& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Michael Ignatieff: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism - 2

Continued from the post above

Citing the Brexit imbroglio, Ignatieff said, at present, liberal democracy in Britain is at its best. 

“A democracy is there to prevent a society polarizing into enemies and keeping everybody in a debate in which they’re merely adversaries. In the unwritten constitution of a democracy, there are no enemies, only adversaries, and thus far, despite the polarization in Britain, despite some of the bitterness, this it seems to me is exemplary example of democracy. Not at its worst, but actually at its best. That’s an unpopular thought. If I said that in a lecture in London, I might be laughed out of the house, but I’m sticking with it. If you like democracy, you have to like its rough and tumble.”

Talking about the Trump impeachment, Ignatieff again emphasized that the liberal democratic system has ensured that when the President of the United States stepped out of line, system has ensured that the whistle blower has the constitutional protection to perform his / her duty.

He said, “It illuminated with clarity what a liberal democracy actually is, as an institutional system.”

The President has a phone call with foreign leader and the President says something which violates his constitutional oath. “What is interesting is that they (those who think that Trump erred) then have recourse through protected legislation to blow the whistle. They’re guaranteed confidentiality. They’re guaranteed access to the Congress of the United States. The liberal institutional system worked. It protected devoted civil servants, public servants, gave them the right to go to the President of the United States and say he just crossed the line in a phone call. If the president is impeached, it will be because liberal democratic institutions did what they are supposed to do.”

Ignatieff said democracy would be in crisis if Trump was impeached but would refuse to step down.

He emphasized that, “If you love liberal democracies stop getting alarmed every time it has institutional conflict, because that is the essence of a functioning liberal democracy.”

Ignatieff turned his focus on the crisis in democracy with regard to the increasingly fraught relationship between liberal democracy and liberal professions. 

Liberal professions are academics, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and professional politicians. There is a deep association between these liberal professions and liberal democracy. These liberal professions run liberal democracy.

The lawyers and the judges run the legal system. The doctors run another pillar of a liberal democracy, which is public health care. Journalists run that entire thing called the free media, which is constitutive of liberal democracy. And academics train democratic citizens but crucially, they credential the entire elite that runs a liberal democracy.

“And one of the things that the populist challenge is making me anxious about is the erosion of trust in the population at large at the status privilege and authority of the liberal professions that keep liberal democracy going. And there is deep resentment towards the credential inequality that the liberal professions have benefited from,” he said.

The liberal professions in general, need to think about inequality. Thomas Piketty’s data on income inequality is revealing – liberal professions have done extraordinarily well from the new inequality that began to emerge from the 1970s onward. 

He said that a definite linkage exists (but has rarely been acknowledged) between inequality, the erosion of status, and the erosion of trust towards liberal professions, and declining faith and confidence in liberal democracy itself.

He said, “If you believe as I do that one of the glories of a liberal democracy is a thing called the rule of law; but at present you go to many communities across Canada and you ask, what is the rule of law mean to you? People are likely to respond by saying: It means I have no access to justice. The lawyers are too expensive. The judges won't listen. And my chances of ending up in the slammer pretty good. There is a an enormous gulf between the high minded way in which in a university we think about the rule of law, and the much crueler reality of what the rule of law looks like in an ordinary Magistrates Court or criminal law court.”

Ignatieff explained that the legitimacy of liberal democracy is performative. It’s won or lost every day in our courtrooms. It’s won or lost every day when a lawyer says, ‘You can’t afford my fees’. It’s won or lost every day when our legal aid systems don't work, it's won or lost every day in which an Aboriginal comes out thinking I can't get a fair shake and this goddamn system.

“These are the pressures on the performative legitimacy of liberal democracy that we ought to take seriously. They relate to the eroding trust that the general public has in credentialed liberal professions. And I think that has a knock-on effect in terms of the faith that people have in liberal democracy. It’s one of the reasons why people say I don't want liberal democracy. What I want is to be ruled by ‘We the People’,” he said.

Ignatieff concluded with an impassioned plea: 

“I want the doors to be open, so everybody can be put through the rigorous, relentless training that makes great universities great. I don't want to compromise any of that. But we got to make sure the doors are open. We got to make sure that everybody can get the kind of chance that my father Mike, and I got through being in these places. And I think we want as teachers to be constantly thinking about the professional ethics that we teach in the liberal professionals. If you’re in a liberal profession, you have obligations, their fiduciary obligations, their obligations of competence, their obligations of good advice, their obligations of academic excellence, but they’re also obligations of service and if we lose that we may pay a price in terms of the legitimacy of liberal democracy itself that we can barely see.”

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