If the people do not lead, democracy is a ruse

Alfred C. Snider

Dr. Alfred Snider is a professor at the University of Vermont. He has published six books in the last ten years and has done communication and debate training in over 35 countries around the world, recently in places like Finland and Iraq.

Egyptians emerge triumph when Hosni Mubarak stepped down as President.

Egyptians emerged triumphant when Hosni Mubarak stepped down as President.

There seems to be a broad consensus that democracy, in its many forms, is the form of government that progressive states should have. Whether it is parliamentary, federal, regional or other types, many agree that it is best to let the people decide through free and open elections and that this will lead, hopefully, to good governance. I largely agree with this, but to me a crucial and often overlooked variable is the role that individual citizens take in their participation in various forms of democracy.

The theory is that if the people are the final arbiters of the distribution of power and if their will is respected by elected representatives, then governance and the policies adopted will be better, even if not perfect. When leaders and elected representatives have to answer to the people they will do a better job. Along with this, and crucially, the people will be able to articulate the best direction for the state based on their own goals and needs.

The assumption here is that citizens are playing their appropriate roles. They need to be informed about current events, government policies, the outcomes of these policies and the plans for the future. This assumes that they actively seek information, evaluate it critically and then speak out as well as vote in support of what they favor. After all, freedom of speech is useless if no one has anything to say, and the right to vote is not valuable unless you are voting for something you know about and believe in.

I believe that in many societies these basic standards are not being met. There are several reasons for this.

First, people are very busy with their everyday lives and their economic struggles. It takes time and effort to follow events, understand and evaluate them. It takes time to find out what candidates and parties are actually proposing (for the devil is often in the details) and how well they follow through on their supposed agendas. Too often citizens who are tired merely want to have a beverage and watch a sporting event instead, and those who do follow the “news” are often convinced that the latest movie or celebrity event are more important than they really are. They assume that they can learn enough from news stories that are too short to be substantive and often delivered by media outlets with a decidedly fixed perspective. The Internet may provide the ability for citizens to learn about “all sides” but it still takes time, and in any even remotely prosperous society time is the commodity most in demand. It simply does not get invested in citizen participation of the type I have identified.

Second, there is a sense in which a global, interconnected and multicultural world is complex and daunting to understand. This makes it even more difficult for citizens to comprehend realities and express their preferences. The media offers a dominating panoply of pundits who are “experts,” yet still totally disagree, leaving non-expert citizens to throw up their hands and express profound cynicism. Political figures play on this, offering slogan-oriented campaigns and promises without proposals to a political public that does not want to spend the time and effort to cut through to the real situation. When promises are not delivered, the response is to often cynicism with the political system in general. Thus, low involvement creates a shallow politics that generates increasing cynicism and apathy.

Third, our educational systems train future citizens to be passive consumers of information. They are put in situations where they listen to their teachers, who supposedly know what they need to know, and then are asked to spit mostly facts back on standardized tests. Creativity and individuality can be punished, and the active mental habits that they will need as citizens (discerning good evidence from bad, critiquing arguments made to them and learning to become advocates for their own viewpoints) are sadly neglected. Very little in our modern educational systems train young people to be strong advocates for their positions.

Fourth, occasional activism in a crisis is not sufficient. Very difficult situations may lead to mass protest and voter anger, and we have seen governments toppled by citizens who are unsatisfied with their rulers. One would hope that a new and informed citizenry will help guide these societies into meaningful democratic futures, but without the everyday habits of mind to engage in this process, such occasional protests may lead to some changes but perhaps not a true change in the way citizens interact with the political system. The ebullience of the “Arab Spring” may not lead to a new active citizen politics in the Arab world. Even if you vote, that does not mean you know what you are voting for. Some say “your vote is your voice,” but that is hardly true when you use your supposed vote/voice only every few years. An active citizenry must remain active for the body politic to remain healthy.

If we are frustrated with the politics we have in many developed countries, it could be because we have got the governments that we deserve. In the absence of true participation by citizens, interest groups and other blocs are likely to take their place by doing the lobbying and in many countries financing the campaigns. These groups will be beholden to their particular interests, not to the interests of the nation in general.

It is possible to reclaim your role as an active citizen at any time. Follow events, make your own decisions and then get involved at an appropriate level. Use your voice and your informed opinion each and every day. The Internet allows access to many different points of view and sources of information, survey them and come to your own conclusion.

It would be still better to train the next generation of citizens to take on this role as a mater of habit. Increasingly, we see this happening in many parts of the world. The increase in global academic debating activities and trainings is one sign of this. Whether at universities in Malaysia, middle schools in Los Angeles, or in debate clubs in Macedonia, millions of students on every continent are finding their voices and learning how to use them. Next weekend there will be the first international university debating championship in Arabic held in Qatar, hosted by QatarDebate. Africa now has a Pan African Universities Debating Championship. Ministries of education are increasingly aware of these needs and are moving towards more active modes of learning, such as small group problem solving, group discussion, mock trials and other learning practices that are educationally productive, highly engaging to the students as well as wonderful training for a future as active citizens. My own work is closely associated with all of these efforts.

In an age when the full promise of democracy has not been fulfilled, there is hope that a more active citizenry, encouraged by the needs of common people and enabled by improved educational techniques, can help improve the situation. I remain optimistic.

Photo courtesy of RIAN.RU.

This article is part of the New Asia Republic Editorial Series “Global Perspectives on Good Governance” under Special Projects. The series features the views of people who hold political office, those working in NGOs, military brass, academics and the man on the street from all over the world to shed light on what constitutes good governance and interpretations of the idea based on the unique socio-political and historical culture of any given country/state.