There are three ways to improve the functioning of a democracy:
Better Mechanisms and Systems: Some suggest that greater democracy and better mechanisms will correct the ills of democracy: electoral reforms, campaign finance laws, referendum, initiative and right of recall.
Better, Well Meaning People: Others think that if only people actively participated in voting and “good”, “well meaning” people stood for elections, democracy would improve.
Better Culture and Thinking: Citizen Demos takes the stance that, even as these two approaches are important, the success of democracy lies with the citizens themselves. Unless we build a culture of democracy, where people develop the capacity to engage in reason, dialogue, negotiation and cooperation, democracy will falter.
Democracy is not a stand-alone, self-sustaining political structure. It is a complex and interdependent network of systems and processes that constantly needs nourishing and investment. While it does require robust institutions and leaders with integrity, neither of these can compensate for the quality and perseverance of its citizens. It is citizens who can, if need be, call their leaders to account, repair institutions and who can, if they are reactionary, undermine the best institutions and the most visionary leaders by corrupting the system to meet their own needs.
The deterioration and even collapse of democratic societies in the late 20th and early 21st century can be attributed primarily to two reasons:
A. Many nascent democracies start with little but the mechanics of democracy, importing these “democracies in a box” from the US or the West, without an appreciation of the complex values that are necessary for the development of successful democracies. This results in these societies lacking a social contract between citizens and between citizens and leaders, based on common values and understanding, that allows for difficult decisions to be made that require compromise, deferred gratification and sacrifice.
B. Long standing democratic societies, which once may have had this common understanding and social contract, allow it to weaken. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon with each coming generation confronted with new circumstances, challenges, shifting values and changing interests. All of this eventually causes them to forget the origin of their own democratic roots and advantages.
In both of these cases, after the initial euphoria about ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ and ‘opportunity’ wear off, the reality of complex and difficult choices results in some interests being met, often at the cost of others. This “imbalance” gives rise to perceptions of “winners” and “losers” who eventually see themselves or others as “oppressors” and “victims’”.
Democracy is the largest and most complex human relationship possible between groups, with millions or even hundreds of millions moving together in seeming unison often with a tenuous, but vitally important, consensus. Just as in most human relationships like a marriage between equals, siblings, colleagues, team mates or social friendships, there are no simple solutions to conflict or even relational deterioration.
Regardless, given that the alternatives to democracy tend to be despotic or autocratic, it behooves those of us who value individual dignity, autonomy and the need to strive for egalitarianism to find creative ways to strengthen this imperfect system.
Citizen Demos is committed to the development of a mature and effective citizenry by helping create these vital conditions that all democracies need in order to thrive.