Democracies almost everywhere are under a harsh light these days. Can they sustain their welfare systems? Are they too beholden to special interests? Can they stand up to bullies like Russia or China?
In an era of poll-driven campaigning, however, the biggest question is this: Can democracies survive elections driven by campaign tactics that create a voter fear of those in the opposing camp?
Canada’s Oct. 19 election may have pivoted on this point. Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party won big in large part with a message of “positive politics,” in contrast to the scorched-earth tactics of his Conservative opponents who ran on personal attacks and dire warnings. Mr. Trudeau, the son of a famous Canadian prime minister, called for a government “that actually pulls Canadians together” instead of “frightening people.”
A party’s fear-mongering may help drive supporters to the polls but it can also lead to less deliberation by elected lawmakers, weakening a democracy’s ability to adjust. In the United States, negative partisanship has created stalled government. Two scholars, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University, wrote in a paper this year that political gridlock is now common because “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.”
Canada’s Parliament is “broken,” Trudeau says, because Canadians have also grown cynical of each other’s political stance. He promises inclusive, respectful, and transparent leadership, or what the late Canadian politician Jack Layton once described as offering love and hope over anger and fear.
Why are these qualities so important for democracy? In a Foreign Affairs article on political dysfunction, political scientist Francis Fukuyama explains why friendly face time between politicians is essential to governance: “[A]s any organizer of focus groups will tell you, people’s views on highly emotional subjects, from immigration to abortion to drugs, will change just 30 minutes into a face-to-face discussion with people of differing views, provided that they are all given the same information and ground rules that enforce civility.”
Canadian voters had many policy reasons to elect a Liberal majority in Parliament and to end the decade-long tenure of the Conservative-led government of Stephen Harper. Trudeau’s youthfulness, charm, and legacy also did him well. But Canadians must now hold Trudeau to his promise of appealing to the “better angels” of all Canadians, especially his political opponents. Other democracies will be looking to Canada for guidance.