Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Defending Democracy with Michael Adams and David Moscrop




Non-profit leader Michael Adams chose a glass of Chardonnay, while political theorist David Moscrop chose beer and Playstation. Each man braved the news of the 2016 American election in his own way. However, while each approached the the implications of that night in a manner as different as his choice of beverage, both shared several conclusions. The Ottawa International Writers Festival invited Michael Adams and David Moscrop to speak on their respective books, Could it Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit and Too Dumb for Democracy? for an evening of conversation hosted by veteran columnist Susan Riley. The resulting conversation explored the implications of that fateful evening when Trump became President of the United States of America, the global rise of populism, and the future of Canadian democracy.


Adams had decided that his six published books were enough, but on the night of the US election he felt compelled to write one more. Could it Happen Here? addresses the fears that what happened to our neighbors south of the border might also happen here in Canada. Adams provided reassurance that Canadian institutions and culture are a far cry from that of the United States. As the director of a polling research firm, Adams was able to back his sunny optimism with solid numbers.


The statistics Adams cited are revealing. If Canadians had voted in the US election, Hillary would have won with 60% of the vote. Next after her would have come Jill Stein for the Greens. Adams observed that our political culture has been profoundly shaped by the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the rise of the concept of multiculturalism, and the proliferation of a widespread culture of compromise and acceptance. Adams argued that this provides an inoculation against the kinds of levels of xenophobia seen in the United States. Right now the population of Toronto is 49% foreign-born, and Adams claimed therefore that xenophobia simply cannot make a viable political platform.


Further, Adams argued that in the United States there is a much more widespread authoritarian reflex than in Canada. For example, almost half of Americans believe that the father is the head of the household. In Canada, less than a quarter of the population would agree. Adams traced our ability to have peaceful dissent and a stable means of questioning of authority to the strength of Canadian institutions. The development of the social welfare state in Canada has given people sufficient security for freedom and political participation. Despite the rags-to-riches rhetoric of the “American Dream,” there is twice as much social mobility in Canada as there is in the United States. The strength of our healthcare, our unions, and our teachers all provide Canadians with a sense of existential security.


Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy, agreed with Adams. If you look around at world democracies, he claimed, Canada will likely be the last domino to fall. Our democratic institutions are extremely strong in comparison to those of the United States. Nonetheless, he reminded the audience, we cannot take these institutions for granted, nor can we assume they will be well-enough equipped to deal with the fast-paced global challenges of the future.


Moscrop believes that we have a strong system but questions how it will weather the impending crises of climate change and a shrinking planet. The Syrian refugee crisis is one example that Moscrop cited where Canadians responded dismally in comparison to other rich nations like Germany. Moscrop posed a thought experiment to the audience: imagine a refugee crisis ten times the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, a migration driven by the failure of crops, water wars, and the rising spread of disease. How would Canada respond? Moscrop urged his audience to think of a future radically different than the one we are living in now. He emphasized the importance of open a space for new conversations about the future.


We are not “too dumb for democracy” noted Moscrop, but we are often played as victims. Our current political climate pressures us to think and respond out of the pathos of our lizard brain. Moscrop cautioned us to slow down and breathe. Rational decision-making is not made in haste or in anger. We do not need town hall forums filled with drama and shouting. Instead, we need new spaces for meaningful debate filled with boring but patient, quiet, and deliberative reasoning. Moscrop envisions the creation of civic nodes of randomly selected participants who can play an agenda-setting role. These new civic nodes would not supplant but rather supplement our existing participatory systems, to build better, more responsive and representative democracies.