Liberal democracies around the world have been on their heels for the past several years, thanks in no small part to the inability of their leaders to respond adequately to globalization and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs. And in the United States, there’s the sense that business elites got away with ruining the economy during the Great Recession.
It’s against that backdrop that the organizers of last Friday night’s Munk Debate, at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, posed the question: Is the future of Western politics populist, rather than liberal?
By inviting Steve Bannon, former adviser to U.S. president Donald Trump, to participate in the debate, they ensured that a sizeable crowd of protesters would show up. To his supporters, Bannon is the champion of the little guy — determined, as he puts it, “to deconstruct the administrative state.” To his opponents, he’s a racist, xenophobic barbarian, interested only in white Americans and their grievances.
Squaring off against Bannon was Toronto-born David Frum, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, current senior editor of The Atlantic — and, according to his opponent, apostle of the Republican establishment. A pre-debate vote confirmed that Frum was on friendly soil: fully 72 per cent of attendees disagreed with Bannon’s argument that the future belongs to populism rather than to liberal democracy.
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
The debate started 45 minutes late because attendees were subjected to an intense security check on the way in — and to haranguing from the 1,500 protesters exercising their right to freely express their opposition to Bannon, whose views, they insisted, are too far outside the Canadian mainstream.
Some of their tactics were downright objectionable: I heard some protesters call Jewish attendees Nazis — which, given the events in Pittsburgh the week before last, seemed like a strange way to win friends and influence people. Others simply shouted, “Shame! Shame!” at people filing in.
Once the debate got underway, Bannon had a hard time winning over an audience that occasionally laughed at or booed him.
“Rough crowd,” he said, as two protesters unfurled banners denouncing him before being escorted out by police. Eventually, the crowd turned on the demonstrators, drowning out one protester’s chants with applause.
Despite the infamous “Muslim ban” and the president’s racist comments about Mexicans, Bannon insisted that “Trump’s economic nationalism doesn’t care about your race. It cares if you’re a citizen. We’re at the beginning of a new populist revolution. The only question is: Is it going to be a nationalist or socialist populism? The party of Davos is done.”
Frum countered: “Many are excited by the joy of destruction. You have been winning, but ultimately you will lose — and your children will disavow you, and the future will not belong to you. Populism begins by dividing the people. It’s a scam. It’s a lie. And President Trump is a crook. He is running the most unethical administration in U.S. history. And liberal democracy is stronger than it looks.”
Frum then homed in on what is perhaps his most fundamental disagreement with Bannon: “The failures of a good system are not reason enough to turn to an evil system,” he said. “This is a debate between destruction and renewal.”
Bannon warned Frum that if 30 to 40 per cent of Black and Hispanic Americans join the Trump base, “We’ll have a ruling coalition that’ll last 50 years.”
Frum countered, to huge applause, “If you really believed African-Americans could be part of your base, you’d let them vote” — a reference to Republican voter-suppression tactics.
“Liberal democracy is stronger than it looks,” Frum added, “because kindness and decency are stronger than they look.”
Bannon was frequently heard to say, “Come on, give me a chance,” or, “Hear me out” as the crowd expressed its opposition. He made his points forcefully and said nothing outrageous enough, in my view, to prompt mad howls from the crowd (to be clear, there were no mad howls). Still, while he did win occasional applause, Bannon did not appear to move many audience members to his side.
That’s why there was utter confusion when the results of a post-debate vote mistakenly showed that Bannon had moved 30 per cent of the crowd his way. Twitter exploded with populists declaring victory, but their celebrations were premature: the correct results were published online on Saturday, and they suggested that not a single mind had been changed. The post-debate vote was identical to the pre-debate one. Call it a draw.
For some, the evening was a triumph. “This is a victory for free speech in the city of Toronto,” moderator Rudyard Griffiths said to sustained applause from 2,800 spectators, who seemed to appreciate the fact that the event had taken place at all.
Conversely, outside the hall, a dozen opponents of the debate were arrested, some for roughing up police officers.
A number of people told me before the debate that one of the reasons they were attending was to see Frum put Bannon and his intemperate views in their place. And even if the numbers didn’t change at all, that’s exactly what happened.