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Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea

by Bob Rae

The role of federalism in building and sustaining democracy, and the necessity for democratic nations to guide autocratic and strife-ridden nations to homegrown versions of federalism, may seem like esoteric topics for a non-academic book. Bob Rae, political philosopher, former Ontario premier, and current Liberal MP, feels differently, and in Exporting Democracy he goes to great lengths to explain why.

Rae convincingly argues that dividing rights and responsibilities between state and federal governments is essential to democracy and the rule of law. Any nation that hopes to reconcile competing ethnic, ideological, religious, and class interests must enshrine a federalist framework within its constitution and courts.

Federalism, as Rae quite eloquently puts it, is “about self-rule and shared rule. It sanctifies autonomy and requires co-operation.” Without federalism, democracy easily descends into mob rule or allows for the ascendancy of leaders who justify their autocratic reigns by force and ethnic (and/or religious) affiliation. Democracy also needs strong legal and political institutions that do not bend to the will of competing interests.

It was the fear of the mob tearing down England’s ancient legal and religious institutions that inspired the conservatism of Edmund Burke, one of two philosophers analyzed in the book’s opening chapters. Burke was a member of Britain’s early House of Commons who believed that Britain’s institutions, though hardly democratic at that point, deserved respect because they “reflected the common wisdom of the ages rather than the temporary whims of the moment.” Burke was distrustful of the abstract ideological fervor that inspired the two great democratic revolutions of the 18th century – the American War of Independence and the French Revolution – and he argued that ideology must always be tempered by practicality.

Burke’s great philosophical opponent was Thomas Paine, the revolutionary firebrand and author of the pamphlet Common Sense, a key document in rousing popular support for the American Revolution, and Rights of Man, a book-length treatise that defended the French Revolution and other radical expressions of democratic change. With Burke on one shoulder and Paine on the other, Rae guides the reader through the often convoluted history of European and North American democracy.

These opening chapters are very intellectually demanding, but Rae’s argument about the necessity for a federal constitution is a fine and nuanced piece of writing. He also exposes the West’s poor record of transporting the wisdom of democratic federalism to the rest of the world, often under the guise of cruel, repressive, and racist forms of colonialism.

Especially good is Rae’s account of his participation in failed negotiations between Sri Lanka’s elected Sinhalese government and the LTTE (which we know as the Tamil Tigers) beginning in 1999. Rae elucidates the complexities of that civil war with clarity and compassion. He also deftly analyzes the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict while providing an insider’s take on behind-the-scenes personalities.

But a funny thing happens in the second half of the book: Rae the compelling political philosopher slowly gives way to Rae the MP laying out a foreign policy platform for an upcoming election. This morphing of identities also seems to blind him to a massive oversight in his unfolding argument about what constitutes a stable democracy.

Rae writes that, since the Second World War, democratic governments, world bodies like the United Nations, and global trade agreements have striven to “create an international order whose purpose is to express our common yearning for security, peace, and the chance to fulfill our ambitions in a co-operative world.” He rightly points out that, too often, these aspirations are “dashed by politics,” but overlooks how they are also being dashed by a global economic order that has, for the last three decades, widened the gap between rich and poor.

Perhaps Rae’s globetrotting lifestyle as a university chancellor, corporate lawyer, NGO rep, and MP have spared him a few ugly details of contemporary life back home, but the average Canadian is working longer hours for less money with little or no job security, while simultaneously racking up unprecedented amounts of debt. 

For all of his probing of federalism, Rae never asks: What good is a federalist democracy that does not protect the economic rights of its citizens? More to the point, what is the value of a democratic system that champions the rights of an international investor class through trade agreements, low corporate tax rates and high subsidies, lax labour laws, cuts to employment benefits, and other “pro business” initiatives? Rae proves himself a consummate politician in taking pot shots at Stephen Harper, while avoiding the tough questions that might cost his own party votes in the next election.

If asked to vote between the two Raes battling each other between this book’s covers, many readers will choose the fine political philosopher over the disingenuous politician.