In places that don’t have functioning and representative democracy, people want it. In places that have these rights, people want improved and deliberative democracy. This was the conclusion of the recent global civic society alliance CIVICUS report—a study that was led by a year-long research project in 80 countries revolving around the subject of democracy, titled “Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination”. Through informal, citizen-led discussions, 54 written articles, and 97 interviews with participants old and young, one thing was clear: democracy is under attack, and people all over the world want to protect and expand it.
Despite the overwhelming need and desire for democracy, it seems to be shrinking. Politics are becoming increasingly polarized, and in many places, democratic freedoms are being taken away. In a time when we are facing intractable global issues such as climate change, violent warfare and growing inequality, it seems that now more than ever we need to implement and improve systems of democracy that work. So how exactly can democracy be reimagined to solve the world’s most pressing issues? What concrete steps can be taken to protect democracy? The CIVICUS study set out to answer these questions.
Why does democracy need to be reimagined? For one, the systems we have now are failing, leaving many people disadvantaged and unsatisfied. Even systems like “free and fair” elections are evolving to favor people in power, and human rights are taking second place to monetary and political gain. In order to improve these failing systems, we have to remember that democracy is not and cannot be stagnant, it must constantly evolve to meet the needs of the people.
CIVICUS identified several challenges that democracy faces today, and changes that need to occur to protect it. The first challenge is elections that are carefully staged and managed by people in power. In many places around the world, elections are the time when democracy is actually repressed the most. Constitutions are amended at the last minute to favor the incumbent, propaganda is used to intimidate or manipulate citizens, and barriers are placed that make voting difficult or nearly impossible for certain groups of people.
Next, big businesses continue to gain power and wield influence in policy and political campaigns. The more influence big businesses gain, populations can become more economically unequal, which leads to social and political inequality as well. We need to reimagine a world outside of these markets in order for democracy to flourish. As CIVICUS put it, “If it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the free-market capitalism, then perhaps the main crisis of our time is a crisis of imagination.”
Discrimination at every level majorly affects democracy. The report pointed out that it’s not enough for everyone to have the same rights on paper. For example, in some countries, women have the formal right to run for office, but because of external and social barriers, the majority of leaders are still men. Discrimination by age is another factor to consider. According to CIVICUS, 42% of the world’s population is under the age of 25, but the majority of these people are not able to run for office or vote. The political opinions and needs of young people compared to older people are dramatically different, and these voices are being suppressed.
Another trend is that national governments seem to be retreating from global institutions. For example, the UK is in the process of leaving the EU, the United States has announced pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council, and Israel announced their plan to leave UNESCO. According to CIVICUS, “Limited international democracy allows repressive leaders to downplay criticism from the international community…” Further, global democracy is an essential component to solving global issues, and as nations isolate themselves they become less accountable by international standards.
CIVICUS identified three main changes that are needed to protect democracy worldwide: governance defined by local needs, global democracy to tackle global issues, and a democratized economy that works for all. The first change, thinking locally, can empower people to make decisions that are best for their community. Democracy means something different for everyone, so starting at the top-down is counter-intuitive. Starting at the local level can enable people to adapt democracy to their specific needs. Local democracy can come in the form of “citizen assemblies, panels and councils, community parliaments and local-level groups that reach consensus”. Examples of local democracy in the past have proven that when communities are empowered to make decisions, they work together to reach reasonable decisions.
Global markets, politics, and relationships are ever-expanding. We are also facing unprecedented issues that require global cooperation to solve, such as climate change. Because of this, we need international organizations uncoupled from government influence that are accessible to and held accountable by the public. CIVICUS suggests the need for a world parliament that is independent from nation states. The EU Citizen’s Initiative shows such a proposal working on a smaller scale—citizens propose change, and if it attracts public support it must be put on the agenda and addressed.
At the same time that diversity is increasing, equality is decreasing. People are often thought of as consumers before they are citizens with the large emphasis that is placed on enterprise. Some suggestions to ensure that human rights come before monetary value are: creating accessible public services, fair taxation, and supporting companies that favor fair trade and labor rights.
Despite all of the changes that need to be addressed, civil society has been reclaiming democracy. Just in the past year, citizen and student-led initiatives have facilitated social change. Worldwide, citizens have made strides in gun control, confronted sexual harassment, gained political representation for women, and increased electoral management standards. These movements have been mobilized in both offline and online spaces, and have proved that we have the power to reshape democracy.
Democracy can be complicated and even messy at times, but it is an essential human right. Improving democracy means improving standards of living, national and global economies, and security. As society evolves so must democracy, and as we’ve seen the successful strides citizens have made, we can be empowered by the knowledge that such change is possible.