Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Comprehensive Democrat

When we think about democracy we tend to focus on politics and government. These are rightly at the centre of democratic dialogue as they are our overarching social institutions, but if we are to have a thoroughly democratic society, we cannot limit ourselves to government. We need to consider all our institutions.

The workplace, for example, is to many people the most important place of all, more important even than politics, yet it seems to hardly enter the conversation. If government is democratic but the workplace remains autocratic, our liberty is incomplete. We are free men and women evenings and weekends, servants during the week.

That old comrade of power—wealth—and its effects on democracy through a range of institutions, including economics, politics and the mass media, deserves to be put under the democratic microscope. The corporate sector dominates economics locally, nationally and now globally, and we need to examine how that can be made compatible with democracy, if indeed it can. The mass media, a critical component of a healthy democracy, are owned and controlled primarily by oligarchs and corporations. We need a thorough discussion on how to democratize our major forms of mass communication.

Change, particularly technological and global, threatens to overwhelm working people while the benefits increasingly accrue to a small minority. We tend to treat the effects of these trends like the weather—nothing we can do about them except adapt. This fatalism is unacceptable in a democracy.

Fundamentals of a self-governing society, including education and equality, require constant maintenance and improvement and thus constantly deserve our attention from a democratic perspective. Is education the springboard for democracy it needs to be? Do all of us enjoy the political equality necessary to be fully citizens of a democracy?

If any of our institutions are not democratic, our democracy is not complete. It is unfinished. The project continues. The concern of the democrat must be comprehensive.

Friday, 24 May 2019

The State of Democracy

There is, it seems, a war against democracy. I hesitate to use the word "war" as it tends to suffer from overuse these days—war on drugs, war on terrorism, etc—but there are certainly powerful forces at work in the world that would like to see less democracy. The hostility arises largely from the increasing number of strongmen heading nations: Hungary's Orban, Russia's Putin, China's Xi Jinping, Indonesia's Duterte, Venezuela's Maduro, and so on. And it is all encouraged by the would-be strongman, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who busily attacks a range of institutions vital to democracy, such as the media and the courts, while showing a soft spot for dictators. Putin and Xi get little opposition from Trump's America as they employ their power on the Security Council to undermine UN agencies dealing with democracy and human rights.

These forces are aided and abetted by a certain disaffection with democracy, or at least with government, currently troubling democracies themselves. Witness the election of Donald Trump, or the Brexit vote in the UK, or the rise of populist movements in Europe.

But the news is far from all bad. For instance, the Pew Research Center states "there is considerable dissatisfaction in many countries with how democracy is working in practice. But public support for democratic ideals remains strong, and by one measure, global democracy is at or near a modern-day high." The Economist, in its annual review of democracy, reports something similar: "political participation is on the rise in almost every region of the world. Whilst clearly disillusioned with formal political institutions, the population has turned anger into action, and turned out to vote, and to protest." Furthermore, Pew states "the share of democracies among the world’s governments has been on an upward trend since the mid-1970s, and now sits just shy of its post-World War II record" with over half the world's countries deserving to be called democracies. On the other hand, Freedom House warns that political rights and civil liberties around the world have been declining for over a dozen years.

So the picture is mixed: strong support for democratic ideals, but disturbing concerns about its practice. Is this a tipping point? Will we tip toward more dissatisfaction, more populism and more strongmen? Will we tip into another round of fascism as in the 1930s? Or will we tip back toward stability and the continued spread of democracy? People are making their positions clear; now it's up to the political class to ensure things tip the right way.