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Illiberal Winds Illustration by Melissa Ling.

Illiberal Winds

As Christopher Szabla reports, Canada has been cast as the last bastion of liberalism. Are we up to the role?

“Walled World,” an infographic map that went viral in 2009, depicted the Earth as part enclave of the rich—an exclusive, gated community of nations containing the overwhelming majority of the world’s wealth and only a fraction of its population—surrounded by an outland of the poor, highlighting the security measures separating the two in bold red lines: Mediterranean patrols deterring migrants on Europe’s edge, desert fence-posts along the US–Mexican border. In doing so, the map refuted the long-popular idea that the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years earlier, had marked the end of divisions between nation-states, symbolically heralding an age of globalization, freedom of movement and trade, and universal liberal democracy. 

Today, those walls—both physical and psychological—seem not only to be growing taller, but creeping inside the subdivision, rising even between countries in the wealthy West. From Hungary’s hostility to refugees, to the Polish government’s assault on judges, women, and even “bicyclists and vegetarians,” to the return of a repressive Russia, liberalism—a political philosophy which seeks to balance the mandates of democratic majorities with the rule of law to ensure individual rights to travel, trade, speak and live freely—began losing ground in Europe’s east, just where it had appeared to score its final victory. Increasingly, it has been replaced by a deeper attachment to what Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, describes as “illiberal democracy”: an emphasis on the majority will alone. 

Foreigners have been among the first excluded from this grave new world. Metastasized by the mass movement of Syrians, in particular, a general xenophobia has now swept politics well west of Warsaw, stoking not only Britain’s vote to leave the European Union but the once-unthinkable election of Donald Trump. Hostility to free trade fuelled both Trump’s support and Bernie Sanders’ insurgency—the senator said he did not support a single US trade agreement, including “disastrous” NAFTA, because they had all helped move jobs abroad—as well as defiant Belgian attempts to derail the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), an EU–Canada free-trade deal. 

Far fewer murmurs against CETA arose in Canada itself. A mass, firebrand movement against cross-border commerce, immigration, or minorities has yet to appear on Canada’s national scene. After Trump’s election, US Vice President Joe Biden went so far as to anoint Canada and Germany the last guardians of liberal values. But with Angela Merkel challenged by rising anti-immigrant sentiment—and the resurgence of Canada’s free trade- and (nominally) refugee-friendly Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau—the relative resiliency of Canadian liberalism stands out. The Economist even recently devoted a whole issue to praising Canada for its commitment to the liberal cause. The cover image featured a reimagined Statue of Liberty brandishing a hockey stick and sporting a maple leaf crown, the US apparently no longer worthy of what the monument symbolized. How did Canada find itself here—literally depicted as the last torch-bearer for what once seemed poised to become the world’s dominant political philosophy?

To answer that question, we first have to ask why liberalism has declined across the North Atlantic world, and what has kept Canada exempt. The Economist offers few convincing answers. Its feature notes that Canada’s liberal traditions are old and deep, but so are other, afflicted countries’; it claims Canada may be further from sources of mass migration affecting Britain and Poland, but it’s no further from those riling the US; it alludes to the fact Canada’s been officially identified as “multicultural” since a 1971 statement by PM Trudeau père, but this commitment has hardly gone unchallenged, particularly in more assimilationist Quebec. And while the magazine also suggests Canadian bilingualism may have inculcated some general tolerance, Switzerland, which has four official languages, has elected an anti-immigrant party (infamous for ads depicting white sheep kicking out a black one), outlawed minarets by referendum, and voted in officials eager for a barrier on its southern border—with Italy.

Examining earlier crises of liberalism better explains what’s kept Canada’s intact. Among the most famous accounts is George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England, the story of how the once-dominant British Liberal Party nearly disappeared. One of Dangerfield’s core contentions is that Britain’s Liberals fell in with bad bedfellows. Challenged by the Labour Party on the left, they were forced to seek support from Irish separatists, concessions to whom made the Liberals look unpatriotic. The historian Karl Bracher—exploring how German liberals were unable to stop the rise of Nazism—similarly showed how many Germans’ notion that liberals had been responsible for forcing Germany’s surrender in WWI (and that they subsequently helped maintain the ruling class) kept liberals from enjoying the benefit of the doubt on both the left and right.

More ideologically rigid challengers continue to use liberals’ engagement with less savoury forces—sometimes a product of their very tolerance, often a means to maintain power—against them, claiming liberals place appeasement over principle or are easily bought by special interests. Accusations along these lines diminished support for Hillary Clinton in the US as well as the liberals leading the British Labour Party, who were recently ousted by Jeremy Corbyn’s leftists.

But claims of weakness or accommodation only really weaken liberals when difficult times appear to demand more extreme measures than liberal moderation seems capable of delivering. Liberalism reached an early peak in the mid-nineteenth century—a period of enthusiasm for free trade and democratic expansion not unlike the last quarter-century—but began receding during a worldwide recession in the 1870s. The very freedoms liberals had championed made novel political responses to such economic challenges as failing banks and increased foreign competition, including communism, accessible to larger audiences. Demagogues like Karl Lueger, Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor, seized on then-new media, mass-circulation newspapers, to engage in what historian Carl Schorske called “politics in a new key”: shrill, attention-seeking, reductionist solutions to complex problems—like fin-de-siècle Trumps taking to Twitter. The process repeated itself on radios across insecure interwar Europe, fueling illiberal distrust. Someone had to be responsible for society’s nosedive—treacherous foreigners, aloof elites—and liberals didn’t seem forceful enough to stop them.

Today’s political battle has coincided with the lingering effects of another financial crisis—a calamity Canada largely escaped. In this, ironically, Stephen Harper played a role in nursing Canada’s Liberal Party back to life. Harper’s failure to gut banking regulations meant Canada avoided the sort of financial meltdown—and atmosphere ripe for scapegoating—faced by the countries he sought to emulate. As a result, Harper’s xenophobic policies—culminating in a farcical plot to encourage citizens to report neighbours’ “Barbaric Cultural Practices”—were received more negatively in Canada than similar ideas abroad. Facing relative economic prosperity and ethnocentric overkill, Canadian Liberals were able to highlight their tolerance as a strength, while liberals elsewhere have appeared too tolerant of a world changing in every way for the worse.

None of this should leave Canadian liberals complacent. The Liberal Party may not prove liberalism’s most effective guardian. CETA’s near-rejection demonstrated that Canada isn’t isolated from a volatile world, particularly one Trudeau’s government is working to make more interdependent. Left unchecked, the freedoms liberals promote could again produce the precarious conditions in which illiberalism thrives. There’s a warning about what sort of backlash might come in British Columbia: after underregulated investment inflated housing prices, the province recently began taxing all foreigners buying homes in the Vancouver metro area—even struggling immigrants—at a higher rate than citizens. Racist flyers urged local whites to go further and “join the alt-right” to defend one suburb, Richmond, from the Chinese newcomers preventing them from “enjoying the privilege” of affordable housing and linguistic purity. Kellie Leitch, vying to become the new head of the Conservative Party, has made headlines echoing these sentiments, insisting prospective immigrants be screened for adherence to “Canadian values.” 

This sort of rhetoric seems fringe—until it isn’t. Not long ago, the same kind of overbroad enmity led to Japanese internment. “The hate spewed in the United States is not welcome here,” was one local’s response to the BC flyers. It was a hopeful invocation of Canadian exceptionalism—but only recent, lucky circumstances have allowed Canadian liberalism to persist without serious challenges. Now the doorstops are being kicked out under the last open gates of the Walled World, and no inherent, immutable properties prevent Canada turning away from Trudeau’s “sunny ways” and down a darker road again.