Can Democracy Be Saved?

Dr Henry Tam, Director, Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, University of Cambridge and Visiting Professor, Birkbeck, University of London, set out on Question the Powerful how he thinks it can:

Should we ever trust anyone with the power to make decisions affecting our lives without ever having to answer to us? ‘No’ is the resounding answer. To allow anyone to capture such power would risk being at best ruined by a misguided fool, or at worst subjugated by a shameless oppressor.

It is this simple recognition that drives people everywhere to clamour for a guarantee that they will have a say over how decisions affecting them are to be made. The dramatic struggles across the Middle East have reaffirmed this vital political fact. But even as the call for democracy is irresistibly made, its fragility in countries with relatively stronger democratic credentials is becoming alarmingly clear for all to see.

In Europe, the importance of placating financial markets trumps democratic engagement. ‘Technocrats’ are hailed as saviours while suggestions of holding any democratic referendum are quashed. In the UK, a party with a parliamentary minority is able to impose the vast burdens of cuts on the poor while protecting the interests of the rich, simply because it is supported by another party which jettisoned its most high profile pledge to the electorate in order to have a share of power. In Spain, the ‘indignados’ (the outraged) draw attention to the fact that in the recent election, there were 11 million spoiled ballots, more than the number voted for the victorious rightwing party. The upshot of course is that the people of Spain now have to suffer even more plutocratic policies that have outraged the majority. And in the US, the Republican Party is showing how democracy can be thoroughly abused by parading candidates who are ignorant of policies they criticise, or cynically distort Obama’s position by editing the President’s words in campaign ads designed solely to deceive.

The underlying cause of democracy being so easily usurped is twofold. First, the wealthy elite can buy more media outlets and pay PR (public relations/pseudo research) to fill the public domain with misleading information, resulting in many people accepting that they have to become poorer to help the rich. Secondly, even amongst those who see through the lies and want to have different policies, there is a lack of awareness as to how they can articulate, let alone achieve, a coherent alternative. Protests, strikes, electoral abstentions help to express disillusionment, but they do not by themselves lead to better outcomes for those in need.

So is democracy doomed? Only if we ignore the many initiatives and experiments which have been carried out all over the world in enabling citizens to come together to formulate and advance shared policy demands. We should learn from these and apply them to any political action we are organising. As a small contribution, in ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’ (written for a special issue of the journal, Forum), I outlined an experiment I carried out between 1995 and 2010, first at a local government level, then with the national government, to promote both innovative and tried and tested participatory practices so that more citizens could gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to exert their democratic influence over public policies.

The five key lessons I draw from this 15 year endeavour are as follows. Lesson 1: different people want different degrees of involvement, and organisers should give people the appropriate opportunities they seek rather than insist that everyone should participate in the same way. Often the ‘ladder of participation’ analogy is unhelpful when it is taken as downgrading less intense forms of engagement. Play to people’s strengths and personality preferences, and you get more people involved than just a small vanguard.

Lesson 2: the value of democratic participation is considerable in social, political and economic terms, and yet more often than not it is underestimated or overlooked completely. Even in narrow monetary terms, taking on board citizens’ views helped to save hundreds of thousands, even millions, in improving the effectiveness of individual policies and programmes. Consistently, where people are given meaningful opportunities to reflect and contribute their views on the development of public actions, it tends to lead to more satisfactory and cost-efficient outcomes.

Lesson 3: to be effective democratic engagement needs to begin with people being given structured opportunities to talk about the things that most concern them. This should be followed by facilitated discussions to examine the real causes of the problems. Participants should be enabled to share any proposal with others, while options put forward can be challenged, with a transparent process for agreeing the priority actions to be taken. Feedback is to be provided on implementation, and the impact of the agreed plan is to be kept under review. As a result of the communitarian experiment, there is now a wide range of excellent resources on engagement techniques which are available (as free downloads) from the National Empowerment Partnership/Community Development Foundation.

Lesson 4: partnerships between state and citizens are not easy to build. It requires patience, skills and considerable emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, in addition to the risk of those in government shutting people out from their decisions, there is now a growing danger with the Conservative-led coalition government simply passing the buck to communities. Attempts to pass endless social and economic burdens to individuals who cannot cope without collective political support, are nothing more than an abdication of democratic responsibility. To do it under the pretense of building a ‘big society’ insults our civic intelligence, and betrays the citizenry who had assumed the state was there to serve them.

Lesson 5: the key to successful democratic renewal is leadership. For those who stress the importance of having a groundswell of active citizens in sustaining democratic vibrancy, this might sound paradoxical. But whether it is widespread sceptical disengagement from public bodies or mass protest degenerating into mindless violence, the pitfalls of random public action/inaction can only be avoided if there is dedicated energy in organising and sustaining the pursuit of inspiringly articulated goals. Positive results have rarely been achieved without the drive of committed civic-minded leaders. (Materials relating to civic leadership can be accessed at the Take Part website.)

And above all, we need such leaders now. From young people, residents association, workers, teachers, the elderly, all diverse backgrounds, we need those who are prepared to show leadership in rallying, organising, and championing what the wider democratic public seeks to come forward and save democracy.

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