Rethinking democracy for democratic renewal


21st Forum 2000 Conference

If contemporary democracies are going to compete with autocratic systems on the world stage while avoiding their own suicide through polarization and paralysis fueled by untrustworthy information, they need a radical renovation that responds to the forces undermining them, says analyst Nathan Gardels.

Above all, such a renovation must engage the participatory power of social media and the increasing preference of publics for direct democracy by designing new, impartial institutions and practices that interpose a deliberative check against the false claims, misinformation, intolerance and magical thinking that come along with the immediate wash of networked popular sentiment, he writes for the World Post.

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).

Democratic renewal in this season of democratic discontent will require reclaiming some basic truths about the democratic project, argues George Weigel (below), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. Five such basic truths must be reworked into the texture of public life, he writes for National Affairs:

  • The first truth is that, human folly excepted, nothing in history is permanent, including democracy. Democracy is not ordained by history as its final and inevitable end. Democracy is, by its nature, an experiment: an experiment in a people’s capacity for self-government. Democracies can fail, as the example of the Weimar Republic in interwar Germany should remind us….
  • The second truth to be reclaimed is the truth that democracy is not a machine that can run by itself. Or, to use a post-industrial analogy, democracy is not a hardware that can be run by any software……The vitality of the public moral culture is crucial to the democratic project because it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make free politics and free economics work so that the net result is genuine human flourishing. The machinery of democracy and the market cannot produce that flourishing on its own or by itself. …
  • The third truth to be reclaimed, or perhaps in this case asserted for the first time since the Sixties, is that liberal-democratic politics and free or liberal economies cannot be sustained by a liberal cultureif by liberal culture one means a culture of expressive individualism and exclusivist secularism. …So democratic renewal in the 21st century will require a serious rebuilding of the culture of what used to be called “republican virtue,” in which the claims of individual rights are once again linked to responsibilities, and the promotion of the common good is once again understood to be everyone’s civic responsibility. …
  • The fourth truth to be reclaimed involves the free economy. …The question is how to temper and direct markets so that the vast energies let loose by economic freedom contribute to rebuilding the foundations of civic life, rather than eroding those foundations through that form of self-absorption called “consumerism,” in which human worth is measured by what a person has rather than who a person is. …
  • The fifth truth to be reclaimed in the project of democratic renewal is the truth that serious criticism must be responsible criticism….



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