1281 Democracy in danger

Restoring Democracy in an Age of Populists and Pestilence
by Jonathan Manthorpe

Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2020
$24.95 / 9781770865822

Reviewed by Eric W. Sager


We now have a large shelfful of books on the perilous state of democracy in the twenty-first century. These books are responding to an apparent crisis: the decline in the number of countries that qualify as full or complete democracies, and the apparent decline in democratic values in western democracies, as measured by the Economist Intelligence Unit, for instance. Why another book on the subject, and what does Jonathan Manthorpe offer that is new?

Manthorpe is a seasoned Canadian journalist with long experience in many countries. He is also the author of several books, including the successful Claws of the Panda (2019), about Chinese government campaigns of influence and coercion in Canada. These experiences give Manthorpe many advantages. Surely his career as a foreign correspondent helps to explain his sensitivity to context and his appreciation of complexity. There is no single threat to democracy; there is no single populist uprising. The populist erosion of democratic values in Hungary and Poland is different from the populist threats in the United States, for instance; the populist anger that fuelled the Brexit movement in the UK is different again. Common elements exist, but these must be seen against the specifics of time, place, and historical circumstance.

Vancouver-based journalist and writer Jonathan Manthorpe

Appreciation of complexity does not result in opaque analysis. Manthorpe’s experience as a journalist serves him well: he knows how to write for all readers, how to tell a story, and how to get to the heart of the matter. In thirteen chapters, focussing on political systems in Europe and North America, he weaves many threads into a large and coherent tapestry. The immediate starting point is 1989 and the optimism about liberalism and democracy following the collapse of communist regimes in Europe. Not seen clearly in the early 1990s were the imminent forces that would become threats: the immense power of fundamentalist religions; enduring nationalisms, especially important in the former communist countries in eastern Europe; and the effects of market globalization on manufacturing industries and the working class in North America and elsewhere. Manthorpe emphasizes the change that underlies and exacerbates all other changes – the growing inequalities of income and wealth discussed in Chapter 2: “Letting the Gini Coefficient Out of the Bottle.” Manthorpe is surely right when he says that the concentration of more wealth into the hands of the few “is the most pressing core threat to the survival of liberal democracy” (p. 34).

While there may be nothing of striking originality in the analysis that follows, Manthorpe is giving us something very valuable: a reminder of what we may have forgotten in the whirlwind of change since 1989, and a lucid summary of shifts in politics and political culture in several countries. Are you having difficulty making sense of what has been happening in eastern Europe? Manthorpe’s account is for you, and he is particularly good on the non-liberal nationalism and Catholic piety of Viktor Orban. How much do you know about threats to liberal values and democratic institutions coming from external actors in Russia and China? What is the connection between globalisation and the fate of the working class in the United States, and how does that fate intersect with political participation? Manthorpe gives clear answers, and along the way he tells us about the decline in voter turnout in elections, other measures of the decline in political participation, the increasing influence of lobbying operations in politics, the “farming out” of government responsibilities to private or quasi-official bodies, polling data on public attitudes toward politicians, and much more.

Victoria-born whistleblower Christopher Wylie of Cambridge Analytica. Photo by Dominic Lorrimer

The stories of Brexit and of the Trump presidency are well-trodden ground, but even here we find relevant insights and useful reminders. Particularly welcome is the summary of recent research on psychographics and the microtargeting of voters, such as that of Cambridge Analytica. The role of social media in political culture and democratic politics is an evolving story, but Manthorpe’s summary to 2020 remains valuable, as does his summary of possible solutions to the sweeping disinformation nihilism of the virtual-capitalist megacorporations. Among other things, we must understand Facebook, Twitter and other platforms not just as the social meeting places that they claim to be, but as publishers and corporate news agencies.

The epilogue written in May 2020 attempts the virtually impossible task of assessing the impact of the pandemic on the many trends discussed in the book. Manthorpe is too experienced and too smart to offer grand speculations. But he is surely right that the pandemic has strengthened the argument that unbridled capitalism is destructive of democracy. The pandemic displayed for all to see the terrible human costs of inequality and the longstanding devaluation of the work and lives of people in a long list of essential occupations. Inevitably, unanswered questions remain. How far has the pandemic given new impetus to demands for the restructuring of tax regimes, or the movement for a universal basic income? How far will the pandemic, which has tested health systems often to the breaking point, compel greater investment in national health care? These questions endure, as do so many others that arise from the unfinished story of democracy and its future.

Jonathan Manthorpe

Manthorpe’s vision is not pessimistic. Measures of decline must, like everything else, be put in context, and the context of democracy today includes the strong roots, historical and philosophical, of a durable system of governance. The tree may suffer drought, but the roots are strong. Are there solutions to the recent aridity? Here Manthorpe may disappoint some readers. There is a very big question facing liberals and progressives of all stripes: what principles and what collective actions are adequate to the multiple challenges facing democracy? If you are an optimist, on what do you base your optimism? Manthorpe’s proposals are not radical and certainly not socialist. He repeats the oft-heard arguments for greater reliance on wealth and property taxes and for reductions of tax avoidance and tax evasion. He accepts the principle that regulation of the capitalist marketplace is a fundamental responsibility of government. He offers other proposals, and at the end he endorses a broadly reformist principle, drawing on Francis Fukuyama: a principle of balance.

Successful democracy depends on a balance between individual freedom and political equality. Neither ideal can be fully optimized on its own, because maximizing one may reduce the other. Balance requires the political empowerment of citizens and the compromises among competing interests that democracy enables. Balance means the legitimation of state power and solid institutions of law and accountability that constrain that power. One may well ask: is this principle adequate to the huge challenges that this book describes? Is this principle likely to energize those who must defend democracy in the near future? Whatever your answers, you will surely agree that Manthorpe’s excellent book inspires us to think hard about the tough questions.


Eric Sager

Eric Sager was a member of the History Department at the University of Victoria from 1983 to 2016. He has done research on the history of the English peace movement, the sailing ships and seafarers of Atlantic Canada, unemployment in Canada, families in Canada, and economic inequality. His books include Seafaring Labour (1989), Maritime Capital (1990), and Ships and Memories (1993). His most recent books are Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020) and The Professor and the Plumber: Conversations About Equality and Inequality (Friesen Press, 2021). Editor’s note: Eric Sager has also reviewed a book by Gary H. Karlson for The Ormsby Review. Sager’s Inequality in Canada was reviewed by Ron Verzuh while Jak King reviewed The Professor and the Plumber.


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