Ideas and prospects for democratic renewal


The assumption that autocracy is a feasible alternative to liberal democracy is understandable. When representative democracy fell before, it fell in that direction. It also fits the trend of events in places such as Russia and Turkey, notes analyst Janan Ganesh. But there are other dark futures to which our system can succumb, including direct democracy, he writes for The Financial Times:

This month, the Pew Research Center published a global survey of attitudes to democracy (left). In the west 80 per cent of people said representative democracy was a good thing. Just 13 per cent said the same about a strong leader ruling without parliament or courts. Anyone who assumes a strict choice between the two models would, at this point, relax. The trouble is that 43 per cent approved of a system in which “experts, not elected officials, make decisions” (Britain and America were in line with that average) and fully 70 per cent wanted one where “citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law”.

In the face of populist fantasists and authoritarians, liberal democrats must draw inspiration from Cicero and Jefferson and reaffirm the wonders of democracy, argues Philip Collins, the author of “When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches That Shape the World – and Why We Need Them.” Albert Camus (left) once defined democracy as the system for people who know that they don’t know everything, he writes for The New Statesman:

The populist utopian has all the answers. The omniscient figures have been, variously, priests, philosophers, intellectuals, scientists, or the party. Plato believed in the rule of the sages, the Stoics in the power of reason, the 17th-century rationalists in metaphysical insight and the 18th-century empiricists in science. The populist believes in himself.

Democratic discontent and disconnect is rife in the leading liberal democracies, including the United States where citizens “are currently trapped in a politics of grievance that is exploited by leaders at both ends of the ideological spectrum,” according to Carl Gershman (right), president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

To get beyond the negativism and divisiveness of the current period, we need to cultivate — unashamedly — a feeling of gratitude for our country, which remains the hope of people everywhere who cherish freedom and human dignity, he writes for a Washington Post symposium on how to fix American democracy:

One way to awaken this sense of gratitude would be to establish more links between Americans and people in other countries who are fighting for the basic freedoms that we enjoy. We can also try to build upon the expressions of affirmation and solidarity that began to surface after Charlottesville and the NFL controversy. May the present crisis stir new voices to celebrate the liberty and pluralism that remain our country’s glory. 

Our democracy is suffering from crippling polarization and now tactics of political intimidation reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy, with the same political fear and indulgence that gave McCarthy free rein to roll out his demagogic campaign of anti-communist scare tactics until his fraud and bullying were finally exposed and confronted, Stanford’s Larry Diamond writes in his inaugural Democracy Square blog for The American Interest.

These days, partisanship is often totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial, David Brooks writes for The New York Times:

Last week my colleague Thomas Edsall quoted a political scientist, Alex Theodoridis, who noted this phenomenon: “Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious, attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways.”

When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments. Everything is shaped on a deeper level, through the parables, fables and myths that our most fundamental groups use to define themselves.

Myths and false narratives also contribute to muddled political thinking, writes Barton Swaim in a Wall Street Journal review of ‘’How to Think’ by Alan Jacobs:

The trouble, he suggests, is this: We think in keywords, metaphors and myths. By “myths” he means what the philosopher Mary Midgley means by the term: “imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.” There’s no use pretending we can somehow free ourselves from these linguistic features: They are the means by which the human mind functions. But metaphors and myths get in the way when allowed to sit too long; they stagnate. Mr. Jacobs offers the terms “intersectionality” and “white privilege” as words relied upon so heavily by their users that they become hindrances rather than aids to thought.

While democracy embodies universal values, it exists in a particular national context, what Vaclav Havel called the “intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning,” according to the Coalition for Democratic Renewal (right).

“The defense of democratic values is not a luxury or a purely idealistic undertaking. It is a precondition for decent, inclusive societies; the framework for social and economic progress for people throughout the world; and the foundation for the preservation of international peace and security,” the group added in its founding statement, promising to “serve as a moral and intellectual catalyst for the revitalization of the democratic idea.” RSVP

Liberal democracy will regain its former health only if voters are convinced not only of its intrinsic merits but also of its superiority to all the possible alternatives, argues Marc F. Plattner, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy (above) and former vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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