Is democracy doomed? Two former CBC Massey Lecturers argue there's hope

What hope does democracy have when geopolitical instability is mounting, and public discourse is drowning in a sea of misinformation and disinformation? There is hope — according to two former Massey Lecturers Ron Deibert and Jennifer Welsh.

'Democracy is very difficult to build and sustain... it's a process,' says Professor Jennifer Welsh

Ron Deibert (L), a professor and Citizen Lab director at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and Jennifer Welsh, a McGill University professor and Research Chair in Global Governance and Security joined Nahlah Ayed for a discussion on disinformation and the future of democracy. (Riley Stewart/Joni Dufour )

Our age is punctuated by one escalating crisis after another: climate, geopolitics, ultra-nationalism — all of it sloshing around in a stew of disinformation and misinformation. And while our ideal of democracy may still be standing, its legs do appear to be buckling. This is the context behind our new IDEAS series, The New World Disorder

Ron Deibert is director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which focuses on digital communications and how they affect human rights and security around the world. Jennifer Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University, Montreal. 

Their discussion is called Information, Disinformation and the Future of Democracy. It was moderated by Ideas host Nahlah Ayed and recorded in May 2022 at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto, as part of the inaugural  Provocation IDEAS Festival.

That future of democracy appeared rosy in 1989, after the fall of Berlin Wall, when we seemed to have reached what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called "the end of history." Communism was dead, and liberal democracy triumphed. Or so it appeared.

In Deibert's characterization, what actually happened was quite different.

The fall meant: "the aggressive promotion of a certain variant of capitalism, kind of hyper-capitalism, neoliberalism, a lot of people call it, which practically meant a reduction in state controls, regulations, as you had privatization," said Deibert.

Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Friday, Nov. 10, 1989. (The Associated Press)

"And what this meant is that a lot of checks and balances that we associate with proper authority, proper state action, disappeared gradually over time. This led to enormous concentrations of wealth and circulation of financial capital around the world, which has resulted in this oligarchic class, a kleptocratic class as well, that has looked to find ways to move their financial assets globally."

Invest in the process 

For Welsh, there was nothing inevitable about the illusionary "triumph" of liberal democracy.

"Democracy is very difficult to build and sustain… [If] you study democracy, you recognize that it's a process. You have to invest in that. You have to be committed to it. And I think we lost sight of that."

According to Professor Welsh, democracy has two chief characteristics: equality of voice, that one is being heard; and fairness, that the same rules apply for everyone.

Both those traits have been weakened, said Welsh. 

"The polling data suggested that as much as Canadians believe in democracy, they don't believe their voice is being heard, is being considered. Other voices, those of corporations, those of the wealthy are being heard more. But the other value that's critical to democracy is fairness, a sense of fairness. And I think that [was undermined by] the concentration of wealth."

This concentration of wealth also coincides, predictably, with a concentration of power.

"It seems to me that the world is run by a transnational class of gangsters," said Deibert, " "If you want to understand the world today, think less of Churchill, Bismarck and Roosevelt. Think more of the villains from James Bond movies. I mean, that better captures what is really going on. I'm exaggerating a little bit. But I think this is what I've seen progress over the last 40 years or so, as my career has tracked all of this. And it's led to horrible abuses of power."

These aren't simply the ultra-wealthy, observes Deibert, but also former security specialists, who've privatized their services and sell them to the highest bidder, whatever the outcome may be.

Is there hope for democracy?

So in an era of factionalized politics swinging ever to the extreme right, do-it-yourself truth sources all over the internet, what hope is there? Both are unequivocal that there is indeed hope but it's qualified.

For Deibert, it's the continual struggle to tell truth to power.

"There has been, and still is, a very organized, persistent, systematic, well-funded campaign to discredit science by the fossil fuel industry that continues to the present day. And they are responsible for pushing out disinformation and using targeted espionage by private intelligence firms to neutralize civil society. That's what's going on right now," he explained.

"We did a report called Dark Basin in which we uncovered a massive hack-for-hire operation. And all of these very civil society organizations were hacked and their private email correspondences were manipulated, tainted and leaked in the media and on the internet, to try to discredit and neutralize them. It's not clear who actually hired them, but we turned over the data that we collected to the Department of Justice and the Southern District of New York, [which] itself was actually a target of this hacker-for-hire operation. And we discovered that the company behind it all was — get this — a single firm in Delhi, India. So this is bizarre stuff, but it's real."

For Welsh, hope comes at the ballot box.

"You know, every time there is an election result that is very close and it is accepted without violence, and people accept it as a peaceful transfer of power, I sort of think it's a small miracle."

Supporters of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) presidential candidate John Dramani Mahama gathered outside the Electoral Commission's Head Office in Accra, Ghana, Dec. 9, 2020 - before the official results of the presidential vote were announced. (Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

"And when I see it in divided societies… I will hold up an example of a society that does this incredibly well: Ghana. Ghana has incredibly contested elections, and yet it has what's called a peace council made up of representatives of its society to ensure that when there is a contested election, when those ballots are counted, there's a peaceful transfer of power.

"That for me, every time that happens somewhere in the world, it's a small miracle — and it continues to give me hope."

Guests in this episode:

Ron Deibert teaches political science at the University of Toronto, where he also directs the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory focusing on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. His 2020 CBC Massey Lectures were called Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.

Jennifer Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University in Montreal. She was previously Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) and Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where she co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. Her 2016 CBC Massey Lectures were called The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century.

*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly. It is part of our series, The New World Order.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?