Democracy is currently in decline in the world. This blog looks at the limitations of three common ways of visualising democratic forms of government. In view of their limitations, it suggests that we need to give much greater focus on how to nurture the underlying social attitudes needed to sustain democracies.
Democracy does not claim to be the best form of government. It simply seems less objectionable for individuals to have a say, however small, in who has authority over them, rather than have to accept rule by an expert elite, or by a single party, person or group. We can look at critical questions in the operation of democracies from at least three perspectives.
Almost all problems of collective policy are ‘complex’ and so different viewpoints are to be expected. Discourse democracy aims to address the problem of how to resolve differences of view in democracies at the same time as respecting the ideal that each person’s view should count and be heard.
The underlying proposition is that the essential means to reach a point at which everyone is satisfied is through reasoned discourse. This entails allowing opportunities for public debate not only in elections and in elected chambers, but also through more direct forms of engagement involving such techniques as Town Hall meetings and Citizen Assemblies. The EU’s Conference on the Future of Europe is currently using such techniques of engagement.
The plausibility of this model of democracy rests on two assumptions. The first is that, when given the opportunity, people do actually pay attention to viewpoints other than their own and that all participants in a debate are open to persuasion to change their mind by reasoned arguments. The second, is that there are no fundamental sources of disagreement in the background about the presuppositions of a democratic society, or the need for social support for the least well off, that might otherwise block agreement. If these parameters are questioned, for example, by a prejudice that some opinions or conditions count for less than others, or that the distributional consequences of policies can be disregarded, then the possibilities for reasoning and persuasion are limited.
It is the reality of these two assumptions that can be questioned. The mid ground in social and political debate where everyone shares the ground rules and can feel satisfied with the outcome, regardless of whether their own view prevails, seems more limited and fragile than assumed. In addition, the reliance on reasoned debate seems to misrepresent the actual processes of social persuasion. In practice, people want to limit the time they spend thinking about collective concerns and devote their attention to their own immediate worries, such as maintaining friendships, getting a job, or finding a place to live. When they engage with the collective, they are likely to take short cuts. In particular, they are likely to pay attention to the views of those with whom they associate, feel comfortable with, tend to agree with, and not to be receptive to the views of others. They are likely to prefer to spend more time in internet chat rooms exchanging tweets with those with whom they agree, rather than attending Town Hall meetings and having reasoned arguments with those with whom they have disagreements.
There are different ways of expressing the importance of association in societies – through ideas about community, or through group identities (real, virtual, or imagined). The difficulty arises in moving from particular associations to the broader aggregate of political association in a state or federal union. People have overlapping social identities, as participants in a chat room, as supporters of a football team, members of a profession, an attachment to an area, or an ethnicity, or affiliation with a religion. In this world of overlapping identities, alongside positive feelings of association and belonging, come feelings of differentiation, ‘the other’ and exclusion. From this perspective, the central problem for democracies is to strengthen the positive, overlapping ties of association and to minimise the negative.
In order to address this problem, theories of associative democracy turn to two main avenues. The first is to look to political parties to reach across community and social divides.
The second avenue is to look to institutions to promote inclusion. What is called ‘consociationalism’ thus looks to methods of enforcing association through various methods of power sharing including, for example, guaranteed representation in elected assemblies or governments.
Theories of associative democracy appear more securely grounded in social reality than democracy based on an ideal of reasoned discourse. Nevertheless, there are two important areas of weakness. The first, is that political parties do not always encourage the strengthening of overlapping ties of association. In theory, in order to win office, they need to offer a broad appeal. However, some are content with a minority role, some have platforms that reflect or encourage division (as with Trump) and, in general, the role of parties is in decline, relative to other forms of association, other than in their role of actually getting out the vote.
Formal arrangements for power sharing can also be problematic. Power sharing can lead to coalitions that are exclusionary. For example, it is alleged that in the European Parliament, pro-integrationist parties coalesce to ‘rig’ the Committee system (where most of the work is done) against smaller parties that would like less to be done at the union level. A guaranteed place in power can also weaken the incentive for minorities and minority parties to try to cross boundaries and broaden their appeal to wider groupings. Unrepresentative minorities can play a ‘hold-out’ role, leading to equilibrium at low levels.
The answer to both the unrealism of relying on reasoned discourse and to the shortcomings in party political processes and enforced power sharing, seems to lie in establishing benchmarks to ensure fair play. These benchmarks need an independent status outside electoral politics. Such benchmarks appear to offer defences that protect voices that might be overlooked in reasoned discussion, as well as protection against the negative side of electoral behaviour such as the abuse of a majority position, and against the negative side of group association such as differentiation and exclusion. These defences are typically expressed as ‘rights’.
It has been claimed that rights-based democracy has become the dominant form of democracy in the world today. Almost all countries have written constitutions and all constitutions contain declarations of rights. Even the UK, that famously relies largely on unwritten conventions, accepts the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and has incorporated them into its own Human Rights Act. Nevertheless, the idea of rights-based democracy has its own flaws.
First, rights may simply be used as window dressing. Secondly, there are questions about their scope and content. For example, Portugal’s constitution includes rights to sport and guaranteed job security, which some might not classify as rights at all. There is a tendency to oversupply claims about rights which reduces their value and leads to disputes between rights. Thirdly, there are questions about the status of claims about rights, particularly when they impose costs on others. They lose value if they undermine due diligence in matters of social choice. Finally, they need independent oversight. Courts may be a self-interested party in deploying the adjudication of rights in order to extend their own role and scope of authority. Some democracy theorists are concerned about the 'judicialisation' of politics and others about the potential backlash in the form of the politicisation of the judiciary.
The social basis for democracy
The current decline in democratic practices around the world should make us aware of how these standard ways of thinking about how to organise democratic societies are more open to contest and less securely grounded than we might like to think. At the same time, it should also turn our attention to the underlying social attitudes needed to underpin democracies.
We need an underlying civility if we are to discuss differences; we need a disposition towards moderation if we are to reach across the divides of association; we need to retain our own independence of judgment in assessing competing claims on collective resources. We need to encourage a sense of reciprocity in our social interactions if societies are to deal successfully with the unfamiliar and to have confidence in their institutions. It is the erosion of these qualities that may underlie the decline of democracy.
In looking at how we can encourage such qualities there are two pathways. The first, is by updating constitutional frameworks so as to ensure that they encourage a sense of reciprocity and fair play in the terms of engagement. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that just how far constitutional frameworks can encourage supportive social attitudes remains what Robert Dahl referred to as a ‘fuzzy question’. We thus also have to look further at the sources and origins of the social norms compatible with democracies. For example, public policies that reduce what is called ‘role strain’ may have more of a place in encouraging moderation than we have been prepared to admit. (see blog post of 3/1/2019).