A Different Democracy

15:52Ciaran McCormick

We need to be careful about being trapped by the status quo. Politicians are institutionalised by their careers and there are many assumptions that we often accept without question. Take democracy for example. The idea of democracy has grown up around the idea of people being able to influence the political system that controls them. However, it has come to be associated with a particular way of life based on a Western experience. The ability of people to influence their government is still an important principle, but democracy is now commonly linked with the outputs of the system rather than the input of its people. For example, democracy is associated with particular freedoms, prosperity and stability as well as
the way politicians are expected to conduct themselves. The expenses scandal was a problem with the latter, where they betrayed the idea of public service with self-interest, which was why it was such a dramatically symbolic affront to British democracy.

However, there are problems with the way that we think about democracy in this way because it traps us. It creates a set of expectations about the outputs of democracy. Abroad, we paint a picture of Western experiences, which have been a freedom to enjoy Hollywood, fast food and personal enterprise. We expose other countries to these uncompromising cultural and economic forces because we so closely associate them with our positive idea of democracy. The desire to justify this brand of democracy prevents us from rethinking it. Our political systems revolve around people influencing politicians who ultimately make the decisions. When reforms are needed to overcome the latest sleaze or scandal, it is still based on this status quo. For example, there have been big developments in the so-called digital democracy with Change.org and the government e-petitions website making an impression on the public. This is still a reform trapped within representative democracy. The average person still just influences decisions taken by others. The whole protest, pressure group and Occupy industry may seem like a powerful movement for a different type of democracy but it still rests on the assumption that they are there to bring about a new climate of opinion rather than make decisions. To rethink democracy, we must question some of the basic assumptions that this status quo overlooks.

For example, measurements such as electoral turnout assume that greater participation is better. The benefit of mass participation still needs to be questioned. People rarely show off their responsible side. To take an example, some of the worst shades of the human condition exist in the darkest recesses of the internet. Even the most mainstream of websites are trolled uncontrollably. For example, Nestle recently released an advert for their Cheerios cereal brand, which sweetly followed the amusing antics of a family. It was a mixed race family. That unleashed the internet, notorious for filling comments sections with abuse. Adweek reported that the references to Nazis and racial genocide were so bad that the comments section had to be pulled. A generation of ad executives reminded themselves that they should continue to hold back on anything remotely controversial. The anonymity of the internet is mirrored in the secret ballot of elections, when some people can lose their social conscience. With nobody to hold them to account, they are free to vote based on selfishness or prejudice.

However, if we question assumptions such as the value of mass participation and a cross on a piece of paper, we can open up a range of new perspectives on democracy. An example could be deliberative democracy. This basically says that the heart of democracy is in the way issues are decided rather than the fact that  they were decided in a particular way. It is more important that decisions were based on evidence, reflection and balance rather than that a majority of politicians voted for a law or a majority of people voted for a representative. It has been argued in many forms but a particularly interesting one also questions the assumption that mass participation is always best. James Fishkin thought about a model where a representative sample of people are given access to the information they need to deliberate on an issue and come to a reflective, balanced decision. If this could be used to make final decisions rather than just influence politicians, it would be a radical way of rethinking democracy. It is crucial not to accept the status quo in the way we organise politics and especially not in something as important as democracy. There is so much potential for reinvention and experiment and this is just one example. We need more.

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