Democracy

This essay is a response to the following prompt: How, where and why might democracy be promoted? Does it need to be? or not? What are the arguments? Discuss, with requisite attention to what democracy is, and clearly signalling your own argument.

In 1900, not one country in the world was considered to be a representative democracy. However, what could be called a surge or wave of democracy took hold in the 20th century. By 1950, 22 countries could be counted as representative democracies and in the year 2000, the number reached 119 of a total 192 countries in the world. Evidently, democracy as a form of political economic life appealed to numerous societies. But does this appeal remain and what are the arguments surrounding democracy today?

Democracy can take various forms and hold diverse characteristics, but decision making by populations on matters which involve them is the system’s distinguishing feature. Australia is a parliamentary monarchy and America is a republic, but both countries are democracies. The level of freedom of speech in Australia differs to that enjoyed in other democratic countries. Dahlgren states “democracy is for and about it’s citizens” (2009, p.14). The minimum criteria for democracy is competitive, multi-party elections and universal adult suffrage, however there is a large scope and scale for democratic involvement. Varying forms of democracy include direct, representative and monitory democracy. Depending on the level of democracy, a democratic polity or society may be characterised by: the rule of law, a free press, human rights, open decision making, civic engagement, a public sphere, parliaments, political parties, and social conditions of equality.

It is important to note the difference between a democratic polity and democratic society as the two terms are not synonymous.  Electoral democracy is all that is ensured in a democratic polity  (a democratic system of rules), whereas social inequalities have been reduced or removed in a democratic society, “what socialist democrats would accept as ‘real democracy’” (McLennan 2005, p.72). McLennan states “a truly democratic polity needed underpinning by a truly democratic society” (2005, p.72).

Democracy is marked by openness and public decision making in which issues are brought from the private to the public sphere through political talk. The political focus of democracy can depend on the style; a liberal democracy will focus on the rights of the individual, a social democracy will tend to collective well-being and a socialist democracy will focus on representing the interests of ‘the people’. Ultimately, democracy is an arrangement which affects every aspect of our lives. Democratic arrangements extend beyond parliamentary politics to the workplace, business, classroom, university, hospital, local sporting club or household (McLennan 2005, p.75).

It is important to note democracy can be understood in two different ways. It can be analysed from an approach which looks at democratic arrangements, or, in contrast, from a romantic or populist view. Populism, government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, is a view of democracy in which the figure of ‘the people’ is central and taken as the natural basis for government. The populist approach understands democracy as popular sovereignty and the will of ‘the people’ and assumes egalitarianism. This view is limiting if wanting to understand how democracy, as public decision making, actually happens. Although the view of democracy as for ‘the people’ is popular, it overlooks social, cultural, political and economic conditions in which individuals participate in democracy. The phrase ‘the people’ is a rhetorical tool of populism, but it assumes homogeneity and does not acknowledge the diversity and differences existing in society. In addition to involving an appeal to ‘the people’, Hindess and Sawer state all varieties of populism “are in some sense or another, anti-elitist” (2004, og.4).  Populism can be dangerous because it divides society into two categories of the people and the elite. Understanding democracy from a populist or romantic point of view does not improve democratic arrangement.

Looking at the institutional and practical arrangements of democracy allows an understanding of how things can be changed or how the functioning of society can be improved. Democracy from a practical point of view is the institutions and arrangements which enable individuals and groups involved in particular activities to participate in decision making concerning those activities. This practical view realises that democracy is not about equality, because in reality, social differences exist. Democracy is a socially organised arrangement which allows participation in decision making.

The promotion of democracy is to make it stronger and more robust. Democracy can be deepened by extending arrangements beyond the minimum democratic criteria of competitive multi-party elections and universal adult suffrage, to high levels of participation or civic engagement enabled by social, economic and cultural conditions of equality. Dahlgren believes democracy must be promoted because participation has been dropping in the West (2009, p.26). “While there is considerable democratic energy in many countries in the developing world, we are seeing erosion in the established Western democracies” (Dahlgren 2009, p.26). There are lower turnouts to elections in the United Kingdom and the United States, countries that adhere to policies of non-compulsory voting, than ever before.

“The growing structural gaps  between organised political life and people’s everyday realities reinforce a sense of distance from the political system” (Dahlgren 2009, pg. 26). Dahlgren realises “specific social, economic, political and cultural factors that impact on the resources of particular groups can be barriers to democratic participation” (2009, pg.16). Inequalities can lead to bitterness and a feeling of abandonment by political elites.

Arrangements to remove inequalities of class, sex and race should be established to promote democracy through increased civic participation. Dahlgren notes an interesting relationship between the “odd couple of capitalism and democracy (2009, pg.18). Capitalism has been a precondition for liberal democracy, yet it produces social inequalities. “Whereas equality is one of the ideal pillars of democracy, inequality is often the social by-product of capitalism” (Dahlgren 2009, p.18). It is societies inequalities which contribute to what Hay describes as a distrust in politicians and a hate of politics (2007, p.1). Hay believes this distrust in politicians is damaging to the promotion of democracy.

Democratic participation and civic engagement in the United Kingdom and United States can be improved by introducing compulsory voting. Changing this aspect of the political arrangement may promote democracy.

Williams argues lowering the voting age to 16 will improve democracy (2015).  Lowering the voting age would increase participation and civic engagement, extending the democratic criteria. “The strongest arguments for extending the vote to young people apply when the community is making a long-term decision that will shape the future direction of the nation. This was why, for example, 16-year-olds were permitted to vote on whether Scotland should split from the United Kingdom” (Williams, 2015). Scotland promoted democracy by allowing 16-year-olds to vote in the referendum on Scottish Independence. Lowering the voting age to 16 in Australia would improve democracy. Democracy can be promoted by changing aspects of political arrangements such as lowering the voting age.

McLennan recognises democracy may be promoted by improving arrangements at a local level (2005, p.72). Sporting clubs may vote for their representatives, universities may require students to submit feedback in surveys and households may hold a discussion between all members before coming to a decision. “All sorts of previously ‘non-political’ relations are steadily coming under democratic interrogation” (McLennan 2005, p.73).

Schudson argues democracy may be improved by providing regulations for what he describes as “problem solving conversation” (1997). He explains public solving conversation, unlike sociable conversation, is governed and arrangements have to be in place to allow it to occur (1997). “Conversation that serves democracy is distinguished not by egalitarianism, but by norm-goverd-ness and public-ness” (Schudson 1997, pg. 207). Democracy can be improved in a workplace by allowing a channel for employees to raise concerns with their employers. If harassed at work, an employee should be able to have a conversation with their boss to solve the problem. However, if the practical arrangements are not in place for the worker to have the ability to contact their boss, democracy in the workplace is limited.  Schudson notes that James Carey sees “conversation as the workplace in which democracy happens” (1997, p.300). It is “… democratic political norms and institutions [that] instruct and shape conversations” (Schudson 1997, p.305). Schudson defines arrangements which allow democratic, problem solving conversation to take place as “equal access to the floor, equal participation in setting the ground rules for discussion and a set of ground rules designed to encourage pertinent speaking, attentive listening, appropriate simplifications and widely appropriate speaking rights” (1997, p.307).

Publicness is identified as integral to promoting democracy. Issues must be politicised by bringing them to public attention and public discussion through problem-solving conversation or political talk. Additionally, Keane argues that the internet, in a period of communicative abundance, brings issues to public attention and hence, is an arrangement which deepens democracy (2009, p.15).

In addition to bringing issues to public attention and discussion, Keane attributes the abundance of monitory bodies to “the emergence of a new galaxy of communication media” (2009, p.15). Keane argues “monitory democracy” is an improvement as “democracy is coming to mean more than elections but nothing less” (2009, p.3). All aspect of political and social life are scrutinised by citizen juries, think tanks, focus groups, local community consultation schemes, conflict of interest boards, online petitions, protests and global watchdog organisations. “Monitory democracy is the age of surveys, focus groups, deliberative polling, online petitions and audience and customer voting,” Keane explains (1997, p.3), and it is “fostering new forms of citizen participation” (1997, p.9). Monitory democracy should be promoted because “people are coming to learn that they must keep an eye on power and its representatives, that they must make judgements and choose their own courses of action” (Keane 1997, p. 21).

It is evident that democracy may be promoted beyond the national government level. International monitory bodies including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch exemplify the improvement of democracy by moving beyond the national level. Additionally, democracy may be promoted at an institutional level such as universities, schools, workplaces, unions and charities. Young recognises “unions are no longer at the heart of working life in Australia” (2015). “Thirty years ago, more than 40 per cent of all workers were members of a union. At August 2013, the most recent figures available, only 18 per cent of the workforce were union members” (Young 2015). Young argues democracy can be improved within unions to increase participation; “unions will have to fix their internal governance, democratise and modernise their processes and communicate with increasing sophistication” (2015). Furthermore, democracy may be extended beyond standard political issues (such as education and transport) to issues that were once considered part of the private sphere, including marriage and domestic violence.

Democracy needs to be promoted to improve the functioning of political economic life. Keane argues for monitory democracy because “unchecked power still weighs down hard on the heads of citizens” (2009, p.18). Democracy is the best way to anticipate and handle unexpected events and reverse ‘wrong-headed’ decisions and their ‘unjust effects’ (Keane 2009). Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge to Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership exemplifies the ability to return to and change decisions because they are made in public.

As Dahlgren acknowledges, democracy may be promoted because “while there is considerable democratic energy in many countries in the developing world, we are seeing erosion in the established Western democracies” (2009, p.26). Hay believes the promotion of democracy is needed to reverse ‘political disenchantment’; “…’politics’, has increasingly become a dirty word” (2007, p.1).  “Citizens simply feel that the mechanisms of democracy do not allow for their view to have much impact,” yet another reason for democratic arrangements to be improved.

Despite arguments for the promotion of democracy, many political views set limits on democratic arrangements.  Edmund Burke sees democracy as the “tyranny of the majority” and argues, as do many others, for an ‘elite’ model of democracy. The ‘elite’ theory believes politicians have expertise and are elected and hence, should be left to do their job. As Dahlgren explains, many believe politicians are to “take care of political matters, much like plumbers take care of faucets and pipes” (2009, p.15).

Others believe democracy will create a disadvantaged minority because it is a system based on numbers. Many argue privatisation harmed democracy because it moved the political back into the private sphere. Keane, like others, recognises that “in some quarters… media saturation triggers citizens’ inattention to events” and hence can be damaging to citizen participation in democracy (2009, p.21).

When democracy is analysed through practical arrangements rather than the populist approach as rule for ‘the people’, it can be understood as a system of government suited to the diversity of our world. As Keane explains, ”the respect for diversity and openness makes democracy the ‘least worst’ form of government” (2010, p.13). Democracy needs to be promoted because if democratic mechanisms are in place, adequate information will allow decision making to be efficient (Hirst 1990). Keane questions whether democracy is worth defending (2009, p.12). As a “set of political mechanisms for ensuring the benefits of political competition, public scrutiny and public influence” democracy should be promoted.

References: 

Gregor McLennan (2005) ‘Democracy’, in T. Bennett, L. Grossberg & Morris (eds) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Blackwell Publishing, pp.72-76

Peter Dahlgren (2009), ‘Democracy in difficult times’, in Media and Political Engagement: Citizens, Communication, and Democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.12-26

Colin Hay (2007), ‘Political disenchantment,’ in Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge, Polity, pp.1-2, 5-10, notes 163 excerpts.

Michael Schudson (1997), ‘Why Conversation is not the Soul of Democracy’, in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 14, pp.297-309, excerpts.

John Keane (2009), ‘Monitory Democracy and Media-saturated Societies’, Griffith Review 24, pp.1-23.

Barry Hindess and Marian Sawer (2004), ‘Introduction’, in M.Sawer & B. Hindess (eds) Us and Them; Anti-Elitism in Australia, Perth, API Network, pp.1-7, 241.

John Keane (nd. 2010), ‘Anti- Democracy Promotion’ from ‘Democracy in the 21st Century -Global Questions’, pp.10-18 (incl. notes)

Paul Q. Hirst (1990), Representative democracy and its limits, Cambridge, Polity, pp.22-5, 27-8, excerpt.

George Williams (2015), Lowering the voting age to 16 will be good for democracy, The Age

Sally Young (2015), Unions need makeover to suit modern times, The Sydney Morning Herald

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