DEMOCRACY – A GOOD WORD FOR THE GOOD OLD WAY

Amidst the scramble for new-fangled forms of democracy, spare a thought for the excellence of the good old way.

Citizens elect representatives to make laws and oversee governance on their behalf. The simple design of representation by election is in fact a very smart arrangement, much smarter than is often appreciated. Is solves three problems in one go: a problem of power, a problem of size and a problem of quality.

Power. Since representatives are elected by citizens and can be deselected by them at the next election, they govern under popular control. We have one of the requirements of democracy: safe government. The problem of power is solved. The people hold power over those who exercise power over them.

Size. When the American republic was created, a way needed to be found to govern a large territory with the consent of the people who lived dispersed over that territory. The previous republican experience was that of cities governing themselves, such as in the Italian city states of the Renaissance. The previous democratic experience was that of direct democracy. Some of this could be replicated in America on the local level (and there was experience of direct town democracy before the consolidation of the federation) but a new model was needed for national (and state) government. The Founding Fathers settled for localities sending representatives to the capital to manage public affairs in the place of citizens themselves. The method of representation by election is an invention of the American Constitution. Without this invention we could not have had national democracies.

Quality. Governance should be safe but also effective. The representative method puts decision-making in good hands, which the direct democracy does not, and delegates the responsibility of decision-making to an assembly, which the autocratic method does not. One purpose of elections is to give us the opportunity to appoint those among us who are the more qualified to do the job. The advantage of decision-making by assembly is that it enables the institutionalisation of rules and procedures of good decision-making and that it offers the chance for proper deliberation. In an assembly of representatives who are more numerous than a small committee of like-minded apparatchiks, who are from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds and who are elected on different political platforms, there is a good chance that decisions will be tested by robust debate.

Although we must make the qualification that democracies always work imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly, these are real benefits in the method of representation by election. That is a method we should not easily give up on, and one we should probably value more than we do.

REFORM – THE IMPERATIVE NOW

All democracies are imperfect. They need constantly to be improved. Continuous and never-ending reform is part and parcel of the democratic enterprise.  If leaders and citizens think that their democracy has made it and found the Holy Grail, it is doomed.

There are two reasons behind the imperative to reform:

  1. Democracy is a process of trial and error. We must be sensitive to failures and mistakes and seek better ways. Circumstances change, for example in domestic economies or world affairs, and democratic governance must adjust.
  2. For confidence in democracy, citizens need to see that leaders are attuned to shortcomings and willing and able to work for improvements. They need to see that leaders deal with problems. Otherwise they will, with justification, see democratic governance to be incapable and gridlocked.

Professor Robert A. Dahl, in On Democracy (1998), recommend that democratic countries engage, every twenty years or so, in a thorough process of constitutional reform.

Democracy is now under threat. That goes to both values and capabilities. This misfortune (hopefully temporary) has many causes. One cause is a tendency to sclerosis in reform. If we look to the United States, to Britain, to other European democracies, to the European Union, we see dysfunctions not being dealt with. It is not dysfunction itself that is the rot, but that problems are not confronted and taken on. It is time for us in America, Britain and the EU to follow Professor Dahl’s advice and look very seriously into the ways we do governance.

The standard model today is representative democracy: citizens elect representatives to make and implement policies on their behalf. Reform can follow two paths. We can seek to repair what is deficient in the representative system, such as the organization of elections, the procedures of parliamentary decision-making, the methods for the nomination of candidates for election, the financing of candidacy and campaigns and the like. Or we can seek more far-reaching innovations towards alternative forms of democracy: participatory democracy, referendum democracy, deliberative democracy and the like.

These are not strictly alternative strategies, but there is a complicated dialectic between them. There is no known alternative to the representative system, but that system as we now see it operating on the ground needs pretty serious repair to regain credibility. If we concentrate on alternative innovations, there is a danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The search for alternative models can even contribute to further undermining the credibility of the representative system without offering any practical alternative.

Representative democracy is a model that has very much going for it. That needs to be preserved and improved, not replaced.

There is a back-to-basics message here. It would seem, as things now stand, that the recommended strategy of reform would be, first and basically, to improve the representative system, and then, on that basis, to think of innovations as add-ons in support of the representative system.