Democracy: The Genie is out of the bottle 

Equality and freedom are two core component of democracy. Whether it’s me, you or Malcolm Turnbull walking into that polling booth on election day – everybody’s vote is equal and we are free to vote however we like.

But there’s s lot more to democracy than that. In the often quoted words of American President Abraham Lincoln:

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The concept of democracy has been around for thousands of years, but the way it works in practice has started to change this century. And that change has seen the average person in the street unwittingly gain more power in the political process – here’s how…

The balance of power in a democracy

A democracy is arguably the only model of government that aims to distribute power equally – to give everyone an equal voice, an equal say. But history has shown that we – the people – are not particularly good at holding on to democracy.

Democracies have risen and fallen over the centuries.  And when they’ve fallen, it’s been pretty much the same story every time – the average punter has let the balance of power that exists between the rights of the individual and the rights of the government shift too far in favour of the government. While this sometimes happens as a violent coup, more commonly it happens as people give up freedoms – like their right to privacy – one at a time. In the words of the 20th century’s most famous enemy of democracy, Mr Adolf Hitler:

“The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time. To erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

Historically, one of the reasons that people have let democracy slip away from them is that they have taken it for granted.

In Australia today, many people take democracy for granted because they misunderstand the crucial role that democracy plays in controlling so many key aspects of our daily lives. From what we learn in school, how we drive, how much pay we take home right through to which foods we are able to buy at the supermarket – there is scarcely an aspect of what we do that isn’t impacted by legislation which is created and managed by the government – and therefore ultimately controlled by the democratic process. And yet rather than embracing democracy – people are disillusioned by it.

Disillusionment with democracy

The main institution that most people associate with democracy is their right to vote for a Member of Parliament (an MP) to represent their area (or electorate). That MP – at least so the theory goes – takes their place in the House of Representatives and should be a voice for the people of their electorate. And through that MP – so the theory continues – we all have a say and a vote in how our country is run.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. But in practice, when we head to the polling booths these days – unless you vote for an independent – your vote is normally for one of two political parties rather than for someone to specifically represent your electorate.

When you combine this with the fact that elected MPs often act like they are voted in to rule over us rather than to serve us – the result has been many that many Australians have lost faith in the very concept of democracy, feeling both that their vote doesn’t actually represent their views and that those entrusted with political power through their vote are not using that power particularly well.

In the last federal election, despite it being compulsory to vote, the Australian Electoral commission estimate that one in five eligible voters didn’t vote! And one in four young voters didn’t even bother to enroll.

In fact, in a Lowy Institute poll earlier this year, only 65% of Australians felt that a democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. And among 18 to 29 year olds, it was under 50%. When the Lowy Institute delved into the reasons for this – it turned out that it wasn’t that people thought we should become a fascist state. In fact, the most common reason cited for not believing in democracy was:

“democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society”

Since democracy as an institution was intended to achieve the exact opposite of this – then the most important thing that this poll tells us is that there is something very wrong with the way we are ‘doing’ democracy today in Australia, and that if we don’t lift our game, we are at risk of losing it.

The good news is that although many don’t realise it, the face of democracy has been changing this century – and strangely enough, as a result, the balance of power has been shifting back in the people’s favour.

The changing face of democracy in the 21st century

The forgotten pillars of democracy

Despite the fact that the role of the average punter in the political process is often associated almost solely with our right to vote, the reality is that there are a number of other core principles of democracy that we often forget about – including our right to freedom of information and freedom of speech.

Our ability to take advantage of these freedoms has changed drastically this century – and that change has brought about what is arguably one of the biggest shifts in the way democracy works since Aristotle first said “Let’s have a show of hands” back in Ancient Greece. This shift has happened not through our antiquated parliamentary houses and the parliamentarians who sit in them – but through the information revolution brought about by the internet. Thanks to the internet, we now have far greater:

  • Freedom of Information through ready access to unfiltered primary sources of information around the Globe; and
  • Freedom of speech through an ability to both voice our opinion and connect with others in a way that we never have before.

And many politicians don’t like it.

Politicians are quite happy to talk philosophically about the importance of ‘Freedom of information’ and ‘Freedom of speech’ – because in days gone past, these were principals which in practice would cost an individual a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to use. This dissuaded most from doing so – and instead we all had to rely on the ‘fourth estate’ – the media – to check out and validate politicians’ claims and press releases.

This meant that the average punter had very little – if any – opportunity to personally check out whether what politicians were telling us was true. And we had very little opportunity to have a say about what was going on – other than through an organised protest march or perhaps a letter to the editor or your local MP. The media acted very much as an information filter – and on the whole , we had no option but to believe them and hope that they were doing their job to validate facts, identify discrepancies and tell us what need to know to make an informed judgment about who is running the country.

(Given the quality – or lack thereof – that comes out of some of the mainstream media outlets today, a number of whom seem to act more like extensions of the government’s press office than newspapers –  this is somewhat disturbing.)

This century however, with so much information readily available on the internet, we don’t have to rely on the media to do our fact-checking for us. Each of us can download an individual politician’s expenses from the Department of Finance and see for ourselves exactly how many chopper rides they’ve taken. And once accessed, we can readily share this information with people around the globe – both known to us and unknown to us – in a matter of seconds.

The boundaries have shifted

Greater freedom of information and freedom of speech has brought about a shift in the boundaries of the democratic power-base. We – the people – have unwittingly claimed back some of the power that has been stripped away from us over the years. Politicians don’t have to wait for a poll now to hear what people think – they can go online and read all about it – in online comments on main stream media news site, on independent news site like the AIMN, on social media, on blogs – the list goes on. 

Where previously politicians could cultivate a relationship with key people in the media, and to some extent manage and control what was presented to the general populace and what was amplified – this has now become a lot more difficult. We now have a far greater say in what we think is important than we did before.

This shift in the balance of power has literally brought governments down. You need look no further than the recent Arab Spring democracy uprisings in the Middle East, which many argue would not have happened without social media.

Of course anything powerful can be used both for good and for bad – and we have also seen examples of how the internet and social media has been used to harm. But even taking that into account, the power to have a say in the destiny of our nation is now at least partially back where the founders of democracy intended it to be – in the people’s hands.

We now have REAL freedom of information and REAL freedom of speech – where previously we just had it in theory. Ok, maybe ‘real’ is a bit strong – we are living in the age of ‘on-water matters’ after all. So let’s just say that our ability to exercise freedom of information and freedom of speech is much greater now than it ever has been.

The Genie is out of the bottle

The internet – or information Genie –  is out of the bottle, and governments around the world are feeling the pinch, and rushing to do what they can to get that Genie back under control again.

This change is upsetting the political apple-cart – and there are those in power who don’t like that they can no longer control the narrative quite as well as they used to be able to. Our recently dethroned ex-prime minister Tony Abbott was well known for criticising twitter – calling it ‘electronic graffiti‘ and Australia ‘at its worst‘. And the government of Nauru recently shut down social media primarily to silence opposition.

The challenge that we now face is to understand and take advantage of this power shift, to use this Genie to correct the boundaries around our government’s power and restore the balance.

With these newly accessible freedoms, we can more actively participate in democracy – we can drive change from the bottom up instead of waiting for our politicians to get out of their hermetically sealed bubbles steeped in outdated political traditions. Without these freedoms, we risk going back to a nation fed on what the media tells us, blithely oblivious to key aspects of what our government is doing on our behalf and in our name.

There’s more to this…

Politics is not something many people talk about often. Democracy even less so. There’s a lot more to cover on this topic, so I’ve split the discussion on this into four articles – this one plus a further three – coming soon – which will cover:

  • Voting: it’s all about the money
  • Information: it’s all about control
  • Democracy: it’s all about you.

And finally – remember curiosity didn’t kill the cat, complacency did

One of the things our disengagement with democracy has done is to make many feel disempowered – like the things that are happening in the world today, or even just in our nation, are somebody else’s problem, that there is nothing that we can do to fix them. They aren’t somebody else’s problem. They are our problem.  And there is plenty that each of us can do. Many pollies want us to stay out of it, to stay disengaged – a public that doesn’t ask questions doesn’t create problems. 

But heed this warning from a previous president of the United States – John Adams:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long……There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

The way to stop this from happening is to get and stay engaged with what is going on politically. To have your say. To engage with others about real issues. 

Public opinion matters big-time now – arguably more than it ever did. And you play a role in forming that opinion every time you have a conversation with someone about national and global issues. It turns out we really are all only separated by six degrees – even less so within an individual country. This means that the conversations you have with your friends, family, colleagues and even online connections matter. Whether those conversations are in person, on Facebook, on a news site, a blog or on Twitter –  it’s those conversations that change public opinion. And changing public opinion impacts the way our government acts.  

That’s true democracy in action.   

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6 comments

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  • Democracy is rule by the people–the rest of Lincoln’s phrase is rhetoric–and it is a matter of degree.

    I think your premise is quite incorrect. Democracies do not suicide. Modern democracy begins with the US only two centuries ago. There have been more since then and experience shows that an established democracy is as tough as old boots, that the people do not, perhaps never, give it away. You think the opposite–what’s your evidence?

    I see, on the contrary, that the degree of democracy constantly increases. Each time a gerrymander is rectified, or an ombudsman is installed, or the determination of electoral boundaries made independent from the legislature, or PR replaces majoritarian, democracy is increased. In the established democracies, over the last 150 years, such increases are countless.

    This is worth pondering: each increase in democracy is an act passed by one or two legislatures. By each such legislative vote the politicians, who are professional power brokers, give away power to the people.

    May I say that I find your posts are too long. Too much to read, too many themes. Here I am only commenting on your first couple of paras and there is plenty of meat in that topic.

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    • Mike. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Here are my thoughts in response to yours:

      You said my premise was incorrect – that democracies don’t suicide. That wasn’t s premise of my article. It was a warning at the end from a quote of a former US president. And while I cannot know what was in his mind when he wrote it, I presume it was due to the number of democratic poltiical models that have died over the centuries – which is true. If you don’t believe me – or him – feel free to do your own research into this.

      You said modern democracy began with the US only two centuries ago. I guess that’s true if you limit modern democracy to being American democracy. But even they modelled their democracy on those before them. Australian democracy was modelled from the British system which has been developing since the 13th century. So I’m not entirely sure where you got your premise from – unless you are limiting your sphere of reference solely to the political history of the United States. Even then I think you would find that there were ‘democratic’ models of a sort that operated in Native American cultures.

      You say that ‘the degree of democracy’ increases citing changes in rules, regulations and legislation as your justification for this claim. I would argue that simply because there are more laws around democracy that this does not mean that the concept of democracy – government by the people – has been strengthened. In at ,east some of the cases you mention, you could argue that those rules actually took democratic power away from the people and didn’t increase it.

      You said my posts are too long. Length is a relatIve, not an absolute. And quite frankly, it’s my call as to what goes in them not yours. If you don’t like them – nobody is forcing you to read them. You didn’t pay for them. Simply move on if you don’t want to keep reading.

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      • I took it you were using the word democracy in the usual sense. The sort that applies in Australia, the sort that involves, as you put it, the “right to vote for a Member of Parliament (an MP) to represent their area (or electorate).”

        Democracy, in this usual sense, has only been around for two centuries, the USA being the first.

        I intended my comment to refer to your early paragraphs. For example: “Democracies have risen and fallen over the centuries. … more commonly it happens as people give up freedoms – like their right to privacy – one at a time.”

        Which democracies have fallen as people gave up their freedoms?

        And: “Historically, one of the reasons that people have let democracy slip away from them is that they have taken it for granted.”

        People could only take it for granted where it is long standing. Have you a single instance where, in such an established democracy, it has so slipped away?

        As far as I can see, democracy is tough—can’t kill it with an axe. Or even an axis: after WW2 the European states occupied by Germany restored their democracies as soon as they were allowed.

        “I would argue that simply because there are more laws around democracy that this does not mean that the concept of democracy – government by the people – has been strengthened.”

        Yes of course. Indeed it is likely that new laws tend in the direction of inhibiting people power. The legislators are professional power brokers. It’s their job to accumulate power.

        “In at least some of the cases you mention, you could argue that those rules actually took democratic power away from the people and didn’t increase it.”

        Actually I don’t think you could so argue. If such cases exist they must be very rare. For example it wouldn’t be possible to mitigate a gerrymander without the politicians losing, and the people gaining, some power. Over the last 150 years countless gerrymanders have been mitigated—probably at least once in every polity. The politicians relinquished power—and the degree of democracy increased. In established democracies (in the usual meaning of the word) the power of the people increased by the pollies giving it to them.

        There are perhaps 200 national and sub-national established democratic polities with perhaps 300 houses of legislature. I can’t think of a single one where the people gave up their freedoms or let democracy slip away. On the other hand, incremental increases in democracy of the type I mentioned would have occurred in them all. In total, probably thousands of instances. In each instance in each legislature the pollies raised their hands and said aye to a bill that gave away power to the people.

        The people were not paying attention when these democratic improvements occurred. In the overwhelming majority of instances no one, outside of narrow political circles, was aware of them.

        It seems to me that history shows that when the people make such a gain in democracy they do not relinquish it. That is: in the established democracies, far from slipping away, democracy always increases, never decreases.

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