Democracy, just for you, just on time

I wish there was a “just for you, just on time” form of democracy. There is clearly a market for one.

Democracy is a little like saving. It’s a slow process, you experience setbacks at times, and your ultimate goal may seem unreachable all too often.

You may find yourself falling for shortcuts. Voting for solutions that you know are just quick fixes; unsustainable in the long run. It’s like taking a loan, payback time always arrives.

If that doesn’t work, you may turn to betting. You put your chips on your lucky number in the voting roulette, and hope for the best. For one man – be it Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron or someone else – to change it all for the better. Preferably overnight.

Or even worse, you don’t vote at all.

I was taught that voting was a responsibility, not only a right. Finland was the first country in the world to adopt full universal suffrage (not only the right to vote, but also to be a candidate) in 1906.

The world’s first female members of parliament were elected in the Finnish parliamentary elections in 1907. Which was “just for me, before my time” democracy at its best from my point of view.

You probably think I am going to moralize about the fact that everyone should vote.

Yes and no. I do believe that it is important to vote and to choose carefully when you do so. Voting is a key part of what I find myself really worrying about: the future of democracy.

I am not alone. Many are doing it, and there is good reason to worry. You only have to take a look at EIU’s Democracy Index to note that democracy is not going strong.

Close to half of the world’s population still lives in some kind of democracy, but only 4,5% of them live in what EIU terms a full democracy. More and more countries are sliding back towards authoritarian rule.

Democratic processes have been dismantled with scary speed in countries like Hungary and Poland. The US dropped from a full democracy to a flawed democracy in the Democracy Index in 2016.

Political trust is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy. Declining trust in government was one of the key factors that led to Donald Trump’s election. His election was not the reason the US went from a full to a flawed democracy – it was a result.

Greek philosopher Plato predicted that the conflict of rich and poor would finally drive democracy to degenerate to tyranny. But this is not the whole story today.

It’s not only about the rich and the poor. It’s also about the fact that there seems to be no common cause, no clear majority of any kind. People oppose rather than support, or support without any regard for the whole.

There is an interest group for everything and everyone, and all of them expect individually tailored “just for me, just on time” solutions.

Decision-making bodies have less and less control over what happens in the world; a world that creeps into every home thanks to economic globalisation and technology.

It would be easy to believe Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University, who asserts that democracy, self-determination and economic globalisation present an unsolvable trilemma. That two out of three can be combined successfully, but not all three.

Trust in political institutions has been declining for some time, not only in the US, but everywhere. It’s now at an all time low.

The public couldn’t care less if decision making has become harder. They want results now; personalised ones, as quickly as possible.

We have built our democracies on so many promises: that education will lead to employment and income, that working will make the economy grow, that growth will increase the standard of living. Last but not least in full democracies – that human rights and equality will be safeguarded in all events.

The democratic system is based on the assumption that we have real decision making power and that those we vote for will have that power too.

More importantly it’s based on the thought that the promises of jobs and growth can actually be fulfilled; that there are solutions that will work reasonably well not only for a majority of voters, but for most of the people.

If such solutions are not found by those elected to do so, new people will be elected until they are.

What if these assumptions fail? They seem to do so more and more often. No wonder voters are frustrated.

Some say that as soon as economies pick up, democracy will thrive again.

Others remind us that if growth stays on a low or no growth level, more and more people will become disconnected from social institutions and society in general. That urbanisation and technological consolidation (both key mega trends in addition to globalisation) have similar effects, so growth may not solve all our problems.

That a rise in economic or international pressures can make disenchanted people susceptible to anti-democratic manipulation, which was the underlying cause for the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930’s.

That no one has yet found the key to successful degrowth, whether planned or not.

Democracy feels more and more like the tram from 1909 in my featured image. It’s nice to behold, but too few have the time and the inclination to wait for it. And as great as rails are, they are pretty straightforward. They take you only to places along the fixed route. Which may not be the preferred route for many.

On the other hand, at least you know where it’s going, it has brakes, and you can get off at any stop you want. Unlike tyranny.

A growing number of issues can no longer be solved based on ordinary common sense. Which poses a problem as more and more people are empowered by technology to take part and share their views on how things should be.

We have the means to demand change, but seldom the means – and the necessary knowledge –  to achieve it.

Participation used to take place through different representative bodies based on status, trade, religion, or other commonalities. First by the privileged few, then by all the people.

Now everyone can call for action directly. Nationally and internationally.

The problem is that there is no vehicle by which to deliver sustainable solutions other than the same institutions that garner so much mistrust.

There is a call for political parties to reinvent themselves so that trust can be rebuilt. But do we really believe they can do it? Or is it time to encourage political startups, as well as business ones.

Macron’s En Marche movement managed to change the French political party scene and the composition of the French Parliament with surprising speed as it evolved into a new party.

The real challenge, however, is to bring back the disenchanted voters. A challenge Macron and his supporters were not able to meet yet. I hope they will, democracy needs good news.

As long as no one has solved the problem of degrowth, it would seem that economic growth needs to remain a key goal, if voters’ trust is to be regained.

Which brings me back to Rodrik’s trilemma. Can we say no to economic globalisation and still ensure long term growth?

Do we have a choice? Financial losers are seldom choosers. Will we see a decline of self-determination or democracy, whichever road we take?

By now my head hurts. I leave you with questions rather than answers. In the absence of clear answers, we just have to vote on, to the best of our abilities. Democracy needs us.