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Cynicism is a real threat to survival of democracy

Recently, in the locker room of the local curling rink, someone told me that “all politicians are corrupt.”

That is a wildly sweeping generalization, and, sadly, it is widely held.

Democracy is based upon trust. Lack of trust is as dangerous to democracy as any foreign invader. Cynicism corrodes holes in democratic institutions as destructive as rust in an old car.

Fortunately, much of that cynicism is misplaced. There are checks and balances in democratic systems that hold politicians accountable for their actions, and ensure that they are acting in the public interest.

In Canada, the Conflict of Interest Act has clear rules to prevent those in public office from using their positions “to further their own private interests or those of their relatives or friends.”

The expectation is that political leaders will avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under the Criminal Code, bribery and influence peddling are punishable by up to five years in prison.

The checks and balances of mature democracies err on the side of protecting the integrity of public decision-making. We should not be idealistic that these safeguards are always effective. But we can be confident that serious corruption is rare.

Cynicism, however, can corrupt a democracy in quite a different direction. U.S. President Donald Trump built his whole movement on distrust of mainstream news media (“fake news”), political leaders and the civil service (“deep state”) and the electoral process (“rigged elections”).

That much of that distrust was based on misinformation and outright falsehood (“alternative facts”) does not seem to matter to a large proportion of the American public.

It should matter. Democracy rests on a foundation of truth. Without a common commitment to truth, democratic decision-making processes are degraded into ruthless power struggles, and the powerful are freed to pursue their private interests without regard for the public good.

That kind of corruption is deadly to democracies.

In 1972, when he replaced Richard Nixon as president, Gerald Ford said, “Our long national nightmare is over… As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.”

I wish I could say that the Trump nightmare is over today with the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but I fear that the genie of cynicism, suspicion, hate and division on which Trump’s popularity rests will be hard to put back in the bottle.

In both Canada and the U.S.A., we need to muster every resource of creativity and effort to rebuild trust, civility, mutual respect and commitment to truth in our democratic institutions.

This Remembrance Day, let us take up the torch and pledge to “stand on guard” for democracy.

Ross Smillie is a Red Deer resident.

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