What is Democracy? (31): A Pathological Attention Seeker, Not an Inflatable Parliament

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. Robert M. Hutchins

Democracy is not being, it is becoming. It is easily lost, but never finally won. William Hastie

A democracy, contrary to any other form of government, requires continuous and massive popular attention. In other words, it requires a deep-rooted, strongly held, and widely shared democratic political culture. The large majority of the people have to believe in the moral, practical and theoretical value of democracy as a form of government. If this is not the case, then democracy inevitably dies. The people of a democracy may be divided on almost everything, but they must be united in the belief that democracy is the best way to resolve or contain their divisions; the best way to find the best and the most reasonable solutions to common problems, if such solutions are possible, and to avoid escalation of conflicts, if solutions are impossible.

Democracy has to be created and maintained everyday all over again. Every day, the voters have to control the government, to judge it, to take an interest in it. Democracy does not arise nor survive automatically and it’s not just inherited and passed on to the next generation without any effort. It has to be fought for, over and over again, against all kinds of internal and external elements, not the least of which is the fighters own fatigue and indifference. There is not a moment’s rest.

Democracy is first of all a conviction and a state of mind. Institutions such as elections or parliaments are relatively easy to install and even maintain. They will survive even when support dwindles. Institutions can even be imposed. It is much more difficult to create real political participation, because this implies the existence of political convictions and a democratic culture. This culture entails not only strong pro-democratic convictions and the willingness to actively participate in politics, but also respect for institutions that protect democracy, such as the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

The same is true when trying to promote democracy abroad. When engaging in such a project, the political culture is the most important thing to change. The effort to change political convictions should be directed in the first place at influential groups in society, such as the media, the military, the police, the judicial system, and the business class etc. It is very important that these people accept the values and institutions of democracy because they can do a lot of harm if they don’t. If they embrace a democratic political culture, then chances are high that the democratic institutions can function adequately and can help to generate a more widespread democratic culture.

But, ultimately, the large majority of the people has to be convinced, because democracy is the rule of the people, and the rule of the people is impossible without massive support. Elections can be imposed and can even be relatively fair – on the condition that the various elites have adopted the values of democracy – but the convictions and the support of the majority of the population cannot be imposed. This often requires a very long learning process and a process of discussion, persuasion, reform, education and construction.

The best way to create support is to guarantee the adequate functioning of democracy. Experience with a well-functioning democracy – even if it is a half-empty democracy – has a positive influence on the political views and behavior of the people.

Foreign intervention or imposition of “instant democracy” is indeed like “dropping an inflatable parliament (or pneumatic parliament) from a bomber plane”, in the words of Peter Sloterdijk. This will at best create an empty shell, a democracy which is indeed nothing but air. Democracy can only be the result of the will and activity of the people, although an empty shell is often better than nothing because it can create its own momentum. Democratic activity has a tendency to create its own support. Once there are democratic institutions, even institutions in which only a handful of people participate, we often see that people tend to be attracted by these institutions.

Of course, as indicated by the second quote above, democracy as attention seeker is an ideal. It’s never finished, not only in the sense that it has to be remade day by day, but also in the sense that citizen participation can always be improved. Many citizens don’t participate, even in the best existing democracies. Or they participate less than others and therefore have less and unequal influence.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s