Jon Alexander: Does Democracy Work For You?

In April 2022, a YouGov poll found evidence of a dramatic loss of faith in the ability of British democracy to serve the interests of voters. 78% of us feel that politicians understand our lives either “fairly badly” or “very badly”. 25% believe that major donors to political parties are the group with most influence in shaping policy, with ourselves, the voters, down at 6%. The phenomenon is not limited to Britain: in December 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that a median of 56% of the population across 17 “advanced economies” believed their political system needed major changes, or to be completely reformed, with Italy at 89% and the US at 85% (the UK in fact fared relatively well, at 52%). The answer, it seems, is pretty clear: democracy is not working for us. So where do we go from here?

One response is to say that the problem is not democracy, but us. That we have become spoilt, taking for granted what we have and forgetting the awfulness of the alternatives. This is the spirit of the Winston Churchill maxim that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” With anti-democratic strongmen increasingly throwing their weight around, with terrible consequences not just in Ukraine but around the world, it’s not hard to have some sympathy with this.

On that note, we might go one step further, acknowledge that democracy hasn’t covered itself in glory in recent years, but argue that a corner has been turned. “The West” has pulled together in the face of Putin’s aggression far better than might have been expected. NATO is resurgent; confidence in other Western institutions and approaches could well be set to follow.

But maybe, just maybe, we’re right, and democracy does need a fundamental reboot. And maybe, just maybe, it’s happening.

In Taiwan, what has arguably been the world’s most successful pandemic response has been led by what is arguably the world’s most open and participatory government. With an approach summarised in three principles – “Fast, Fun, and Fair” – Taiwan has in effect crowdsourced its response, tapping into the population to develop apps that would help manage the availability of PPE, running regular open policymaking and -review processes, and even setting up a telephone hotline to invite ideas that would then be celebrated on the national press conference. Cases and deaths have remained largely under control throughout, and at no point has there been a national lockdown.

In Chile, a 154-member assembly has just finalised the first draft of a new national constitution, set to replace the document drawn up during the Pinochet era when it goes to national referendum in September. With delegates drawn from all over the country and all walks of life, with equal gender representation and specific over-representation of indigenous peoples, and a drafting process designed to be open to input from quite literally everyone, this is a globally pioneering effort to reimagine the very concept of democracy.

And just across the English Channel, in January 2022, the new, permanent Paris Citizens Assembly met for the first time. A core part of the city’s governance structure, it is made up of 100 randomly selected Parisian citizens (with the calculation made to include refugees and migrants) coming together for a half day every week for a term of 18 months, with a remit that includes deciding the theme for 100 million euros a year of participatory budgeting, launching evaluation missions into existing policies, and commissioning smaller citizens’ juries to develop proposals on key issues.

Ultimately, the truth these examples speak to is that “democracy” is not just elections, not just politicians, not just what we have today. As per its derivation from classical Greek, democracy as “people power” is something that can and must change and evolve. The democracy we have right now might not be working for us. But the one that is emerging all over the world just might.

Jon Alexander is the author of CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. He will be discussing the question “Does democracy work for you?” with James Harding, Matt D’Ancona, Ece Temelkuran and Laura Osborne at KITE this June.