The campaign for real democracy

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Institutional reform

The decline and potential death of liberal democracy is a hot topic right now.

High profile and fascinating books on this topic by Yascha Mounk and David Runciman (both of whom have given engaging talks recently at the RSA) were written before Italy was carved up between the Five Star Movement and the Northern League and before Slovenia’s populist Party won the country’s general election.  

Mounk and Runciman both offer important reflections on the same broad phenomena: First, the continuing rise in populism and a parallel decline in public faith in the liberal democratic system; and second, the failure of that system to deliver the goods in terms of economic progress, solving hard problems or addressing public concerns about issues like identity and nationhood. Moreover, both recognise the many flaws with the model of representative democracy that had seemingly been in the ascendant until a decade or so ago.    

The main difference between the two is about what can and should be done. If Mounk’s prescription was a film it might be titled ‘Liberal democracy 2 – this time it’s real.’ For him new leadership can get the liberal project back on track as long as it is more liberal (more concerted in attacking privilege and inequality), and more democratic (more open and less in thrall to vested interests), while also adapting to new challenges like social media. The problem for Mounk is less his account of a better world (rather tepid though this is) and more the lack of a credible story about how we get from here to there. 

Runciman’s rather bleaker film might be called ‘Darkness falling - destination unknown.’ He is insistent that we shouldn’t try to read the future from the past. Instead we should acknowledge that many possibilities lie ahead including models in which representative democracy has essentially become more marginal to society and in our lives. My criticism of Runciman’s scenarios is that, in his eagerness to open our eyes to the range of futures ahead, he has failed to engage with the things that might still be done to save some of the most important features of our current system.

In my annual lecture in three weeks I will setting out my stall in this crowded and noisy space. If Mounk wants to refurbish the mansion of liberal democracy and Runciman wonders whether there’s any way it can remain standing, my perspective is that we need to retain its foundations (which have, as another recent RSA speaker argued, made today a better time to be alive than any before) but fundamentally reconfigure its structure. 

The focus of my lecture is the case for incorporating democratic deliberation as an intrinsic and important part of how we do politics and make policy. I will argue this is a response to the dual failures of representative democracy, as the basis for accountability and decision making. On the one hand, representative democracy in the form of elections every few years offers an incredibly blunt mandate, while, on the other, as soon as people become our representatives (ie full-time politicians) they cease in our eyes to be representative of us as ordinary citizens. Equally, elected governments seem to find it very hard to govern either for the long term or adequately to tackle tough issues ranging from immigration to tax reform to funding social care. 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. 

The case for deliberation is arguably even stronger at the local level. In my speech I will call for a national ‘what works’ centre for deliberation charged with designing, authenticating, and seed funding deliberation across the country. More broadly, accelerating devolution is the second restructuring that democracy urgency needs. As I discuss with leading American urbanist Bruce Katz in the latest RSA Journal, the kind of engagement and responsiveness people want is much more likely to come at the local than the national level. All over the world Mayors are more popular than Prime Ministers and Presidents. Local leaders generally manage to avoid the toxic polarisation of their national counterparts and - to refer to the RSA’s preferred model of change - ‘thinking like system and acting like an entrepreneur’ is as feasible locally as it is almost impossible nationally. 

If the overall approach I advocate needs a label perhaps it is ‘constitutionalist.’ The argument is that to save liberal democracy requires its radical reconstitution as a system. But, as I have said and as David Runciman pointed out at our event, the problem with this argument is ‘who is going to listen.’ It may be too radical for those inside the system (who don’t care if the ship sinks as long as they get their time at the helm) and too seemingly prosaic and modest for those outside hammering on the gates with pitchforks at the ready. We have seen before with Charter 88 in the eighties and the Power Inquiry in the noughties that persuading people deep democratic reform is necessary and that it could be relevant to their day-to-day lives is extremely hard. The one thing we have going for us now is it is becoming impossible to deny the scale of the crisis.

Ultimately the constitutionalist position requires luck, discipline, and generosity. We need to keep exploring ways of getting these arguments into the mainstream. We need to overcome the various organisational and policy differences between people who share the same underlying position (beware the narcissism of small differences). And we need patrons who can give us the resources to drive home our case. My annual lecture – in which I hope to announce a major new initiative - will be the RSA’s contribution to this currently uneven struggle.

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  • I agree that we need a more deliberative element to our democracy and that's what I've been trying to introduce in Salisbury. Salisbury Democracy Café has been running successfully for 10 months. We now have a Salisbury Theology Café and Oxford Democracy Café is due to start on 7 July on the back of the Salisbury group, and I'm in talks with people in two neighbouring towns to set up cafés. I have also been trying to organise pop-up cafés throughout the city, although with not much luck to date. I organised a very successful event to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act and plan to have an annual event along the lines of the Ancient Greek agora celebrating culture, politics and debate. It is important to note that these groups and the planned agora are simply a way of creating space for people to deliberate and to improve our public discourse - they are not in any way connected to the decision-making process with local democracy; nor should they be because they are self-selecting.

    However, I also hope to generate some interest in the idea of a Citizens Assembly, chosen by stratified random selection - which would be empowered to deliberate independently on important issues and make informed recommendations to Salisbury City Council and Wiltshire Council. Indeed, I wrote a letter to this effect to the Salisbury Journal, which carried the pleasing headline 'Citizens unite'. I would like to push ahead regionally - with RSA backing (I plan to make a pitch to an Engage event) - to promote pop-up cafés, the informal cafés throughout the South West and, locally, the formal Citizens' Assembly.

    As a matter of interest could we have a precise definition of 'Liberal Democracy'? The word 'liberal' seems to be used in two ways. In one sense it seems to mean simply tolerant; in another it refers to the strong political sense which focuses on the individual as the fundamental political unit. The most extreme philosophical underpinning of the latter is Methodological Individualism - a doctrine which asserts that all attempts to explain social, or individual, phenomena are to be rejected unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals, although there are various forms of weak MI. Perhaps there is another meaning but it seems to me that neither sense I have identified is satisfactory way of framing a democracy - the first is too weak and the second too strong because it eliminates any sense of communitarianism before any discussion takes place. So whatever we do to try and revive our democracy, a better name is required. The word 'Constitutionalist' might do the trick, although it is a little clunky.