McLaughlin College Union debates the future of democracy

Cropped globe on a table

On April 1, the McLaughlin College Union, a new initiative this academic year for McLaughlin College, debated the future of democracy with an outstanding panel of expert speakers.

The debaters included Professor Sylvia Bashevkin, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto; Professor Simone Bohn, Department of Politics, York University; Harry Pearse, research associate, Centre for the Future of Democracy, University of Cambridge; Professor Dennis M. Pilon, Department of Politics, York University; and Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

James Simeon
James Simeon, head of McLaughlin College, moderated the debate

The debate was on the proposition: “Democracy is resilient and will survive, despite the challenges it faces, well into the foreseeable future.” Bashevkin and Pilon spoke against the proposition and Bohn and Pearse spoke in favour, while Rapoport took both sides. Debaters were limited to no more than 15 minutes to make their case.

The debate began with Bashevkin arguing against the proposition, noting that the very first so-called democracies in ancient Greece were impaired and did not allow women to participate and, indeed, practiced slavery. Likewise, at the very outset, Canada did not allow women, Indigenous people, prisoners, and many others to participate fully in the political process. The limitations on the basic access to the right to vote and other legal restrictions on political participation have characterized the Canadian polity from the outset. Bashevkin emphasized the lack of security in women’s lives today and referred to the “shecurity crisis.” All this points, she argued, to a Darwinian approach that undermines social trust and distances Canada from core democratic values.

Bohn, arguing for the proposition, cited the example of Brazil, which 54 years ago experienced a military coup that began a reign of terror. The process of returning the country to democracy and re-democratizing the countries of South America was a slow and arduous one. The citizens of Brazil and other South American states vowed “never again.” Bohn alluded to the innate human desire to have a voice in the political process. Constitutional liberties and freedoms of citizenship are essential for the reservoir of legitimacy that is necessary for any society. The emergence of politicians like Donald Trump and other ‘populist rogues’ across the globe can result in a self-correction that is critical to sustaining democracy.

Pearse also spoke in favour of the proposition but argued that democracy will need some major refurbishments to be truly successful. Contemporary democracy is not currently facing existential crises, but, Pearse acknowledges, it is in something of a rut. International surveys indicate there is widespread public dissatisfaction with democracy, with young people being particularly dissatisfied. However, Pearse argues, dissatisfaction doesn’t equal illegitimacy, and although the number of democracies is constantly changing, present-day socio-political conditions mean it’s unlikely the major democracies, or democracy in large numbers, will backslide into authoritarianism.

Pilon, speaking against the proposition, argued that ‘liberal democracy’ has always had a tension between its liberal and democratic elements, and that lately the more liberal elements are gaining ground and threatening stability. Here gaining some sense of the broader, long-term historical struggle over democracy is important. Nineteenth-century liberals struggled against conservatives to create a new kind of governing order, but they were not democrats. Instead, the struggle for democracy required the mobilization of the working class via mass left parties amid the impact of world destabilizing events like two world wars. It was only this mobilization, combined with the broader international Cold War, that led to the postwar development of western welfare states and greater economic equality and opportunity. However, since the 1970s the working class have become increasingly marginal in electoral politics, and this has strengthened the more liberal and less democratic aspects of western societies, as is confirmed by the dramatic increase in levels of economic inequality and insecurity.

Rapoport argued on both sides of the proposition. While acknowledging the major challenges to democracy, Rapoport said that he remains full of hope and optimism. There is an evident failure of global fairness and equality and the grim prospects of climate change, and both of these contribute to growing anti-democratic and authoritarian trends internationally. The information revolution and the rise of social media has helped to create rising demonization and polarization, as displayed in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Fortunately, the U.S. institutions held in the last election and the military stayed fast to the Constitution, resulting in the transfer of power. But the intense partisanship in congress remains.

On the positive side, the highest election turnout in U.S. history occurred in 2020, demonstrating there were high levels of civic engagement. She the People, Black Lives Matter and youth activism on climate change are all reflections of greater civic participation in the United States. In addition, the issues of expanding voting rights and other democracy reforms are now front and center.

Following the debate, the question-and-answer segment brought forward a rich discussion and commentary on the issues raised. The debate concluded with a poll of attendees, who were decidedly in favour of the “yea” side of the proposition.

“We were very fortunate to bring together such outstanding speakers for our McLaughlin College Union debate on the future of democracy,” said Head of McLaughlin College, James C. Simeon, who moderated the debate. “As the York University College that is mandated to critically analyze public policy and to further the betterment of society, the recent initiative of the McLaughlin College Union Debates helps us to advance our College’s overall mandate while, at the same time, catering to the direct interests and needs of our students whose disciplinary fields and career interests align with the legal professions, to public service, and the non-profit sector. We look forward to holding future debates next academic year on the significant and critical public policy issues of the day.”

To view this McLaughlin College Union debate and the three others that were held this academic year, please visit the McLaughlin College website.