The standard assumption in democratic theory has been that what makes democracies good is how democratic the regime is. A democracy is as good as it is democratic, is improving if its democraticness or degree of democracy increases and is in decline if it becomes less democratic. The normative question to democracy according to this assumption is, how democratic? Although probably often thought obvious, the standard assumption is in fact a radical and constraining one. (Dahl, 2010)
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Breaking free from ‘regime bias’ means to drop this assumption and to pose the normative question differently. What we should want to know is not just how democratic the democracies are but how good they are. The purpose of democracy is not to be democratic. It is to serve people. Therefore, the goodness of a democracy must ultimately sit in how well it serves people. Democratic constitutions emerge out of national histories, cultures and traditions and adapt and change with time. What works will necessarily depend on national circumstances, and what works in one country will not necessarily work in another. (Dahl, 2010)
There are two histories that can be told about democracy over the last hundred years. One is an obvious success story. Democracies have shown that they win wars, recover from economic crises, overcome environmental challenges, and consistently outperform and outlast their rivals. Of course, the progress of democracy over that time has not been entirely smooth or consistent. It has been haphazard and episodic: in Samuel Huntington’s famous image it has come in ‘waves’. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that, whatever the intermediate ups and downs, overall democracy has been the winner during the past century, to the point where it is possible to argue, as Francis Fukuyama did more than two decades ago, that democracy is the only plausible answer to the fundamental problems of human history. But alongside this story there is another to be told about democracy: one of pessimism and fear. No matter how successful in practice and over time, democracies have always been full of people worried that everything is about to go wrong, that the system is in crisis and its rivals are waiting to pounce. The onward march of democracy has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat of intellectual anxiety. Maybe all the good news is just too good to be true. Maybe democracy’s run of luck is about to come to an end. The political history of democracy is a success story. But the intellectual history of democracy is often hard to reconcile with this. It is preoccupied with the prospect of failure. (Sen, 2008)
You can see both these views of democracy at work in the world today. On the one hand, there is plenty of optimism around, much of it focused on the recent ‘Arab Spring’. Whatever the short-term wobbles (and it is already clear there are going to be plenty of those), it is not hard to %uFB01t the overthrow of autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt and the popular appetite for reform across the region into an ‘end of history’ narrative. It may take time, and it may not be pretty, but democracy is on the march, and spreading to those parts of the world that had previously seemed resistant to it. On the other hand, there is a lot of gloom about. Some of this comes from commentators who warn that events in North Africa and the Middle East are not necessarily what they seem: the fall of an autocratic regime in response to popular protests does not necessarily herald the arrival of democracy; sometimes it heralds the arrival of another autocracy, or of civil war. But there is a wider anxiety at work too, related to the recent performance of the world’s established democracies. For while it is true that the last century has been good for democracy, the last decade has not. Many of the leading democracies have been %uFB01ghting long and di%uFB03cult wars (in Iraq, in Afghanistan) that they do not seem to know how to win nor how to exit. Most western democracies are heavily in debt, thanks in part to these wars but also as a result of a global %uFB01nancial crisis they did much to bring about. Some (like Greece) are e%uFB00ectively bankrupt, and there are fears that others (Italy, Spain, Japan, maybe even the United States) are heading the same way. All democracies have found it very di%uFB03cult to know what, if anything to do about climate change. (Sen, 2008)
Here are the four fundamental challenges a system of government can face: war, %uFB01nance, natural disaster, and the existence of a plausible competitor. It is not clear at present that democracy is doing well in meeting any of them.
So there is a puzzle. All the historical evidence suggests that democracies ca cope with whatever is thrown at them. Yet at the moment the world’s leading democracies are struggling to cope with the really big problems that they face. On the one hand, democracy is meant to be the long-term solution for our present di%uFB03culties. On the other hand, our present di%uFB03culties seem to show that democracies are bad at long-term thinking.
How do we %uFB01t these two sides of democracy together? How do we know which story is right? Democracies o%uFB00er plenty of space for anyone who wants to spread doom and gloom. Newspaper open columns have to be %uFB01lled, airtime has to be occupied, and money is there to be made. Intellectuals, who are often long on time and short on money, are invariably the ones to do it. In a democracy, anyone is free to say that the system is not working but no one can be sure if it is true. In an autocracy, by contrast, it may be that everyone knows for sure the system is no working but no one is free to say it. That is one of the ways of telling the di%uFB00erence between them. (Barry, 2009)
Democracies are like %uFB01nancial markets in this respect. In any market there will always be some people who think it is overvalued—there has to be a seller for every buyer, even in a boom. And there will always be someone willing to turn these private doubts into a public theory of market failure. As the old joke goes, economists have predicted six of the last three recessions. Well, political theorists have predicted nine of the last three crises of democracy. Real crises of democracy don’t come along very often: there was perhaps one in the mid-1890s, there was certainly one during the 1930s, and probably again in the mid-1970s. But every decade has produced its crisis of democracy literature, even the decades we might think of as having been good for democracy. It is easy to forget, for instance, that in the mid-1980s, just before the great triumph of democracy, one highly fashionable work of political theory was Jean-Francois Revel’s How Democracies Perish (1984), which explained that western democracy was heading for the bu%uFB00ers and the Cold War was as good as lost. Reading Revel’s book now, with its classic intellectual anxieties about democratic decadence and moral inadequacy in the face of its more austere and ruthless rivals, it is hard not to laugh. (Barry, 2009)
Yet it is not much of a joke. The reason it is not funny is that economists did not predict the last recession, the really big one (the Great Recession as it is sometimes called). Or rather, a few did—like Nouriel Roubini, the self-styled Dr Doom—and these lucky prophets are now rich and famous. The problem is that before the crash happened no one was listening. In any successful system it is all too easy to discount the fears of people predicting disaster as simply the sound of a successful system in operation. It is the familiar problem of crying wolf. Any system that always has some people fearing the worst is liable to be taken by surprise when something really bad happens. Books like Revel’s are not just examples of bad prognostication. They also make the whole business of prognostication more di%uFB03cult by discrediting the genre. Yet just because Revel was wrong does not mean people like Revel are always wrong.
Democracy’s many purposes form a hierarchy and that it is possible to identify an ultimate purpose. ‘Democracy is for a purpose. It is (in the meaning ‘should be’) for the good of the persons who live under its governance. It is to help them to live in autonomy and security and to reasonably get on with their lives as they wish. And it is to enable them to trust that they and their children can live as their own masters also in the future. It is, in brief, for the freedom of the ordinary man. It’s freedom that democracy is lastly for. That provides a benchmark for the dimension of democratic quality. Democracies are as good as they are able to foster and protect the freedom of the citizens who live under their rule. (Barry, 2009)
Studies in the late 1990s showed that there is a strong relationship between how poor a district is and how much investment it receives. The most well off district, with more than 20 percent of the citizens, received just 4 percent of new investment, one-%uFB01fth what we might expect, given its population. The poorest district, with 2 percent of the population, received 5 percent of new investment, or more than twice as much as might be typical. Impoverished neighborhoods have used their newfound power to improve basic infrastructure. The percentage of city residents on the sewage system doubled within a decade to 84 percent, while almost every home now has running water. These are significant enhancements to people’s lives in a short space of time.
The participatory budget process “exerts a massive redistributive effect between the districts and favors investment in the poorest areas”; the objective is “to privilege the most underprivileged.” This is achieved partly because the greatest levels of involvement are in these districts. The per capita rate of participation is four times higher in the poorest areas, compared to the richest. Participation rates are high even for the near penniless, the bottom 6 percent or so of the population, a group that is non-existent politically in the United States. Social justice is built into this type of democracy, with the poor rewarded for their activism, unlike America’s system of governance where the demos is rarely seen and seldom heard. (Dahl, 2010)
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