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Globe editorial: Trump, Putin and the threat to liberal democracy

Of all the assumptions Canadians make about life in Canada, perhaps the most unspoken one is that our liberal democracy and the institutions that serve it are here to stay. There are few of us who worry that our parliaments, our courts, our civil liberties, our free media and our voting rights might disappear. They are too well established, we tell ourselves.

And yet we should worry. In 2016, liberal democracy was under threat in countries that were thought to represent its pinnacle. From Europe to the United States and, yes, Canada too, the institutions that perpetuate our way of life are being rubbished by populists, racists and autocrats who would like nothing more than to see the end of a governing system that stands between them and unfettered power.

The most obvious example is, of course, the rise of Donald Trump. The next American president attacks the pillars of his country's liberal, constitutional democracy with abandon. He portrays government as a negative force and refers to it as "them." Judges are biased against him, he whines. He gives oxygen to white supremacists, and endorses political violence. He says the voting system is "rigged," while refusing to even entertain the possibility that the Kremlin, a historical grandmaster of election rigging, might have influenced the U.S. election. He calls the free press a conspiracy against him. He does not tolerate protesters, and in the wake of his election, it appeared to be news to him that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to peaceful protest.

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Finally, he divides people based on race and religion, instead of bringing people together in equality before the law. That goes against the most fundamental value of a liberal society, which conservatives used to defend.

Mr. Trump defines "democracy" as an election he wins. The "free press" is media that exalts him. "Justice" is a court decision that favours his interests. "Us" is anyone who cheers for him.

But Mr. Trump, even as he dominates the current news cycle, is only one expression of a long-incubating virus. The president-elect has made flesh the loss of faith many Americans have in a system that, among its other failings, celebrates the buying and selling of U.S. politicians by special interest groups. If parts of the edifice are rotten, more and more voters on both the extreme right and extreme left ask, why not blow the whole thing up?

The consequences of this mindset are devastating. In June a group of researchers published "The Danger of Deconsolidation," a paper in which they pointed to troubling evidence of a Western world losing faith in liberal democracy. Among their most shocking findings: a survey that showed that the percentage of well-to-do Americans who support military rule has jumped from five per cent in the 1990s to 16 per cent today; and another that shows that a growing number of Americans and Europeans born after 1980 no longer feel that it is "essential to live in a country that is governed democratically."

In Europe, that growing distrust of all things government culminated with the vote by Britain to leave the European Union. It will be catastrophic if these same sentiments continue to expand. European countries are battling a rise in right-wing populist parties that trade in racism and anti-immigration. The Syrian refugee crisis has only added to the tensions.

In the Philippines, the new president encourages vigilantes to murder drug dealers, and boasts of having killed a few himself. Turkey's democracy has been perverted into a dictatorship by President (for life?) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with thousands of people jailed on baseless charges, and the media silenced. And Russia and its imitators run strongman regimes with servile judges and Potemkin elections.

Authoritarianism, where government is above the people and above the law, rather than the reverse, is suddenly in the ascendancy.

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China, a centralized dictatorship run by a single party, has taken note of what is happening. Its propaganda machine has seized on the election of Mr. Trump as proof that its people should not aspire to the failed so-called freedoms of democracy. "The American political system that once was their greatest pride has constantly proven powerless to restrain the despicable conduct of incompetent politicians," writes a researcher at one of China's state-run think tanks. Mr. Trump could not have put it better himself.

The allure of the strongman who can fix all the problems of a nation has not been this strong in decades. Polls show a third of Mr. Trump's Republican voters approve of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. These are frightening times, and no one should look away.

Canadians, especially, must not take their own constitutional democracy for granted. We have problems, too: low voter turnout; populist politicians who blame an unnamed "elite" for the destruction of "Canadian values"; a trend toward the centralization of power in the offices of the prime minister and the premiers.

Canada, like all countries run by imperfect human beings, suffers from politicians who sometimes break promises, mismanage funds, accept donations from lobbyists, and evade and lie.

But we also have politicians, often the same ones, who have taken measures to reinforce liberal democracy. Most provinces and the federal government have adopted strict rules to reduce the influence of money in politics. On this and other points, Canada is already well ahead of the U.S. Our electoral maps are drawn up by independent commissions; in the U.S., they are the playthings of state politicians. Our judges are not perfect, but they are truly independent, whereas in many U.S. states, they are elected.

We also now have, in the form of Mr. Trump, a stark reminder of why liberal democratic values are so important to defend, and of the ways in which they can be diminished.

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If nothing else positive comes out of 2016, let us at least find a new determination to fight for a way of life, and a system of government, that we can never take for granted.

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