• The decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens has resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
• The internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, participate in petitions and organise outside the parameters set by the elite
Today, there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy. There are fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of right-wing populism.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise that will “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism. Liberal norms and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people. Thus, liberal institutions that prevent the people from acting democratically in their own interest should be set aside”.
These worries have been heightened not just by the emergence of rightwing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Phillipines, but also by the fact that even countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy have themselves been overtaken. In the US, Donald Trump’s consistent attacks on the institutions and norms of American democracy, has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
Yet populism is less a cause of democratic demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites, where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity, but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is this very compact that is at the root of the crisis. Especially in the last 30 years, our understanding of democracy has been transformed from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. It is a subtle but important shift and one that has long been evident in the decline of democratic participation across the globe. The crisis is thus about much more than the historic decline in voter turnout. In fact, the privileging of this form of participation above all others is at the heart of the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough, with the media as providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner, is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader,” - one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
The solution is not less participation, but more. “Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances”. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives. Citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, participate in petitions and organize outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks - rather than just their votes - count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?