Don't give up on democracy just yet

Don't give up on democracy just yet
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According to the World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report, election turnout is declining across the world. Over the last 25 years, the average voter turnout rate has dropped by more than 10 percent. In the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, 48 percenet of those who had registered to vote did not actually cast a vote — that’s 95 million people who basically shrugged.

Yet calls to rally citizens to vote are met by a testing rejoinder — have we forgotten how easily democracy can be turned on its head by those adept at manipulating public opinion? It is with good reason that, following the Brexit vote and Trump’s election win, commentators began to talk about the coming of the era of “post-truth.”

If democracy is not to be fatally infected by the virus of misdirection, political leaders must act before it is too late. They face a three-fold challenge.

First and foremost, they need to recognize that democracy is dependent on a sense of togetherness among the people. The focus on getting the vote out as the “cure” for disengagement has led many to think that stoking a them-and-us agenda is the best way to stir more people up into participating in politics.

Instead of promoting polarization as a mainstream tactic, we need the civic equivalent of ecumenical outreach to recover a sense of shared mission. This will involve the use of empathy-raising engagement techniques to bring people together to work through their differences and explore possible consensus. From restorative justice to reconciliatory processes (used, for example, in Northern Ireland and South Africa), such techniques have a proven track record.

When it comes to a divisive issue like immigration, it should be remembered that people’s readiness to feel negative about newcomers tends to be inversely proportional to the extent to which they are acquainted with their presence, and therefore the way forward is not to keep people with different backgrounds apart, but increase the opportunities for them to meet and mix through congenial community-based activities, protected from provocation and intimidation.

On the second front, democracy must be robustly underpinned by objective arrangements through which people with contrasting views can resolve their differences. There can be no coherent public discourse if, in line with laissez faire mantra, lies, dogmas, and dismissals of research findings can freely spread with the support of corporate funding, extremist propaganda, and cyber dissimulation. What legislators should put in place instead is public education on the standards and procedures for belief assessment, supplemented by support for impartial research and reviews to adjudicate disputed claims.

Furthermore, the rhetoric around “freedom of expression” must be subject to a reality-check to remind everyone that the law already takes a firm stand against irresponsible communication in the forms of incitement to lawlessness; obscenity; unauthorized disclosure of private information; and damages to national security.

Far from standing back from the systemic circulation of falsehoods, public authorities must engage in a much more consistent formulation and enforcement of legal restraints to ensure that deception of the public is not a premium electoral strategy.

Thirdly, no politician should pretend that the vastly uneven distribution of power and resources in society does not undermine democracy’s ability to serve all citizens equally.

Between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the House of Representatives, more than 80 percent of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won. And spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68 percent of that money coming from just 0.26 percent of the population. The disparity in civic power fueled by widening economic divisions has to be targeted as a priority threat.

Volumes have been written about rules for fair voting and practices to enhance deliberative engagement; they just need to be implemented to empower citizens to take part on a fair and informed basis. Public accountability must be substantially strengthened to protect whistleblowing; advance transnational rule of law to counter manipulations via operations abroad; and root out blatant conflict of interest and abuse of power.

And it cannot be right that, in virtually all the cases (since 1986) where the most politically contentious issues were decided by the Supreme Court on a tight 5-4 majority, members of the court backed the position favored by the party of the president who nominated them. Membership of the ultimate custodian of impartial justice must surely depend, not on partisan support of one party, but on majority support from both parties.

The diagnosis on which the broad prescriptions set out above are based, along with the 40 detailed recommendations setting out how they are to be taken forward, are to be found in my forthcoming book, “Time to Save Democracy.” After four years of exploration with fellow researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, the book reviews the failure of western governments to deal with the onslaught on democracy in recent decades, and sets out specific actions to revive democratic governance.

Despite the cynics, we must not be hasty in giving democracy the boot when what it needs is a strategic reboot.

Henry Tam is a specialist in democratic development. He has been University of Cambridge’s director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, and head of Civil Renewal with the last Labour government in the UK. His latest book, “Time to Save Democracy: How to Govern Ourselves in the Age of Anti-Politics,” (Policy Press, 2018) will be available in the U.S. via the University of Chicago Press (from 2018).