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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Are we in the age of the death of democracy?

Over the past several weeks, the death of democracy has been rattling around inside my head. For certain, it’s too soon to call the coroner. At the same time, many important questions remain unanswered.

For me, this exploration is a worthy one. I’m hoping the exercise will help me to better understand the whirling world around me… and perhaps, to better understand my small role in it.

Democracy – is it:

  • Aspirational?

  • Inspirational?

  • Expirational?

How do we measure democracy? What is democracy? Ask ten people and get ten different definitions.

For me, democracy is a notion, an ideal, some will say a myth… but something to strive for unceasingly. It is aspirational. This much is undeniable. We will never arrive at our destination, but constant pursuit of democracy remains central to our success, in truth, to our survival, as a society.

Democracy is not something concrete to touch and hold in our hands. Yet, we can see it in action. At times, we’ll swear we can taste it. In a great orator, we can certainly hear and feel it. In equal measure, we can smell it as it rots in front of our eyes.

Democracy is not just a vote. For me, Democracy is a voice.

Democracy is a belief that we have a voice that is heard and a voice that can make a difference.

Belief in that voice is at the centre of democracy.

How does this belief in the notion of democracy express itself? Perhaps more relevant to our current circumstances, how does failure in this belief express itself? What are the signals of failure?

Not often enough over the past 25 years, I’ve declared that the most important lesson I’ve learned working with educators, is that engagement is everything. Engagement is Everything! Until a student becomes engaged… until that student finds and forges a place within the community… until that student feels an inclusion, a sense of belonging to something larger than the self… nothing good happens. Nothing good can happen!

This is also true of society, in whatever form that takes. The strength of the notion of democracy, as one form of society, is that it maximizes the opportunity for members to engage. That engagement is measured in participation, in access, and in belief. The key here is that members must believe that the opportunity to engage exists. Failure in this is failure complete.

Symptoms that signal failure in democracy include:

  • Suppressed protests – if supported, promoted, and encouraged, protests do not signal failure. Rather, protests, when peaceful, reflect true democracy hard at work. Healthy protest reflects the existence of active dialogue between community members and leadership. Dialogue is always a good thing. The suppression of protest, however, poses enormous risk to democracy. Voice, and belief in that voice, and with it, democracy, are lost.

  • Riots – here’s where more questions arise. Are riots a cause of failure, or a symptom of failure, in democracy? To the extent that what stands behind riots is a loss of belief in the system, riots present no more than a symptom of something much larger and much more important than the events themselves.

  • Voter suppression – since the early days of this experiment called democracy, there have been manipulators who believe that the masses are not capable of knowing the right path. “We know best what’s right for you.” These people pay lip service to the notion of democracy, and then do what they want, whether commoners agree or not. In the extreme, these manipulators deprive citizens of the right to be informed, the right to participate, and the right to a voice. Loss of this voice is fundamental to failure in democracy. Inevitably, this loss will weigh heavily in the final judgement of democracy.

  • Economic exclusion – when structural barriers are sustained, across generations, against participation in the economy for large proportions of society, there can be no democracy for these people. They see no opportunity to advance themselves, to raise themselves out of poverty, to make meaningful contribution, to engage as active members of something larger than themselves. They see disparity and they feel despair. There is no reason for them to believe in a fantasy the rest of us call democracy. Skip the protests and go straight to the riots.

  • Health – in the absence of access to health care, by definition, there will be exclusion. The sick and the dead cannot participate. The sick and the dead cannot contribute. The sick and the dead cannot engage.

  • Education – character and values; civics and citizenship; critical thinking skills. The untrained and uneducated cannot think for themselves (perhaps that’s the real conspiracy). The untrained and uneducated cannot participate. The untrained and uneducated cannot contribute. The untrained and uneducated cannot engage.

  • Crime – poverty, restricted access to health care and education, concentration of wealth and power – all of these are foundational contributors to crime in our society, and a significant signal of failure in democracy. If the societal tent is a small one, you can bet that there will be a lot of people on the outside looking inside with anger. Build all the gates and walls that you can. Be assured, there will be prisoners on both sides. “The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

Symptoms, however, are just signals. For real and sustainable recovery, we must explore for root causes. Failure in this will see us only treating symptoms while our body politic rots from the inside out. Here’s what I see:

  • Leadership – a unifying leadership is critical to belief in the ‘myth’ of democracy. Divide and conquer is something, but that something is certainly not democracy. If I cannot identify with our leaders, why should I believe?

  • Preferential treatment – when wealth, earning power, and control over societal direction appears inordinately concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, why should I believe?

  • These next four come as a sequential package. When I see Lobby interests buying influence in government, I call Corruption and conflict of interest. What I don’t see is Integrity in the democratic landscape. What I don’t feel is Trust. Why should I believe? Unless and until Lobby money is banned from elections and government activity, there can be no trust and no belief. There can be no forward movement in our journey toward democracy. Banning the Lobby is a pivotal first step. Without it, the ideal, the aspiration, the notion of democracy remains mythical. The rest is window dressing. As each new veil of corruption is peeled off and removed, government as it now operates is laid bare, and democracy is rejected. The rest, as they say, will be history.

In the end, I don’t know if democracy is closing in on its expiration date, or still going through inspirational growing pains. It’s too soon to know if our current circumstance is a bump in the road, one more crossroad in a long journey, or a cliff? It is clear, however, that large numbers do not feel connection to our present iteration of democracy. They do not see how their own little pictures fit into the big picture. They feel a diminished commitment to the larger community. They are, as a result, lesser engaged, and do not believe that society makes a favourable difference for them.

When losing faith in society at large, people retreat into tribes, sometimes tribes of one. Misguided by opportunistic manipulators, they feel deprived of rights they never had in the first place. More importantly, their sense of deprivation leaves them empty of any sense of responsibility for those outside of their small tribes. “It’s my individual right to do this… or not to do that… and I bear no responsibility for the consequences of my action or inaction on you or anybody else. That’s your problem. You look out for you and I’ll look out for me.” A lot of shouting ensues, and intelligent discourse is stifled, if not censored. The dissenting voice is shut down and democracy is nowhere to be found.

As I look out on our society… indeed, all around me, I hear these same ominous declarations, and I see this same rejection of rights and responsibilities as two sides of the same coin. At a micro-level, this personal abdication is one of the clearest signals of failure in democracy. At a macro-level, when large and growing numbers of people lose their sense of belonging to something larger than the self, the death of democracy may well be close at hand. As I watch and listen, I think it is important not to confuse signals and symptoms with root causes. We must see past the rhetoric and shine a light on the rotting root causes. Failure in this is failure complete.

As for me, I have not lost hope. I do have a voice and I do feel that I can make a difference. I can only hope that there remain enough people who share these feelings so as to give our teenage democracy a fighting chance for survival, and maybe even success. Of course, these are only words, but words are my weapon of choice.

Is this the age of the death of democracy, or is democracy just coming of age?

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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