When people cite an ill-conceived referendum – premised on muddled options, saturated with deception, and discredited by the breaking of electoral laws – as the grandest democratic exercise to be ever undertaken by a country, you know democracy’s future is grim. The solution cannot be just asking more people to vote. Because without better understanding of what proposed options may lead to, a superficial voting mechanism would allow the unscrupulous to exploit the fear and gullibility of others to make unjust gains for themselves, while society becomes more divided and insecure. To save democracy from terminal decline, we need to take remedial action in three critical areas: civic togetherness; objective reasoning; and power balance.
A laissez faire approach to leaving individuals to do as they please leads to social fragmentation and mindless polarisation. To cultivate civic togetherness, there should be widespread opportunities for citizens to formulate shared missions through inclusive and collaborative projects; move away from echo chambers to meet and get to know others at open communal events; learn to co-design civic outcomes; and engage with politicians, experts and their fellow citizens in reviewing how public actions actually affect them. Mutual respect should be promoted through techniques that enable people to understand how they might feel if they were subject to some objectionable policy or treatment being proposed for others in a similar situation.
Communities’ capacity for democratic decision-making is inescapably linked to the extent to which their members can learn, reflect on, and exchange ideas in an objective manner. In a democratic society, no religious faith or secular ideology can be allowed to impose its doctrines on everyone. However, Can We Save Democracy. Publicly financed, but independently run institutions are necessary to review and codify truth claims, so that trusted judgements on what merit belief are derived from the latest expert assessment and informed consensus, rather than arbitrary declarations or well-funded misinformation campaigns. Judicial oversight is as necessary for rooting out deception in politics as it is in any other sphere of life.
Democracy cannot function if those with amassed power and wealth can just ignore the interests of other people. Instead of handing all decisions to a few on the back of electoral contests that barely engage with the real issues, communities should have more quality-assured deliberative events that will empower them to select public policies and representatives. At the same time, in line with subsidiarity, more decisions ought to be delegated to those who are better placed at the local level to consider what should be done. Voting arrangements should also be improved so that people can rank their preferences rather than accept that in safe, first-past-the-post seats (the predicament facing most voters) their vote is highly unlikely to make any difference whatsoever. As the widening of wealth inequalities exacerbate the power gap between the corporate elite and the majority gripped by economic insecurity, a fairer distribution of resources should also be advanced through more extensive adoption of worker cooperative practices and strengthening of public provisions to counter-balance private iniquities.