Democracy

This is a piece I wrote recently as coursework for a subject I take called Politics Communicated.

 

Democracy is founded on two principles of universal suffrage and the right to regular multi-party elections. In this way, citizens are regarded as equal before the law, though in early democracies women, slaves and foreigners were excluded from having citizenship status (McLennan 2005). Over time, democratic values of freedom of expression and equality have permeated beyond parliamentary politics to external institutions and schools of thought. This has prompted debate as to how far beyond traditional ideas of parliamentary democracy the ideology can be extended, if such extensions sustain the values and underlying principles of democracies.

 

Democracy originates from the Greek demos and kratos, suggesting its nature embraces the rule of the people. As Schudson identifies, integral to communal rule, whether by direct, representative or other models of collectivity, is “government by discussion”, with “conversation [lying] close to its heart” (Schudson 1997, p. 297). Such conversation “serves democracy” (Schudson 1997, p. 297) by encouraging participation in political negotiations, establishing relationships across levels of representatives, monitory bodies and individuals. However, Schudson (1997) argues that Habermas’ well-founded perspective of participators as equal, rational and autonomous individuals is too idealistic. In contrast, he argues that institutional norms and culturally or socially formed prospectuses, inherently govern public conversation, contributing to the play of power relations. Thus, conversation is not determinative but constitutive of a healthy democracy, and is inherently norm or civically governed.

 

However, many democracies currently stand in a state of constant flux that has created a great restlessness and instability regarding how politics is conducted, by what accounts, by whom, and in representation of which demographic. This has led to protests of misrepresentation, disputes of power and accountability, where current levels of disengagement in politics prove the need to strengthen the foundations for such activity. Such contemporary democracies are falling short of their potential and thus must be deepened to increase participation in both intra and extra-parliamentary politics, through established and new mechanisms, and to embrace a broader scope of what counts as political activity.  Many writers (Dahlgren 2009; Gaventa 2006; Hay 2007; Keane 2007) have debated how such breadth may be achieved and with what consequences, and in doing so support recognition of ways in which representative democracy can be strengthened through these extensions.

 

Politics involves the constant negotiation of power relations and thus is evident in institutions far beyond the elected parliament or the boundaries of the nation-state. Reestablishing what constitutes political activity helps to examine how democracy can and should be strengthened. Relying on representatives to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ and in their ‘best interest’, the current state of representative democracy quashes many potential avenues for political expression and activity. Such a state has emerged through the rise of market capitalism, as synonymous with neo-liberal democracy, encouraging freedom of speech, but also encouraging freedom from government intervention. In tandem, the consequences of diminished government and privatization result in a decline in economic stability, as well as a population left feeling powerless and unheard at the mercy of market forces. Dahlgren (2009) warns “democracy cannot be reduced to market logic” (Dahlgren 2009, p.21) in the throws of globalization and rising economism, where finance capital limits governments’ capacity to represent the interest of all citizens, “subordinating citizenship to the imperatives of [the financial] market” (Dahlgren 2009, p. 19). This poses the problem of how to extend the scope of a democracy where its people feel not only misrepresented but also completely invisible as a consequence of the neo-liberal ideology. Dahlgren (2009) argues that new ways must be found to “embody and express democratic values and principles” (Dahlgren 2009, p. 14) in these times. A byproduct of a growing capitalist society has been a widening of the gap between rich and poor, undermining the value of equality in a democracy. In keeping with the transitory nature of today’s communicative sphere these principles must be adaptable and malleable, and the most succinct way to establish such ideas is through models of question and response.

 

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Google+ Hang Out is an example of how “communicative abundance” (Keane 2007, p. 15) is deepening democratic competencies and mechanisms. To strengthen a democratic state, Keane suggests a third phase of democracy termed “monitory democracy” (Keane 2007, p. 1) that extends political activity to domains beyond conventional political spheres, more directly to citizens outside major political movements, enabling greater scrutiny of power from diverse institutions and from individual’s making their voices heard in the political arena. Providing an avenue for citizens to question and actively communicate with their representatives, aids in paving the way for deeper relationships between the parties and thus establishing greater trust in the representatives’ actions and policies. These entwined principles of representative and monitory democracies parallels with democratic involvement in Athenian times of direct democracy, where each individual (entitled males) had direct involvement in the governing process. In this way, the Prime Minister’s venture online has enabled the dynamics of monitory democracy to be paired with the directness of intimate relations and current representative mechanisms to achieve greater understanding between herself and her publics. This testifies to how “communicative abundance” (Keane 2007, p. 15) can elevate citizen engagement in democratic government through individuals’ voices being heard, that in turn signifies the relevance of parliamentary politics to citizens, and greater trust in politicians’ decisions as being in the best interests of the people.

 

Bringing publics and their political representatives together can strengthen democracy through extending it to diverse domains and locations. This involves extending democracy beyond the aforementioned two basic criteria of universal suffrage and regular multi-party elections. Domains of gender equality, the environment, sexual equality and the socio-economic divide are examples of politically driven debates that have come into the public sphere through mechanisms of monitory democracy. Same-sex marriage has encouraged great debate in the political area prompted by public platforms of online petitions, surveys, activist groups, petitions and local and extended campaigns in favour of homosexuals’ rights. This serves to show how increased attention to human rights agenda has highlighted the need to extend the scope of democracy, particularly in the age of the Internet and mobile communications where news is ubiquitous and constant. As a result, the rights of same-sex attracted couples to be married have become a highly debated topic within state and national parliaments and official bodies. In this way, elected representatives are more obliged to be listening and responding to public campaigns. Thus, public trust in elected representatives is able to find grounding through two-way, symmetric communicative models, mobilized through communicative technologies and a cohesive understanding of how to act in the best interests of the people through engaging in authentic, inclusive political debate and activity.

 

Keane (2007) and Hay (2007) do not dismiss the importance of parliamentary deliberation in maintaining democratic governance. However, both are acutely aware of “a new individuated lifestyle politics” (Hay 2007, p. 25) that has emerged through awareness bodies and monitory media. This “lifestyle” can be expressed through the rise of political consumption (Keane 2007) and ethical, environmental or social reasons for boycotting or purchasing products. Schudson’s (1997) notion of “publicness” (Schudson 1997, p. 297) assumes openness to any method of increasing public engagement in politics, and such engagement should be considered as positive and encouraging. The importance of an individual’s actions can be profound and is sometimes lost in the heat of intra-parliamentary debate where a party is constantly trying to stay in or regain, power.

 

For Dahlgren “the priority of economic criteria over all other values or modes of reasoning” (Dahlgren 2009, p. 20) is “danger[ous]” to democracy as its reasoning is being applied to the major political arena alongside workplaces, universities, schools and other external institutions. A key example of this is the power of the economic elites of and in the media, and in turn, their power to shape parliamentary political agenda. These powers have the capacity to spread ideas and distort political intentions that manipulate citizens and politicians alike, primarily as “democracy [comes] to mean more than elections, though nothing less” (Keane 2007, p. 2). The economic elite overseeing the production and print of such communication governs the press’ constant scrutiny of policy, legislation and leaders’ actions and influences how politics is communicated to us. Keane (2011) explains the codependence of politicians, professional journalists and citizens as “mediacracy” (para. 4) where the tactic of making constant “announcements” becomes something of a governing imperative. It is here that monitory democracy has the potential to become problematic. The absence of institutional regulations and looming media saturation can see “profusion breed confusion” (Keane 2007, p. 21), with the ultimate effect of triggering widespread inattention and “a culture of unthinking indifference” (Keane 2007, p. 22).

 

Democracy “is a way of humbling the powerful”  (Keane 2011) and can be deepened through empowering local representatives to enable a greater sense of community and involvement. Additionally, the creation of what Gaventa (2006) calls a “cosmopolitan democracy” (p.27) sees democratic thinking transcend national and cultural borders through the formation of transnational bodies such as the United Nations, and monitory bodies that allow minority views to be heard. These “vertical forms of accountability and engagement” (Gaventa 2006, p. 27) knit publics together, “giv[ing] democracy its legitimacy as well as its vitality” (Dahlgren 2009, p. 12).

 

History has proven democratic principles to be robust but this does not make them immune to challenge and change. Twenty-first century democracies such as Australia are currently experiencing new modes of extra parliamentary political engagement, which make them susceptible to ongoing negotiations between elected representatives and their publics. Such an environment has the potential to further weaken democracy but equally creates new opportunities for deepening and strengthening democratic relationships and values.

 

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