While there is widespread recognition on both sides of the Atlantic that democracy is not working as it should, no consensus has yet emerged regarding what is to be done about it. Some say major constitutional changes are necessary; some call for more efforts to get the vote out; and others lament the futility of trying to tackle money power, social media distortions, or – with routinely around a third of registered voters (in the US and the UK) not turning out to vote – incorrigible apathy.
If we look more closely, however, at what thinkers concerned with the underlying political health of communities have been saying, we may be able to work out what prescriptions are really required. Thinkers such as Bernard Crick, David Marquand, Jonathan Boswell, and Henry Tam in the UK, or Philip Selznick, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor in North America, have been variously described as ‘communitarian’, ‘civic republican’, or in some cases both. Despite their differences on some philosophical or sociological issues, when it comes to democratic governance, they all maintain that it has to be grounded on a community of cooperating citizens.
If people thought only about their own individual interests, and were disinclined or unable to take into account the concerns and reasons expressed by others, then a superficial electoral structure would not be capable of facilitating decisions that enhance the common good of the people, or improve their respective lives as interdependent citizens. On a personal basis, some would exploit the fear and gullibility of others to make unjust gains for themselves. On a collective basis, the nation would be more divided and insecure.
The civic-communitarian response, to coin a term, is to press for actions to be taken to rebuild the community basis of democratic relationships. These are connected with three inter-related elements. First and foremost, there is the need to develop a real sense of togetherness among the people. A laissez faire attitude to leaving individuals to do as they please is a recipe for social fragmentation. Diversity and solidarity can be complementary only if concerted efforts are made to facilitate people learning about the distinct contributions each other can bring. Togetherness, in turn, requires objectivity in discourse. If lies, prejudices, intimidation, and misdirection were allowed to distort facts and undermine any prospect of mutual understanding being attained, people would rarely, if ever, come to see what would serve their common good, or why they should back one set of public policies rather than another for the sake of their country. Finally, togetherness can only be preserved if none has attained sufficient power to act with little regard for the consequences that may have for others, and it is recognised that people are broadly interdependent in safeguarding their overall wellbeing.
Let us look at what actions should therefore be developed to rescue democracy from its perilous state.
Democracy would be reduced to a contest among hostile factions without a sufficiently robust sense of togetherness. To cultivate it, there should be widespread opportunities for citizens to formulate shared missions through collaborative projects; move away from echo chambers to meet and get to know others at open communal events; learn to co-design civic outcomes; and engage with politicians, experts and their fellow citizens in reviewing how public actions actually affect them.
Mutual respect should be promoted through techniques that enable people to understand how they might feel if they were subject to some objectionable policy or treatment being proposed for others in a similar situation. There must be more effective mechanisms to investigate and remove discriminatory rules or procedures (such as those affecting district boundaries or ID requirements) that make it more difficult for particular groups in the community to exercise their electoral power. Reconciliatory support should be readily available to bring people with conflicting views together to explore common ground and avoid escalation, except in cases where some are determined to inflict injury on others.
To ensure people appreciate what it is to be members of their shared polity, there should be thorough explanations of what that membership entails in practice beyond any abstract talk of rights and responsibilities. Citizens of a country should be involved in reviewing the membership terms and conditions so that issues such as why new members may be needed, or what current members should or should not be allowed to do with money they have made in the country (e.g., moving it to offshore accounts), can be transparently addressed.
Communities’ capacity for democratic decision-making is inescapably linked to the extent to which their members can learn, reflect on, and exchange ideas in an objective manner. Although in a democratic society, no religious faith or secular ideology can be allowed to impose its doctrines on everyone, pluralism is only feasible if civil dialogues can take place as a result of all people possessing a shared understanding of what coherent reasoning and evidential examination entail.
Publicly financed, but independently run institutions are necessary to review and codify truth claims, so that trusted judgements on what merit belief are derived from the latest expert assessment and informed consensus, rather than arbitrary declarations or well-funded misinformation campaigns. This applies to every level of societal interactions where an authoritative resolution of conflicting claims is sought, right up to the Supreme Court, which can hardly lay claim to impartiality when, in virtually all the cases (since 1986) where the most politically contentious issues were decided on a 5-4 majority, members of the court backed the position favoured by the party of the president who nominated them [Note 1]. Instead of relying on the backing of the majority party in Congress, the court’s membership should be dependent on the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
And contrary to the myth that the freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct, the US has from the beginning set and enforced legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security. There is an urgent need to apply the principles of restriction already embedded in existing laws and practices to those who use a combination of the political powers they have gained, the money provided by businesses disdainful of the public interest, and the levers of manipulation over social media, to deceive the public and undermine the sharing of factual reports.
Honest dialogues are necessary but not sufficient to sustain democratic governance. Those with amassed power and wealth can always just ignore what citizens consider to be better options. Instead of handing all decisions to a few on the back of electoral contests that barely engage with the real issues, communities should have more quality-assured deliberative events that will empower them to select public policies and representatives. At the same time, in line with subsidiarity, more decisions ought to be delegated to those who are better placed at the local level to consider what should be done. Voting arrangements should also be improved so that people can rank their preferences rather than accept that in safe, first-past-the-post seats (the predicament facing most voters) their vote is highly unlikely to make any difference whatsoever.
As the widening of wealth inequalities exacerbate the power gap between the corporate elite and the majority gripped by economic insecurity, a fairer distribution of resources should be advanced through more extensive adoption of worker cooperative practices and strengthening of public provisions to counter-balance private iniquities. Limits for financial support for political candidates must be brought down to a much lower level; and anyone who thinks that it is a side issue should be reminded that, for example, between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the House of Representatives, over 80% of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won, while spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68% of that money coming from just 0.26% of the population [Note 2].
Libertarians have tried to argue that the retreat of state institutions would leave individuals with greater freedom, when in fact it would enable the most powerful corporations and the people with vast wealth or weapons to pressurise others into submitting to their demands. What is needed to strengthen democratic freedom is a two-fold enhancement of public accountability – with robust public bodies to hold individuals and corporations to account, and a network of state agencies that can investigate and take action against those holding political office, not excepting the president.
Communitarian and civic republican thinkers may not agree among themselves or with each other on every issue. But they do have in common an important set of ideas on how fair and vibrant communities can function democratically. These ideas are not about refining democratic procedures on the margins, but go to the heart of how any system that aims to share governing power equitably among the governed has to be sustained culturally and structurally. The actions outlined above are essential to revive democratic rule. Delays in their implementation will jeopardise any chance of democracy surviving the twin onslaught of plutocratic divisiveness and resurgent extremism.
Note 1: Rodriguez, L. (2016) ‘The Troubling Partisanship of the Supreme Court’, Stanford Political Journal: https://stanfordpolitics.com/the-troubling-partisanship-of-the-supreme-court-da9fd5a900ac
Note 2: Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 11) and (Chart 2).
Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics is available from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy
[A version of this essay appeared previously in the newsletter of the Institute of Communitarian Policy Studies, Washington, USA, 2018]