Democracy – continued disruption or renewal? - RSA

Democracy – continued disruption or renewal?


  • Deliberative democracy
  • Global

In November 2016, I wrote a blog entitled “America – a disrupted democracy” after the US presidential elections however it now appears that the joke is on me. I grossly underestimated the ever-growing tide of mistrust and disillusionment in all Western Democracies since then.

Since then not a day goes by without some proclamation that democracy is dying.

2016 signalled the UK population’s intention to exit the European Union – a project 40 years in the making. This was closely followed by the election of an anti-establishment outsider to become the 45th President of the United States. If 2016 was an earthquake, the aftershocks since then have been fast and furious. Subsequent closely watched elections followed in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and France in 2017.


Aftershocks and tremors

A couple of weeks ago we felt another tremor. The epicentre of which was Hesse. The recent outcome of elections held in Germany’s wealthiest state ushered in the beginning of Chancellor Merkel’s departure from the German political landscape.

This is significant by any standards, but it comes on the heels of political shifts, the rise of the far right in Germany – the AfD’s presence in all regional governments –, and a fragmented Europe. Things are precarious to say the least. The rise of far-right nationalism and its muted acceptance in our daily lives has had a contagion effect since my naïve take back in 2016.

One can look no further than the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as the head of state to world’s 8th largest economy as an example. No, it is not rare for a strongman i.e. caudillo - to be elected as a head of state in Latin America. However, the collective effect of the declining influence of Merkel, US President Donald Trump, and the fractured nature of US politics, means that the election of Bolsonaro, a weakened Europe, and the painful exit of the UK from the EU it is worrying to say the least.

Far right nationalism / populism has become a standard part of our vocabulary and now the scales have tipped in its favour in major multilateral fora such as the G7 and G20.  Looking at countries on an individual basis, the triumphs of nationalist parties at the polls represents a victory to those groups within the electorate whose needs are finally being addressed after decades of being ignored.

However, looking at the international system as whole, the trends are alarming.  According to the Freedom of the World 2018 report, democracy has been in crisis globally for the last 12 years where its basic tenets - freedom of the press, rights of minorities, guarantee of free and fair elections -  have been under attack in every region of the world.


Splintering effects of disruption

However, don’t you think it feels like we are paying more attention to the symptoms and not dealing with the main issues? Also, it seems like the collective economic anxieties have led us away from our hard-fought ideals of basic human rights. Where everyone has the right to life, liberty and security and everyone has a right to equal protection under the law. It is deeply unsettling to see attacks on basic human rights sensationalised in the media and dismissed as political rhetoric, or even conflated as economic anxiety.

While this appeals to internet clicks and airtime (and the business model of media outlets including social media networks), the big issues of economic inequality; migration and the global refugee crisis; as well as the impact of technology on our working lives and social interactions are not given enough attention. We remain siloed, fragmented and separated by walls and echo chambers, by class and by disparate lived experiences which have become more entrenched and precarious through the advancement of technology and widening economic disparity.

The system is failing to address the above and thus is failing all of us, particularly the most vulnerable, thereby fuelling the lack of trust and confidence in governments and institutions. For them, the system is rigged. The dehumanisation of the “other” is justified.

And here we are on the heels of another big election - the US midterm elections. This one is awash with allegations of voter suppression, moneyed interests, and a population eager for solutions to thorny problems but manipulated by misinformation and weaponised by social media networks.

So, now it’s two years later since naïve take and I’m nervous. Why you ask? I am not sure what a good outcome of US midterms elections is because I think democracy may lose yet again. When the system does not deliver for the people, then everyone loses. A system of the people, by the people, for the people is quite simplistic but it illustrates the core backbone of a democracy. Will the elected officials and those in government deliver by addressing the needs of the population? How can we ensure the needs of the people being met are not those of the few but serve the many?

If the mechanisms in place to support a democratic society cannot deliver on the goods, however this is defined, the lack of trust in the institutions and the system will persist. This will manifest itself in low voter participation and low voter turnout since, in people’s minds, “their vote doesn’t matter.” In his latest book, Democracy -  When the people are thinking, James Fishkin noted that “if other systems deliver the goods and provide prosperity and other results people care about then the democratic method faces a serious challenge on the basis of the outcomes it produces.”[1]

Democracy, as a system of government and an ideology, will cease to be legitimate.


Hard things are hard

The last US president famously had a plaque on his desk that said “hard things are hard” which seems obvious, but I think in the age of instant messaging and feedback this is something we have forgotten. The real work of democracy is not in the individual voices but the difficult work of debate, deliberation and compromise.

As a modern democratic society, it feels like we have forgotten how to compromise, to listen to another’s point of view and to engage in meaningful debate. Earlier this year, RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA lecture honed in on the problem. He noted that representative democracy has failed us twice: firstly, on how to make decisions and secondly, how we hold representatives to account for mistakes. The current version of Manin’s “audience democracy,” where the electorate are mere bystanders, is no longer effective and is driving the potent seeds of discontent and disillusionment.

In making his case, Matthew Taylor indicated that “deliberative democracy in the form of robust, tightly structured, investigations by small samples of ordinary citizens can - by generating a consensus behind wise choices - help address both these flaws and thereby enable representative democracy to become fitter for modern expectations and purposes.”[2]

Perhaps we can learn from the actions of cities which have been at the forefront of deliberative democracy initiatives. Participatory budgeting, itself a process of democratic deliberation, started its genesis in 1988 in Porto Alegre, Brazil has since spread to cities all over the world – Toronto, Medellin and even New York City to name a few.

Citizens panels, citizens juries and assemblies are relatively more commonplace admittedly still on a city or regional level with rare national citizen assemblies most notably in Ireland. At the RSA, we have also conducted a series of citizen juries within the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council programme and the RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI. Admittedly, cities and regions have been more agile and experimental in using deliberative democracy initiatives. Perhaps it is because the needs of citizens at the local level is more urgent and immediate. The system is more in touch with the needs of the people. It must deliver the goods.

Whereas, at the national level, democratic structures seem outdated and out of touch with the populace. However, one can argue that this is where democratic renewal is needed now more than ever. How then do we build on these new local democratic reforms with the changes we need to see on the macro level of national politics and more widespread across all existing mature democracies?

Surely, a key part of this is for western democracies to evolve further paying close attention to the fundamental building blocks of a democracy. One which embeds deliberation, conversation and consensus at the micro, meso and macro level within our societies. Or else it will be replaced by a system that delivers the goods but without our hard-won ideals of freedom, liberty and rule of law.

[1] James Fishkin – Democracy when the people are thinking Pg. 6

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