Goodbye and good riddance to a ghastly year

It often seemed interminable, but 2016 has, at last, limped to the finish line. Was it really as bad as they say? No — it was worse.

Will liberal democracy be another casualty of 2016?

Iesha L Evans faces down of a line of Louisiana state troopers dressed in riot gear in Baton Rouge, in what became an iconic photo of the strife of 2016. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

It often seemed interminable, but 2016 has, at last, limped to the finish line — and, for once, family, friends and pundits seem to agree. They're all smiling grimly as they say good riddance to a ghastly year. 

Was it really as bad as they say? No — it was worse. 

After all, who even remembers how the year began? Here's just some of what happened on New Year's Day: 300 West African migrants in Libya were slaughtered by ISIS, an Arab-Israeli gunman killed three in Tel Aviv, a Taliban suicide bomber blew up a restaurant in Kabul and al-Shabaab militants attacked aid workers in Somalia.

So much for January 1st.

On the 2nd, the Pakistani group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed seven at an Indian airbase.

On the 3rd, suicide bombers from ISIS butchered 15 Shia police recruits near Tikrit in Iraq.  By the end of January, hundreds of other victims were bombed, shot, stabbed and beheaded in Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria... 

Then came February. Let's not even start. In fact, let's also try to forget the other months of the year — like July, when a crazed jihadist drove a truck into a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, and murdered 86 people.

A memorial was set up on the Promenade des Anglais where a truck crashed into the crowd during the Bastille Day celebrations, in Nice, France, on July 15, 2016. (EPA)

Can liberal democracy survive this?

Of course, 2016 was not the year when terror became part of life's daily drumbeat. That happened long ago. But a corner was turned, nonetheless. The jihadists, after all, are out for a breakdown of order — especially the democratic and secular order wherever it can be found.

And, inch by inch, they seem to be getting it. One year ago, were we fretting that the very survival of liberal democracy was in doubt?

We are now.

For one thing, we can hardly look to the incoming president of the United States to be the champion of democratic institutions. Donald Trump said the system was "rigged" — unless he won. The chief justice? An "absolute disaster." The media? "Liars." Protesters? "Knock the crap out of 'em, would ya? Seriously."

Donald Trump speaks as he accepts his party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 21, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Elsewhere, the omens have been no more subtle. The British turned their backs on Europe. Populists are chipping away at independent courts and media in Hungary, Poland, Greece and Venezuela. They're on the march in France and Austria.

Supporters of Brexit walk across Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 26, 2016. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

A Philippine strongman brags about killing criminals, due process be damned. Russia's strongman, Vladimir Putin, has hacked the U.S. election, tightened his grip on chunks of Ukraine and turned much of Syria to rubble. China is cracking down even harder on dissent and stocking the ocean with armed islands. Turkey, a member of NATO, is locking up judges, journalists, civil servants.

'The warning signs are flashing red'

Just as frightening is the creeping loss of faith in democracy within the democracies. That trend is starkly clear, according to academics compiling a report to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, which has posted a draft version here

In a nutshell, Yascha Mounk, of Harvard University, and Roberto Stefan Foa, of the University of Melbourne, suggest that western democracy is going out of style as younger people — but not just younger people — are increasingly tempted by the notion of leaders who need not bother with getting elected. As Mounk told the New York Times, "the warning signs are flashing red."

Mounk and Foa's paper details how chauvinist, anti-democratic leaders have trampled on independent, liberal institutions which previously seemed sturdy.

The survival of liberal democracy may now depend on the will of citizens to defend it effectively against attacks.- Journal of Democracy

In Poland, once a model of post-communist enlightenment, Lech Kaczynski's Law and Justice party won the 2015 elections, then cracked down on the free press and the constitutional court. In Venezuela, a well-rooted democratic system of free elections was swiftly torn up after Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, and today there is starvation there.

Couldn't happen here, you say? Mounk and Foa beg to differ.

"Citizens who retain a deep commitment to the core values of liberal democracy," they say, "must recognize that their countries' past stability is no reason for complacency.

"The power now wielded by anti-system parties and movements is unprecedented. So is the deep disenchantment with democracy they exploit so shrewdly. As a result, the survival of liberal democracy may now depend on the will of citizens to defend it effectively against attacks."

Instead, they report, those citizens are losing interest. In a U.S. survey from October they cite, 46 per cent of respondents said they either "never had" or had "lost" faith in U.S. democracy. And the younger they are, the less faith they have — and that's not just in the U.S.

(Mounk and Foa, Journal of Democracy)

Canadian island

We may be forgiven a frisson of self-satisfaction that, for now, Canada looks like an island of stability as these forces roil the rest of the democratic world. Perhaps it's also fortunate that Mounk and Foa offer no figures for Canadian attitudes. They might spoil the moment.

But we do know that instead of joining the nationalist parade, Canadians elected an internationalist — a leader who calls Canada "the first post-national state." 

Indeed, Justin Trudeau's election is often attributed to a revolt against what some characterized as the illiberal tendencies of the previous government. Still, it's debatable whether the Liberals' 39 per cent of the popular vote amounts to a revolt against anything.

Besides that, Canada is not an island. Even if it were uniquely immune to the damn-the-elites mood elsewhere, how long will it resist if the trend continues? Already Trudeau's remarks on the death of Fidel Castro have led the triumphant American right to paint him as a socialist loony. It didn't take long for Texas Senator Ted Cruz to take aim at Trudeau's statement. 

"Disgraceful," Cruz tweeted. "Why do young socialists idolize totalitarian tyrants?" 

Trudeau beat a retreat and belatedly dubbed Castro "a dictator." But that episode gave us a taste of what may lie in store for Trudeau if he stands, or tries to stand, in Trump's way.

And the new president will find his fans here, too. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch dispatched a fundraising email as soon as Trump was elected saying that American voters had sent "an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada, as well."

We shall see if an anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-due-process mood becomes more popular north of the border when the new American administration takes power.

But face it: authoritarianism had a very good year, all over the globe. Who's to say that Canada will be stubbornly different as the new year muscles the old year aside?


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.