Democracy: What future?

Freedom and democracy are asserting themselves in all continents. But is democracy really safe?
International Futures Programme

Images of voters braving death to cast their ballots in elections across the world remind us that democracy, however imperfect, is not some tedious civic duty, but a victory over oppression. In this light, it might seem slightly ludicrous to worry about such bastions of freedom and stability as, say, the Scandinavian countries.

Yet, the governments of Denmark and Norway would argue that the tide of democracy ebbs and surges, and that complacency can allow liberties to be eroded. Both countries have set up parliamentary commissions to examine themes like democracy and power. They came to the OECD in October 2004 to discuss the question with other countries and experts.

And as one might expect from a meeting of “like-minded” people at this institution, the commitment to democracy may well be shared, even if there are differing views on where democracy is heading.

True, elections seem to be multiplying. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, for example, lists some 78 elections worldwide for the 1940s, but about as many again for 2004 alone. Barely two dozen of the world’s countries were democracies in 1950; today there are well over 100.

Yet, what is the nature of that democracy and what are the dangers? Reaction to dramatic events such as 9/11 revealed worries about the optimal balance between freedom and security, and provoked an examination of what democracy actually means.

The word comes from Latin translations of Aristotle’s demos, meaning “territory” or “people” as a group, and kraiten, which means “rule”. But whatever its linguistic roots, democracy as we understand it today is a product of the Enlightenment, based on what Kant termed autonomy, again from the Greek, a law (nomos) that you impose on yourself. In short, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This is practically synonymous with sovereignty in the popular imagination, but sovereignty, as the German philosopher Carl Schmitt argued, is the power to suspend the law and to place oneself above the law, or, as Jacques Derrida wrote: “The abuse of power is constitutive of the idea of sovereignty”.

It is a tribute to the power of the democratic ideal that when governments deny democracy, they feel obliged to claim that it is for some greater good. Suspending elections, for instance, is presented as a bid “to protect democracy”.

Today, many see democracy as a form of modern civilisation. Beyond the mere freedom to vote, it incorporates accountability of government, civic freedoms, the rule of law, and so on. Some see democracy as a form of identity and a byword for market freedom, which is not just to be shared, but protected and spread as a counterweight to tyranny.

A number of less spectacular and often conflicting phenomena are also modifying how we define and practice democracy. The debate is about the meaning of freedom on the one hand, and rights on the other. The treatment of gender issues and human rights, for instance, provoked animated debate among the Norwegians at the OECD meeting. One side argues that the increasing use of the law to oblige governments to grant or respect rights weakens democracy, because this gives power to courts that are nonaccountable to the citizens subject to their rulings. This is particularly so, some argue, if these courts are supranational, as in the case of human rights courts in Europe. This leads to fears that we are moving from the rule of law to the rule of lawyers, or the magistrature over the legislature and so to a dilution of state sovereignty.

There are those that welcome this evolution, since legal instruments can protect gender and minority rights in the face of government inaction or hostility, even in the most egalitarian societies.

There was no agreement at the meeting on the explanation for growing political apathy among the public in some countries. Election turnouts in the US and France may have bucked the trend in recent times, but in general, voting trends seem to be down. Optimists argue that citizens generally trust their governments to do the best they can, and do not feel the need to vote to ensure this. Pessimists say that the public feels it has little or no influence on national and international decisionmaking and is discouraged from participating by the complexity and lack of transparency of political processes.

But what about too much democracy, or “voter fatigue”? This, critics say, occurs when too many votes are held back-to-back; a general election followed by a referendum, for instance. Some countries, such as Switzerland and the US, have a tradition of direct democracy, with frequent calls to “let the people decide” on a number of key issues, from constitutional changes to electing a sheriff. Supporters say this helps reengage voters and disciplines elected officials. Critics say it weakens representative democracy, appealing to only hard-core voters, so destabilising elected programmes.

Economic governance is naturally affected by political participation: if participation declines, vested interests may be better able to control the agenda, possibly to the detriment of the weaker sections of society. And if the main government and opposition parties share essentially the same views on managing the economy, a major source of political debate and identification disappears. Apathy sets in, which can undermine democracy by providing opportunities for extremists to set the terms of the political debate.

That is why citizens have to be informed of all sides of a debate, and have the skills to use information, participants agreed. This makes the media vital to a thriving democracy, but are they playing too great a role in shaping the political agenda? A sensitive question in a democracy, of course, since the public can probably decide for itself. At the same time, for some, the media risks trivialising debate for its own interests, and, as the fourth estate, replacing citizen participation as the major means of influencing policy. The concentration of media power within the industry and cost-cutting within the information media, with fewer reporters and greater reliance on a few news agencies and official sources, also worried many participants.

A more optimistic argument is that new media like the Internet, with its personal web logs, or “blogs”, will offer a credible alternative to news conglomerates. The most difficult aspect may be exploiting the interactive potential of the new technologies. The temptation for politicians and major networks will be to use web sites, etc, simply as a further means to inform the public, not as a tool for listening to them, answering their questions or addressing their concerns. Indeed, the possibility of these new technologies being used to increase powers of surveillance and control represent a new and dangerous risk for democracy.

Schools have a role to play in teaching people how to find and evaluate the information needed for intelligent participation in the democratic process. Studies show that political participation tends to increase with educational level, but paradoxically, political participation is declining while the educational level of society as a whole is improving. Governments can also help by making voter registration simpler, but national experience on continuing participation differs: in the US, many young people who voted at the first election following their registration did not vote afterwards, while in Europe people who vote in their first possible election continue to vote thereafter.

So, does democracy have a future? The spread of democracy certainly seems to demonstrate its appeal. Still, the overall conclusion of this conference was that while democracy is not in danger in the OECD countries, even “good” democracies can go bad if worrying aspects are not identified and tackled in time.


The October 2004 OECD conference on the future of democracy raised a number of issues that will be treated in the International Futures Programme’s forthcoming publication, 10 Questions We Should Ask About Democracy. See for more details, and to find links to the reports mentioned in this article.

©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005

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