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Is democracy in crisis? No, there’s just a new type of emerging democracy

Democracy isn't dying, it's evolving.

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It is one of the most robust findings in political research. It holds over nations and times: the existence of a democratic deficit. Support for democracy as an ideal is still pretty much intact among the majority of citizens. (That is not a given as the grim lessons of the 1930s tell us, when it is was common among the masses, and fashionable among the intelligentsia, to disparage the parliamentary system and flirt with autocracy.)  However, satisfaction with the performance of their own democratic system does not tally with citizens’ political aspirations. Add to this a slew of other indicators of “democratic impairment”, such as low voter turnout, especially among the young, little trust in politicians and political institutions, the rise of extremist parties on the right and left, and one will be excused in believing that democracy - the traditional liberal democracy as we know it – is in crisis. Or is it?

The question of whether there is a crisis of democracy is one of the most important and vexing issues of our days. So, let’s not rush into facile answers and first ask ourselves some basic questions about democracy. For example, what does this ideal that most people still believe in entail? The democratic theorist Mark Warren once said that democracy consists of two ideals whose realisation are both necessary for a healthy, flourishing political system: the distribution of powers of decision-making to those potentially affected by collective decisions, and equal participation in collective judgement. The first ideal is the one that figures most prominently in debates about democracy in the media and learned journals. This is, what you might call, the canonical image of democracy. The political contrivances that the media get excited about.  This first ideal consists of the procedures, beliefs and practices that most western nations have institutionalised over the course of the last two centuries, for the purpose of protecting against an arbitrary state and to develop structures of accountability. The result is the well-known ‘liberal electoral democracy’ that is characterised by a regime of competitive parties, limited opportunities for political participation through voting and organised interest groups, representative oversight and accountability, constitutional constraints on government activity, due process rights against the state, the right to speak and associate, and an administration of experts governed by an administrative ethos. It is one of the most important achievements of collective human ingenuity. When we talk of crisis, this is the kind if democracy that occupies our collective imagination. Let’s call it Democracy1.

I want to focus on the second democratic ideal; that of collective judgement and individual development. I call it Democracy2. According to this ideal democracy is an arrangement for collective learning and problem solving. It is value-driven, but only in the way that values manifest themselves in concrete issues. It requires processes of communication through which individuals come to know each other and develop their preferences, articulate their values and beliefs, and develop skills of collective judgement; usually by forming civic associations based on voluntary attachments. When we see democracy in this light, two things immediately strike us: while it receives much less attention in the media, and is often actively discouraged by political elites, there is no talk of crisis here. In fact, this developmental  and participatory form of democracy is thriving in our post-crash world.

A few examples. In Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and other European countries, citizens come together on an unprecedented scale to produce social goods such as sustainable energy and food, long-term care, or rural transport and broadband. In disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Birmingham, Rotterdam, Dortmund, Milan, Antwerp and other large metropolitan areas, citizens partner up with administrators and third sector organisations to successfully manage complex social issues such as crime, social housing, prostitution, ethnic integration, and local economic development. Large crowds of ordinary people go to the streets to protest massive urban development in Stuttgart and education policies in Hamburg.

I could go on, but my point is that these people are not estranged from democracy. They are concerned about the eroding environment, the predatory practices of the energy cartels, unhealthy food, ineffective crime policies, rampant urban development, precarious housing for low-income groups, an unfair educational system, the erosion of care for the sick and elderly. They feel that “official democracy”, the democracy that the media report on, does not do well in addressing these concerns, let alone solving them. People haven’t abandoned politics, but politics, they feel, has abandoned them. So, they organise themselves, coming together under the banner of Democracy2, democracy as collective problem solving.

This is a different kind of politics. Democracy2 is not about verbal fights, political grandstanding and grandiose promises, but about collaboration and deliberation. Working together to overcome differences and find creative solutions to ‘things that matter’. Democracy2 is not about shareholder value but bringing back older more sustainable forms of economic organisation in which the notions of profit and debt are refashioned and made to work for a more fair and just economic order. Democracy2 is inclusionary, open, and based on mutual respect and fairness. John Dewey, untiring champion of democracy, called this “public making”. People come together to form a public when they feel they can make a difference and effect real change.    

So, if there is reason to be optimistic about democracy, why do the media and the academic classes indulge in talk about impairment, crisis and disaffected citizens? I think this is because, unbeknown to ourselves, we have come to see democracy in a particular light. Over the years we have come to confuse a particular form of democracy with its substance. That form is Democracy1, electoral liberal democracy. It has congealed into the powerful doctrine of democratic elitism that has suffused our language, our imagination and our aspirations.

Democratic elitism stipulates that decision-making should be confined to elected elites, that democracy is, and should be, procedural (a method for maintaining a relatively open society by rotating elites), that civil society and political society must be kept apart and that civil society can only insert itself in political society through elections, that democratic accountability is restricted to this periodic elite rotation based on a competitive struggle for votes, and that equal participation in collective judgement through association presents a threat to democratic stability. This is why most politicians react with indifference to examples of citizen participation, and why the media never report on it. It’s off the radar. It is not considered to be part of ‘real’ politics.  

What makes democratic elitism so hard to resist is that it is supported by three seemingly powerful arguments. First, that the people are incapable and unwilling to understand complex contemporary society. Second, that contemporary society is too large to be governed by direct participation. For both of these reasons elite deliberation and expert public administration should substitute for popular sovereignty. Third, is the fear of, and protection against, the irrationality and anti-democratic tendencies of the masses, which ordains that preservation of democratic values is best entrusted to elected elites. But these arguments are almost wholly self-fulfilling. They are as much a product of Democracy1 as its familiar outward appearance of institutions, procedures and political rituals.

When people feel that politicians don't care, or are out of touch, or promote ideological pet solutions against all common sense, they turn away from politics. Why bother? This is the real meaning of the democratic deficit. Most people want to engage with democracy. But not the democracy of political parties, powerful lobbying organisations, and the spectacle of politicians arguing about a political agenda that is not theirs. Citizens care for responsibility, respect and a measure of control. It is astonishing to see how ordinary people are then able to master complexity, resolve conflict and arrive at creative solutions.

Politicians and officials believe that, apart from the periodic vote, they don’t need the public. This is a fatal misunderstanding, as the current state of our public sector and the natural environment suggests. Politicians need the public voice more than ever. This is not just a plea for more civic participation, however; important as that is in itself. I am arguing for a more far-reaching transformation of democracy. The importance of the public voice lies in the values and in the modes of communication and problem solving that characterise it. The two kinds of democracy need each other. Political society and the civic sphere require each other to address the overwhelming economic, social and environmental issues of our times. It is for this reason that, in my opinion, the great democratic challenge of our times is to ensure that the virtues of Democracy2 transfer to Democracy1.

About the author

Hendrik Wagenaar is Professor of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield, developing a new Centre for Social Justice. Previously, he was Research Director at The Hague Campus, Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has researched disadvantaged neighbourhoods in various European countries to understand how citizens manage to establish long-lasting, flourishing initiatives to solve complex problems in their environment.


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