Democracy’s opportunities

It’s horribly unfashionable to admit this but I’m a democracy enthusiast. Not just in the Churchillian ‘least worst’ form of government sense, or the Machiavellian hack sense, or the invade & crusade sense, or even the ‘best form of government that money can buy’ sense. I just enthusiastically believe that the health of a society is proportionate to the ability of its people to influence the exercise of power and to affect the decisions that impact on them.

We undersell democracy. We readily mistake it for the ritual of writing numbers in a box in reverse order of alienation. We forget the underlying ideal that all people can make educated and informed decisions about the direction and leadership of their state or nation. I suspect we do this because as individuals we feel that those decisions rarely have the intended consequences.

Democracy is not so much a set of processes as an ecology. The ecology of democracy is a set of interdependent relationships – between the people and the powerful, between those that govern and the checks and balances that are meant to govern them, between dollars and diversity, between information and those that seek to control it. For as long as the concept has been around, these relationships have evolved and been in flux. But like most ecologies the democratic one is now struggling to adapt to the seismic shifts in the world around it.

Over the course of the last century, the slow separation of the people from those who govern them has accelerated. Political parties have moved from mass movements to logistics operations, power has shifted from parliaments to executives at all levels of government, the public service has become politicised, presidential politics of image and issues management has trumped community concerns, vital checks and balances have been eroded or eliminated, taxpayer funded political advertising has become the norm, an over-concentrated media has become disproportionately influential, and money has corroded politics to the point where there are parallel political systems for the rich and the poor.

On top of that, the political toolkit has become so empty that there is very little that governments even claim that they can do any more. They manage the economy by trying to stay out of it, and they protect us from threats both real and imagined. Most of the social levers that governments once pulled or pushed on our behalf are covered in dust or cobwebs. The functions of government are so often outsourced to the private sector that they increasingly fall outside the responsibility, scrutiny and control of our elected officials.

But if you’re reading this you probably know all that. What would probably surprise you would be my confession that I am an optimist.

As I said, I believe in democracy. Democracy is not a concept that has peaked, and given way to an inexorable decline. The lesson I take from history is that a cycle of excess, outrage and reform is the norm – provided that the reformers are ready for their opportunities. As the excesses play themselves out the sense of ordinary outrage in a wide section of the community gradually builds.

Democracy is a progressive and a conservative issue. The trends that disturb me are not the product of one side of politics – they are the product of a federal Liberal and state Labor governments and governments of all characteristics in comparable countries around the world. I genuinely believe we are only a major scandal, a hung parliament, some visionary leadership or a unique alignment of the planets away from another of those rare but beautiful moments when short term political interests align with the long term good.

The challenge is not to create these opportunities but to ensure the ground is fertile when they come. Those of us who believe in a more fair and equitable society must develop an agenda and be ready with the mechanisms that will deliver on that. We must articulate reforms across the whole democratic ecology – from campaign finance to checks and balances to access to media and the flow of information – and present them coherently and implement them as the opportunities arise. We must reinvent the old idea of the ‘separation of powers’ in the context of today’s power and insist that the responsibilities of democracy can not be outsourced even when the functions of government are.

When governments are laid to rest and floods of information emerge about the abuses of process that have taken place under them, we must call it for what it is – a structure that needs reforming – and not allow it to be passed off as proof of the unique untrustworthiness of a particular group of people. We must look past the scapegoats, scandals, and point scoring to the structural problems. We must not just complain but seize each opportunity to put forward the mechanisms and reforms that will prevent each outrage from repeating itself and separate accountability from self interest.

It is not a project that is achieved through opposition. It is achieved by accumulating unlikely alliances until the sheer breadth of them becomes overwhelming. Democracy’s greatest strength is that it inherently privileges the many over the few – members of alliances need not agree on the issues of the day to agree on the need to be able to influence them. I know it’s horribly unfashionable, but I believe there’s a potential democracy enthusiast in everyone.