As the world recovers from the COVID pandemic, cities are refilling again with office workers, students, commuters, and tourists. The crowds once again provide a daily illustration of the enormous social diversity to be found in urban environments. They also carry with them the differences of dress and appearance that offer the superficial and sometimes misleading symbols of social differences.
Some people clearly enjoy the spectrum of diversity, seek it out and flourish in it. But for others it is an unsettling patchwork and a source of stress. Democracies often struggle in the face of deep social differences. Instead of reacting positively to the challenges of the modern world, people may react protectively and defensively. Essential democratic practices such as civility, consent to loss in electoral contests and acceptance of the system of rulemaking despite disagreement with particular pieces of law-making, all come under pressure. The ability to cooperate and to take collective action is blocked. Tempers rise. Democracies decline.
This blog looks at the nature of the challenge and possible responses.
Defining the challenge
Most people in the democratic world live, find work and seek entertainment in urban environments in settings of great social and cultural diversity and we interact with a great variety of people. In London, for example, less than half the population is ‘White British’ and less than half the population Christian. In Westminster, in central London, one fifth of the households have no one for whom English is the main language.
In an urban setting our daily interactions with others will often be very superficial. In some cases, where we get to know people better for occupational, professional, or personal reasons, we become aware of differences. The key differences were researched some time ago in work by the Hofstedes. The distinctions continue to be validated by more recent research.
The key distinctions are that some people seem very selfish and individualistic in their outlook, while others seem more socially oriented and take their cues from the behaviour of others they associate with. Some people seem to accept the inequalities of income, position and status we live and work with; others are disturbed by them. Some people seem to take a very long-term view of their goals in life; others focus on getting ahead in the very short term. We also encounter people who reflect very different views about the ‘proper’ roles of men and women in life.
Membership in groups may sometimes help soften the impact of these differences by providing people with a sense of familiarity and by helping them to navigate the world outside. But groups come in many different shapes and forms, with their own cross-cutting range of diversity and with similar insecurities and sense of stress.
There is no escaping from the challenges posed by individual and group diversity in today’s world. People generally don’t like uncertainty in their dealings with the wider world, or ambiguous relationships with those around them, and they like to hold on to what they have got and find reassuring. What matters is how we react at a deeper level when our own preferred and familiar ways of thinking and behaving is challenged and disturbed.
At an abstract level, the assumptions underlying mainstream theories of democracy also break down in face of deep social divisions. Mainstream theories depend on assuming that social differences can be resolved through some overarching agreement on the terms of political exchange or can be smoothed over by some overlapping consensus on key norms. When there exists no consensus on basic norms, or no common understanding of the terms and conditions of an overarching framework, then theory fails to address the real world - again.
The pathology of defensive behaviour
What is costly for societies is when individuals and groups react to difference by retreating into defensive and self-protective thinking and behaviour. Some distancing behaviour we take for granted and seems relatively harmless, for example when people choose to live in apartment blocks or suburban enclaves with people of a similar social status and outlook, or, find like-minded groups and chat rooms on the internet. However, defensive thinking and behaviour very easily become negative in their social effects. Individuals look for information and views that confirm their prior beliefs, or that pre-fit their group context. The group itself acts to insulate itself from rival views, and clings to its own prior perceptions. When groups, real or virtual, consist mainly of the like-minded their thinking is likely to be flawed. Both individuals and groups may retreat to stereotyping the outside world. They make distinctions between the in-group to which they themselves belong and outsider individuals and groups that are perceived to belong in different categories.
What defensive thinking and behaviour by individuals and groups leads to is a disconnect between perceptions of the outside world and the reality. In turn the disconnect makes cooperation with others more difficult. Individuals cut or restrict their social ties. Groups may also try to protect themselves from the fear of an erosion of their memberships by cutting ties with the wider world. In the worst cases protective behaviour will become aggressive and intergroup frictions will lead to social conflict.
De-stressing social relationships
Democratic societies look to the framework provided by their institutions, and to democratic give-and-take within the framework, to contain the stresses of modern-day diversity. Their frameworks typically provide reassurances about the overall character of the political association in terms that are intended to allow for the expression of different forms of individual and group identity and to respond to them. The difficulty is that identity politics increasingly seems in conflict with representative politics. (See post of May 1, 2022). Democratic societies also aim to de-stress social tensions through providing a sense of fairness and reciprocity. However, in some democracies, notably the US, this sense of fairness has been lost. (See post of March 1, 2022).
A different approach is to look at how to remedy the institutional blind spots in contemporary democracies. Democracies provide for the widest form of political association, electoral messaging and feedback to those in power or to those who want to gain power. Those who actually exercise power don’t have to mirror the social composition of the electorate in order to be responsive to the signals from the electorate. However, if representation diverges too far from social structures, electorates may be unconvinced that those in power truly understand the messages, or the feedback, and may see them as unresponsive to the challenges they face. In order to address the challenges of diversity what needs to be addressed are those shortcomings in representative bodies that may aggravate frictions over short term and long term trade-offs in policy making, over attitudes to gender, and over self-serving behaviour by those able to take advantage of status and position.
From this perspective there are three particular shortcomings in representation that need to be addressed in democratic institutions.
The short and the long term
First, the representation of the different generations in society is skewed. Current patterns of representation favour older age groups, particularly in Second Chambers such as the French and US Senates. There is a case for saying that Chambers that are created for the purpose of review should give particular weight and representation to age groups with dependent cohorts. Those who support both children and parents may be better able to assess the distribution of resources and impact of legislation across different generations and better able to weigh the short term with the long term.
Secondly, in most democracies, with the exception of Scandinavia, representation is also skewed towards the male. There is a case for mandating equal male/female representation in elected assemblies in order to better represent different perceptions of gender roles.
Thirdly, politicians and policy makers seem to live and enjoy power, position and perquisites within privileged and unrepresentative enclaves. It was famously said in the case of the US Congress, that ‘all politics is local’ (attributed to former Congressman and House Speaker Tip O’Neill). But today in the US, the parochial combines uneasily with perceptions of the Washington ‘elite’. Similarly, perceptions of the Brussels or Westminster ‘bubbles’ also convey a perception of elites taking advantage of their position and influence for self-serving purposes. In the case of Westminster, today’s Second Chamber (the House of Lords) is an appointed chamber of cronies and could easily be replaced, for example by a chamber representing the regions of England and the nations of the United Kingdom. In the case of the EU the problems of representation in Brussels are more complex and less easy to remedy. Fortunately, no other member state has followed the example of the UK and exited the EU. However, the tensions need to be addressed.
Like it or not, the social diversity we see around us today is inescapable. The challenge for democracies is to avoid differences in social attitudes that lead to defensive and conflictual behaviour. The institutions of democracies reflect an earlier world and today what they represent feeds the sources of difference and friction instead of helping to calm them. They need to be changed.