What is this ‘Democracy’?

Most political words are used in so many diverse ways that they are now limp, perhaps no so more than ‘democracy’. It’s currently being beaten silly in Brexit and in US federal politics – specifically, everybody’s opponent apparently is undemocratic. Let’s remind ourselves that countries as diverse as Sweden and North Korea both claim to be ‘democratic’. So, can we just take a big picture perspective on ‘democracy’, if only to try to save it from further abuse?

Without retracing a political and philosophical history, let me suggest what it is that we mean by democracy. First, our meal starts with a grenade. Democracy is not the same thing as voting in elected representatives for periods of four, five or whatever years. Nor is democracy something about human rights and their protection. I am not suggesting that either is a bad thing – it’s just not what democracy is fundamentally about.

I think democracy is about ‘people power’ – it’s about government which is run by the citizens. Now, in ancient Athenian democracy practically every adult, male citizen was part of the legislature, and most public sector jobs were randomly allocated. There was no voting. Their system maybe not so practical today partly because our countries are much bigger than Athens’s 30,000 eligible citizens.

But if we translate what ‘people power’ means to us, it’s about a government that is accountable to citizens, that represents the full spectrum of those citizens and doesn’t waste our money. At some level, whether we vote or don’t, that there is the essence of our democracy. It’s not about putting an ‘X’ on a slip of paper every few years. It’s about a relationship between our state, with its huge resources, and the people.

If those who manage our state, being the government, are accountable to its citizens, reflect the diversity of its citizens and advocate for them, and don’t waste our money – that is fundamentally what we mean by democracy. And we can have that with or without a voting process. In similar vein, a voting process doesn’t mean that we have democracy. And here’s the nub - Western ‘democracies’ are barely accountable to their citizens, struggle to represent their citizens and waste an awful chunk of hard-earned tax change in cost overruns and project delays. not to mention low performance bureaucracies.

Against this background, it’s not hard to see why only 10% of Americans are ‘very satisfied’ with democracy.[i] More Americans think Elvis is or maybe still alive - which would make him 84.[ii] Like the citizens of most Western democracies, American citizens are ironically fed up with a political system that fails to deliver something meaningfully democratic.


[i] https://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2018/10/31/18042060/poll-dissatisfaction-american-democracy-young
[ii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/americans-still-love-elvis-40-years-after-his-death/
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