Why we need a liberal, secular democracy and why it needs to be stable as well as flexible
Democracy in the 21st century is now so ubiquitous that most people, whether they live in democratic countries or not, have strong opinions about it. Few have a clear understanding of this complex experiment in political self-government or its complicated history. This lack of knowledge has led to much misunderstanding and, worst of all, democracy itself has come to mean anything that we want it to mean;- rendering the idea almost meaningless. This would not be so dangerous but for the fact that the there is no other political idea as vital for freedom, liberty and rights and hence our collective and individual well-being.
For most people, the concrete is more compelling than the abstract. For instance, numbers, money or academic grades are easier to count or set goals towards than ideas of the larger good or, even, values like caring and compassion. In politics it is also easier to focus on the concrete;- laws, institutions, political parties, policies, candidates, funding and elections, than it is to think about the nature of society that politics are designed to engender. Religion once helped make the abstract more concrete through indisputable stories, moral rules, rituals, taboos and strictures. Today few stories are sacrosanct anymore and old rules and taboos seem, to many, to be irrelevant, if not downright oppressive. Modern societies find that, the relentless economic, cultural and technological changes require them to continuously re-invent themselves to survive. It is in this context that we need to view democracy.
Here is a different way of looking at democracy: Democracy as Background and Context
Most of us become conscious of our democracy during the election season and in times of political crisis. The rest of the time, unless we are professionally involved in government, we are not aware of it. Democracy, somewhat like the software in our computers, is mostly hidden and exists in order to support our work and existence. However, unlike computer software, democracy is not a system that once put in place can function on auto-pilot. It is the largest and most complex network of human relationships possible- between diverse groups of people and with their government. Like any relationship between humans who are always growing and changing, a democratic society is in a constant state of flux and needs to be continuously nourished to keep it effective.
Here is a framework that may help us understand how we experience democracy in our minds. All social humans tend to exist in a minimum of, three cognitive and emotional levels (with some movement possible in times of stress). There is the Foreground,– what we are mostly aware of, the Middle Ground where our minds go to in times of crisis and the Background that we are mostly unaware of. Our Democratic political system is the (mostly) hidden background or context within which our social and political lives take place.
Foreground- WHAT IS:
Here we are acutely conscious of what is because we are dependent upon the government to maintain our basic well-being.
At this level we are conscious of the quality of our present economic and social conditions- our jobs, our health, hobbies and preoccupations; the presence or absence of economic security; the quality of our schools and hospitals; our own status in society; and our relationships and happiness. Since government is vital in delivering services to its citizens, democracy, like every other form of government is usually judged by its ability to satisfy these.
Middle Ground- WHAT SHOULD BE:
Here we are conscious about what should be because we believe that we are entitled to being treated with respect and dignity.
At this level we are conscious of our aspirations, rights, needs and interests. Whether we are able to further the wellbeing of our families and communities; whether our community and we, ourselves, are receiving the respect and status that we believe we are entitled to and whether we are considered and treated as equals by all sections of the society and the government itself. Unlike autocratic governments, or even oppressive regimes, that make no claims to giving liberty, freedom or rights to all people, democracies are judged on the basis of their ability to satisfy these aspirations.
Background- WHAT HOLDS EVERYTHING:
Here we are conscious about the larger context that we inhabit, because it affects whether we have agency in influencing it.
At this level we are not preoccupied with our immediate, physical or emotional conditions, instead we are conscious of the larger context that we inhabit. Like air for breathing or like water for fish, it keeps us alive and thriving. Democracy being a system of political order provides society with a framework for collaborative decision making and co-existence. It does not guarantee pre-determined outcomes, the results come out of a deliberate process of dialogue and negotiation. Our preoccupation with meeting our key interests and immediate results frustrates and makes us discount, the importance of a slow and deliberative process like democracy. This impatience prompts us to, throw out a collaborative process but advcate for a unilateral or even autocratic one that promises instant results of our choosing. We forget that democracy, being the vital context, is the only political and social operating system that allows all of us, not just the strong and the powerful, to live with liberty, autonomy and dignity.
This model is loosely adapted from the world of urban planning, art and design. Because we tend to be closest to the foreground, it is normal that most of us experience and see only what is in front of us. The absence of adequate health care, unemployment or crime affects us all at a deeply personal level, we are overly conscious of the foreground. When something in the foreground is ineffective, corrupted or contentious we also tend to judge the whole system through our experience:- the families are all messed up, government is a failure, democracy doesn’t work. For someone who has had a bad breakup or has just been passed over for a key promotion, all of life sucks. Unfortunately, few get as concerned when the back grounds start deteriorating,- until it is too late.
At Citizen Demos we find it useful to frame the conversation not as who gets what, but how we go about determining who gets what. Solely focusing on distributive justice- (who gets what)- can undermine the larger political system (the process) even if it is for a ‘good’ cause. Undermining the process has huge consequences and can lead to cynicism, despair and finally deteriorate into a free for all- where brute strength and power eventually step in to provide order at the cost of liberty and rights. Even for the ‘Winners’, it is a Pyrrhic victory, where in the rush to maximize gains in the foreground, we lose the background and context itself. The challenge in a democracy is to balance the legitimate and pressing (fore and middle ground) needs, with protecting the vulnerable political process, without which frustration can lead to chaos which is breeding ground for populists and demagogues!