DemoSapiens – Saving Democracy from Ourselves

We were delighted to host our first learning and discussion event in collaboration with the peace-building organization, HasNa, on authoritarianism and strongman leaders. Thanks to HasNa’s kind hospitality, we began the evening with light refreshments and casual discussion in Nevzer’s beautiful home.

Citizen Demos (an initiative of Meta-culture) believes that without good citizens, liberal democracy is bound to fail. Rather than focusing on institutions, electoral systems, leaders, diversity, campaign finance, and their improvement, Citizen Demos focuses on the individual citizen. Without specific investment in the development of mature and well-informed citizens, liberal democracy cannot be sustained. As a result, we focus on the learning and developing of the individual citizen.

DemoSapiens is our community project started with the aim to: develop robust understanding around liberal democracy, increase political and cultural dialogue, build negotiation skills, and cultivate vital democratic dispositions that we believe are necessary for citizens of a liberal democracy.

The presentations explored:

  • Why moving from authoritarian to democratic regimes is difficult – though it is very easy to go from democracy to authoritarianism
  • The cultural values necessary for liberal democracy to take hold
  • Why authoritarianism is increasingly popular the world over
  • Why liberal democracy is unique, and what we can do to support it

The post-presentation facilitated learning conversation raised a few key issues:

  • There was a concern that in discussing the state of democracy we can easily fall into stereotyping when looking at different groups’ voting behaviors.

We agree that stereotypes are not helpful. To understand social, cultural, economic and political behaviors it is important to pay attention to how different groups respond to similar phenomena. For instance, data that millennials seem not to value democracy as much as other generations raises important questions such as: Why this generation? What has changed for them compared to earlier generations?

  • Let’s put things in perspective: we are in a far better position, materially (life expectation, immunization levels, levels of violence etc.) than at any other time in our history. Thanks to liberalism and democracy, things have gotten better; what we’re witnessing right now won’t stop this progress.

It is important to recognize that there are many in the world who have been left out of the economic growth of the past few decades. Many for whom the reality is economic stagnation and social vulnerability.

However, it is undeniably true that by any metric the standards of living for most people in the world have improved and continue to improve. Why then are people cynical about liberal democracy and why are autocrats gaining ground? Is there something other than basic needs that liberal democracies fail to provide? This leads us to the age-old question of what the good life is. Maybe liberal democracy, without any reference to the Ancients’ idea of human flourishing or shared cohesive meaning, is to blame.

  • When we think about democracy, we think about rights but also responsibilities. How much can we, realistically, ask of citizens?

We have certain obligations as citizens – to obey the law, uphold the rights of others for example. But how far do these obligations go? In liberal democracies, are we obliged to provide universal healthcare, housing or a living wage for example?

  • It seems that millennials have little cohesion or sense of community. Maybe this is contributing to their disillusion with democracy?

This is a very good point. We can point to the breakdown in families and communities (e.g. due to fragmentation of families, increased mobility, loss of industry and meaningful work) as a cause of democratic disillusionment in millennials and more generally.

  • The idea that there have never been completely successful democracies is like the Scotsman fallacy – proposed counter-examples to a theory are dismissed as irrelevant solely because they are counter-examples, but purportedly because they are not what the theory is about.

Being always a work in progress and having to include dissent, conflicting and competing perspectives and the eventual decisions, almost always, being some form of negotiated compromise, democracies, by design, cannot be perfect systems. Therefore, they cannot also be consistently ‘successful’.

Historically, usually in times of economic despair or social or cultural threat, dominant as well as minority groups, whose interests are unmet, have shown a tendency to get impatient with the slow and messy process of consensual decision making that are typical of democracies. At such moments they have often been tempted to gravitate to authoritarian rulers or even tyrants who promise decisive action, and view compromise as a dirty word, synonymous with weakness or selling out.

Also, because democracies empower citizens it also raises expectations of what is possible. When, as is likely, results fail to match these expectations democracy is seen as failing. This why we believe that there have been no and cannot be consistently successful democracies. Having said that, we believe that it is the only political system that does justice to the dignity of all individuals (especially minorities) and treats its citizens as adults who can be relied upon to understand complex issues and can be trusted with knowing what is best for the common good.

We were very grateful for participants’ feedback. It allowed us to reflect on our ideas from new perspectives and continue learning.

William Staniland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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