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Democracy in freefall

Peter Biro on how heroic citizens can come to the defence of political liberty
By: Michelle Grady
October 16, 2020
People gather in protest, one woman carries a placard.

With constitutional democracy in decline, heroic citizenship has never been more important, argues Peter Biro. This can take many forms. Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash.

On Tuesday, October 20, the Faculty of Law will host “A Lawyer’s Introduction to the Fall and Potential Rise of Constitutional Democracy,” an interactive conversation on the state and future of liberal democracy with Peter L. Biro, editor of the new book, Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship, external link. The event is open to the entire Ryerson community. 

Ryerson Today connected with Biro, founder of, external link  before the event to discuss his book and the major themes as a preview for Tuesday’s event. 

The event posits that liberal constitutional democracy is everywhere backsliding. The departure from adherence to the institutional and political norms and conventions that are the bedrock of free and democratic societies should be of deep concern to all of us, but especially to lawyers, as they have a particular responsibility for the condition and fate of our constitutional democracy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

RT: In your opinion, when did this democractic backsliding begin? I know it’s a popular topic with Trump, but it can’t be just within the last four years. 

PB: Ha! that's funny, you know, nobody's actually asked me that question. Arguably, the backsliding began even as liberal democracy was in its ascendancy because the essential elements of the backsliding were already baked into the cake from day one. 

In the post-Second World War era, when the welfare state had emerged [as a reaction to the Great Depression]. One of the most important promises of liberal democratic governments was this promise of economic equality and of a fair distribution of wealth, and so we began to see progressive taxation introduced with the whole idea of wealth redistribution. The problem, of course, is that if you don't also build in a system to ensure that you don't have an undesirable increase in wealth disparities, the system is going to hit a point where it becomes unstable. It becomes unstable, because the people at the bottom can't sustain it anymore, they can't live with that degree of inequality. And the so-called middle class is being pushed farther and farther down the chain. 

In the mid-90s, with the dot-com bubble and the period when we transitioned from an industrial production model to a post-industrial model that was beginning to be based on the knowledge economy, we really began to see this inequality increase in a wildly exponential way. 

RT: So the conditions were there from the outset, but we really began to see the outcome in the 90s?

With this incredible exponential increase in economic inequality, we saw the inability of governments in western democracies to satisfy the living requirements, not only of those at the bottom, but even of those in the middle. And because liberal democracies couldn’t keep their post-war promises, we began to see this assault on and undermining of the core values on which liberal democracies are founded [respect for the rule of law; insistence on the separation of the judiciary and branches of government; the protection of civil liberties and human rights; the defence of minority rights; the societal commitment to promote a thriving middle class; the dependence on a vibrant marketplace of ideas; deference to science, reason, and the pursuit of truth; and broadly inclusive elections]. 

RT: We’re very much seeing an outright assault on truth right now. 

PB: That's what Trump is all about, right? And that's what a lot of populist demagoguery is all about, where, in fact, the populist leaders profess to have alternative realities. They actually consciously discredit what I call the professional truth-seekers: the scientific community, the research community, and then you have journalists and the media, those people who are seeking out the truth about the facts as opposed to the truth about the laws of nature.

And that assault on truth, combined with a culture of social media fragmentation and echo chambers has moved us to what I call a universe of info-wars, rather than any kind of marketplace of ideas. And you cannot have a viable liberal constitutional democracy if you don't have a healthy marketplace of ideas, it’s the cornerstone.

RT: I think it’s very interesting that you touch on the fact that wealth inequality is foundational to the disruption of democracy. How can you have any real democracy in a society where many people have to choose between collecting a pay cheque and risking contracting COVID-19? Can you speak more to its current impact?

Right. And the inequality  - especially the wealth disparity - has gotten to the point where it’s giving rise to an ever-growing constituency of disenchanted, resentful unhappy people - for good reason. It doesn't matter whether you love or hate Trump, whether you’re left- or right-wing, you have to recognize that people have been effectively disenfranchised in all kinds of ways. Economic inequality has established a population that is going to be that much more vulnerable to the entreaties of a populist demagogue who says he understands your pain and he’s going to take down the establishment. 

RT: I know the notion of hope and a path forward drives your book. You speak of heroic engagement - can you elaborate on this idea? What does heroic civic engagement mean to you?

PB: It would be my hope that readers see this as being the most important insight or contribution which the book offers up.. The question is, what do we care most about? Where do we really want to go as a society? I speak about what I call heroic citizenship. And the idea behind that is ensuring that every citizen is educated into the fundamental principles that must underpin a healthy and sustainable liberal democracy. Every citizen has to not only understand those principles on an intellectual level; they must also relate to them on a visceral level. Civics education must not just be academic and intellectual, it also has to occur experientially. 

And further, it isn't just about being educated into this value system, but also about being inculcated with a sense of duty to come to the defense of political liberty. A heroic citizen is simply someone who is moved to come to the defense of these values and norms when they see they are vulnerable. And I do not prescribe the ways in which one will be “heroic”; it'll be any way that moves you or that you're capable of answering the call of duty; you'll write a letter to the editor, you'll go to a rally, you'll run for office, you’ll get involved in your community. Every citizen can be heroic; it's simply about being educated into a sense of duty to come to the defense of political liberty.

To register for the event, visit the Faculty of Law’s events page.
To learn more about section1, visit their website, external link.

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