Attacking opponents as socialists and dictators weakens the fabric of our democracy

This column is an opinion by Stewart Prest, a lecturer in political science at Simon Fraser University. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

From communists to dictators, there are a lot of five- and 10-dollar words flying around in politics these days.

While such terms have a textbook definition, they also have a strategic meaning when used by politicians. They are labels used to encourage listeners to think about someone in a specific, often highly negative, and even delegitimizing way — a shorthand code to associate politicians with anti-democratic values.

For instance, during the recent debate about the government’s fiscal update, Conservative MP Brad Redekopp stood in the House of Commons to say, “In Ottawa, we saw the use of the Emergencies Act to call on police forces to crush peaceful protesters under the jackboot of the prime minister’s basic dictatorship, and another dictator is currently using his war machine to crush our friends in Ukraine.”

Fellow Conservative MP Rachael Thomas supported her colleague, arguing that “According to the Oxford dictionary, a dictator is a ‘ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained control by force.’ There are many Canadians who would hold the view that this applies to the Prime Minister of Canada. It is up to the Canadian people to determine that, and they will be determining that in the next election.”

On its face, something doesn’t add up here. A leader that can be publicly challenged in the legislature, and voted out in a forthcoming free and fair election, is not a dictator. Moreover, every democracy must use some measure of force to maintain public order and to balance among competing freedoms. If some feel that a government has overstepped the mark in doing so, their actions are challengeable in court. We are seeing a number of Canadians do just that with regard to the response to the Ottawa occupation.

Such realities aside, politicians like Redekopp and Thomas use the “dictator” label to convey the idea that a leader is not sufficiently accountable to the will of the people, or that they have illegitimately used coercion to maintain power. The impression that the leader is out of touch and abusing their power can stick with listeners. 

Repeated often enough, the insult becomes part of the way opponents perceive a leader. They are effectively framed as undemocratic, and even illegitimate.

Terms used to delegitimize

Other terms can be used to delegitimize as well. For instance, as part of his leadership campaign, Pierre Poilievre is leaning into a relatively libertarian view of conservatism. The central word of his campaign has been “freedom“: from pandemic regulations to access to alternative currencies like Bitcoin, his campaign is built around the idea that more government is the problem, and freedom is the solution.

To emphasize his own views, Poilievre refers to his opponents as “socialists.” He dismissed the supply-and-confidence agreement between the NDP and the Liberals as a “socialist coalition.” Given how the label “socialist” conjures up additional burdens of taxation and regulation, it is an ideal foil for a libertarian speaking to those who feel they would be better able to chart their own path without the state’s assistance. 

“Socialist” used as an attack can be delegitimizing as well, particularly when a link is drawn or implied between it and the anti-democratic evils of 20th-century communism. 

Communists, while agreeing with democratic socialists on the need to redistribute resources, endorse the need for revolutionary change, a transformation of the economy toward collective ownership to which all contribute, and are paid according to some combination of needs, abilities, and work. In theory, that revolution need not be undemocratic; in practice, however, communist revolutions, and the regimes that followed, have been just that. 

While not using the label “communist” to refer to opponents directly, Poilievre has at times drawn links between his opponents and socialism, communism and authoritarianism. For instance, last year he tweeted that “Trudeau said he admired China’s ‘basic dictatorship’ and called Fidel Castro a ‘legendary revolutionary.’ He still believes those things. That is why he won’t condemn the socialist crackdown on the Cuban people.”

Again, the reality is that belief in a more active state makes one neither communist, nor anti-democratic. In kindergarten — stay with me here — along with rules like “don’t eat the paste,” and “don’t give yourself a haircut with your neat new scissors,” we learn two seemingly contradictory, yet equally crucial social lessons: don’t take what isn’t yours, and make sure you share with others so that everyone has enough.

A potent insult

In a way, libertarianism and socialism represent each of those lessons applied to politics. Libertarians believe that we should each be left alone to do what we will with what we have. Conversely, socialists focus on the need to ensure everyone has what they need to live a life of dignity. 

While socialist policies do indeed focus on the state’s ability to collect and redistribute resources in ways that improve the lives of all, particularly the least advantaged, they may be both widespread and popular, as in the case of state-supported childcare. Indeed, there are socialist policies found in nearly every capitalist democratic society, sitting alongside robust protections for private property and personal freedoms.

Even so, it remains a potent insult given the way the label draws links with the Cold War legacy of totalitarian communism.

Some may be inclined to dismiss such language as “just politics.” Others may say I’m only targeting Conservatives here. Fair enough. But at the moment, they are the ones standing up in the House of Commons to delegitimize their opponents as anti-democratic. We certainly saw inflammatory language on the margins of Twitter and elsewhere attacking former prime minister Stephen Harper as a fascist, but when used in the House, such language was rightly called out as unparliamentary. 

The repeated intimation that democratic leaders are acting undemocratically can undermine the confidence of voters in the legitimacy of the system. Such labels can serve to heighten political polarization as well, encouraging voters to see political opponents not just as mistaken but illegitimate.

In the long run, these effects can weaken the very fabric of democracy. If we lose the ability to distinguish between an unpopular democratic leader and a dictator like Vladimir Putin, or between state-funded childcare and a centrally-planned economy, we risk losing sight of the value of discourse and debate in a pluralist liberal democracy, and the vital importance of defending it.

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