The United States is on the verge of devolving into a failed democratic state. In January 2021, pollster John Zogby conducted a survey that revealed that 46% of Americans believe the United States is on the verge of another civil war.
Canadians should be deeply concerned as Canada’s closest neighbor unravels and slides into dangerous forms of authoritarianism. I am deeply concerned as someone whose research has attempted to explain how and why democracy works.
Canada should be considering its options and preparing for what comes next. Failure to do so will endanger Canadian democracy, as we have witnessed with the so-called freedom convoy in Ottawa and its doubtful funding.
In the United States, the worst-case scenario — blood in the streets — isn’t necessarily the most likely, but we should resist the temptation to assign too low a probability to events that could have serious, catastrophic consequences.
After all, some of the most constructive academic work in the mid-twentieth century was motivated by nuclear doomsaying (Thomas Schelling’s Nobel Prize work on game theory, for example).
Predictions about the devastation caused by the climate crisis have recently been used to drive public policy and political debate. Will all of the predictions come true? Perhaps not, but preparing for the worst can improve our decision-making and position Canada to succeed in times of crisis.
Was January 6 just a prelude?
For some reason, neither Canada nor the United States have conducted systematic and dispassionate analyses of what will happen if or when the American experiment with democracy ends.
Many people are fighting to keep the right wing away from stealing the next US election, but this is only one, narrow concern. Spend an hour listening to someone like Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and Donald Trump supporter, and you’ll leave convinced that the violence we witnessed on January 6, 2021, was not an isolated incident but the start of something bigger.
The trucker convoy is just one example of what can happen when dangerous anti-democratic rhetoric from south of the border spreads into Canada.
People in Ottawa are not protesting; they are occupying. They oppose the use of democratic rhetoric in favor of authoritarian rhetoric and seek to demolish the system that allows for protest and free speech in the first place.
What happens if anti-democratic rhetoric becomes the norm in the United States? The combination of influential media outlets like Fox News and anti-democratic, authoritarian rhetoric is a recipe for the contagious spread of the kinds of behaviors that threaten Canadian democracy.
What are the most likely issues? Most obviously, violent rhetoric encourages violent behavior. Cultural figures such as Tucker Carlson, as well as US politicians, will normalize violent rhetoric.
Consider Fox News to be the formally sanctioned voice of the state, rather than a media outlet welcoming to the fringe voices of the far right. The more violent, extremist rhetoric becomes the norm, the greater the danger and violence.
What will happen when Carlson turns his sights on Canada and uses the authoritarian rhetoric he so frequently employs to radicalize Canadian citizens?
OPINION: Tucker Carlson: How long before protests like the 'Freedom Convoy' come to America? https://t.co/qI5AXg81Bb
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 8, 2022
Canada faces critical questions
Can and should we regulate the American media if it is clearly driving the rise of authoritarianism and the spread of propaganda aimed at bringing an end to free, liberal democracy? How should we treat American broadcast and social media if they are clearly responsible for hastening the demise of liberal values such as equality, reason, and the rule of law?
How will Canada combat the virulent spread of propaganda and misinformation coming directly from a government claiming to be democratic while enacting fascism?
What if American journalists who believe in free speech, objectivity, and professional standards of fairness are targeted by the state? Will Canada defend the freedom of the press? How?
What will Canada’s role be in monitoring such democratic backsliding if American elections are clearly rigged?
What about Americans who still believe in the rule of law and the fundamental tenets of liberal society? Will millions of them seek asylum in Canada?
How does Canada strike trade deals with an ideologically driven, irrational state? During Donald Trump’s one term as president, Canada had some preparation for this, but he was still constrained by a semi-functional system of checks and balances. What happens when that system is decommissioned?
The ripple effect
Canada needs a national conversation about these pressing issues. Canada’s security, economy, and culture are so intertwined with the United States that any significant change there will have repercussions in Canada.
If the changes are as drastic and devastating as some predict, those ripples could become a tsunami.
Such a national dialogue will necessitate strengthening our Canadian democracy as well as learning how to regulate and prevent the spread of authoritarian rhetoric, hate speech, and other forms of misinformation in the United States.
Canada must be prepared and capable of championing the values and benefits that come with living in a democracy. Canadian society may avoid the worst-case scenario, but the preparation will make Canada a stronger, freer, and safer country.