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Introduction. Curing the democratic malaise with democratic innovations

The democratic malaise

Democracy is a variable not a constant. It perpetually reinvents and adapts itself as political demands upon it change and as standards of democratic conduct rise. Democratic practices that were acceptable in the late twentieth century may now be poorly adapted to modern circumstances. Globalization, emerging forms of international and transnational government, a shifting balance of centralization and decentralization, the accelerating pace of economic and technological change, shifts in the role and power of the nation state, the threat of terrorism, new forms of communication, and waves of international migration and increasing social diversity all present democracy with new problems.

The past decades have also seen popular pressure for improved democratic performance. Greater affluence, rising educational standards and improved access to political information have, so the argument goes, helped to mobilize citizens and stimulate higher levels of political awareness and participation. Citizens come to expect more of their democracies: more participation, greater political accountability, greater transparency, more consultation, less corruption, more equitable treatment of minority groups, and more open and accountable government.

Since the 1970s, political scientists have detected shifts in the ways that citizens participate in politics, with a political repertoire that has expanded to include unconventional forms of protest behaviour, demonstrations, direct action and boycotts (Barnes and Kaase et al. 1979; Jennings and van Deth et al. 1990). Post-materialist theory also argues that new political values are associated with rising levels of political awareness and new, more demanding forms of political participation (Inglehart 1997; Inglehart and Welzel 2005). The trend in the United States, Britain, France and Germany over the past two or three decades is towards greater political awareness, participation and discussion (Dalton 1996: 26-7), and while citizens may be no less committed to democratic values, they are becoming more critical of the traditional institutions of democratic government and their centralized and bureaucratic ways of operating (Norris 2002). Political participation is shifting from traditional forms focusing on elections and organized by centralized and bureaucratic parties and pressure groups to more direct and individualized forms of political expression involving new parties and social movements, community groups and internet activism.

Survey evidence shows many citizens in the West are becoming more critical of their political leaders, of their main institutions of government, and of their systems of democracy. These developments are explored in depth elsewhere (see Dalton 2004) and it is enough to say here that the extensive evidence suggests that many, not all, western citizens are becoming more sceptical about their democracies, more detached from parties, less trustful of political leaders, and less supportive of their system of government and political institutions.

This is not to suggest ‘a crisis of democracy’. One of the distinguishing features of democracy, and one that makes it more flexible and durable than other forms of government, is a capacity for changing itself. In this sense, democracy is a set of institutional arrangements for responding to public demands, including demands for improving democracy. Hence, it is still possible to retain a strong belief in democracy as a principle of government, while dissatisfaction with political leaders and the way democracy works in practice is growing. In western democracies at present, the overwhelming majority believe in democracy as the best form of government, but growing numbers also believe that the democratic system in their country is deficient. They believe that the cure for democracy’s ills is more and better democracy.

Consequently, the past two to three decades has seen a gathering wave of democratic innovations, some pioneered by the established democracies of the West, and some introduced by new democracies that are taking a fresh look at how constitutions and practices should operate. Their list of inventions is now exceedingly long and varied, and so it is helpful to start this book by identifying and defining democratic innovations - no easy task in itself - and how the chapters that follow try to cover a ground that is neither unmanageably large nor too restrictively narrow in its scope.

 
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