometer is an international public opinion survey conducted every two years covering 29 countries across the western hemisphere that focuses on democracy and civic engagement. This research helps fill in the picture because it reveals how opinions about democracy and governance are changing (or not) over time.
The Canadian results (published in June) show clearly that public confidence levels have been notably stable over the past decade, and in some cases improved over the past three years (due in part to a change in government in Ottawa). It offers no evidence of growing anti-government feelings or populist aspirations.
More surprising is the absence of such a trend in the United States, which is now coping with a lightning rod president and a highly polarized political climate. Despite the turmoil, Americans’ expressed confidence in their democracy and political system is holding notably steady — except for moderately declining views about their Commander-in-Chief.
Americans may not be as positive as Canadians, but on the whole they haven't lost faith in their system ... not yet, at any rate.
What can we learn from these latest studies? First, such research provides us with important benchmarks against which to test our assumptions about what citizens are thinking and what they value, and by extension the health of our democracy — which relies on trust. What happens on social media and in other popular forums may not be an accurate reflection of core attitudes and values.
Second, the research confirms that Canadians, as a whole, are generally positive about their democratic institutions and that sense of confidence has held steady over recent years.
But the international comparisons also show that we may not be exceptional in this regard; voters in numerous other countries are maintaining faith in their political institutions, even in the face of anti-government populist movements (they may be growing disenchanted with the particular players and policies, but not with the system itself).
This may disappoint those who are invested in the idea of Canadian exceptionalism. The good news is that public confidence in democracies worldwide is more solid than it may appear on the surface.
Like what you're reading? With our bi-monthly e-newsletter, you can receive even more with the latest details on current projects, news, and events at the institute.