A crisis of democracy?

Writing: Will Lewallen


In 1975 the Trilateral Commission, comprised of liberal elites from the three main global powers at the time: Europe, the US and Japan, published its first report. The report, responding to the rising tide of activism in the 60’s, was titled ‘The Crisis of Democracy’. The concern was that increasingly large proportions of the population who, up till then had been passive, apathetic and obedient, were starting to flex their democratic muscles. Huge swathes of people were suddenly waking up and beginning to press their concerns on the state and it was this ‘excess of democracy’ that, according to S. Huntington who wrote the American section of the report, constituted a crisis.


Today America’s crises are much more overt. Protests sweep across the nation, curfews have been declared and the National Guard tear gas peaceful protesters; and all this is set against the backdrop of the most significant event of the last fifty years, the outbreak of Covid-19. The protests come as retaliation for the death of George Floyd, a 46 year old African-American, who was murdered by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin after being arrested for trying to pass a counterfeit note. Chauvin knelt mercilessly on Floyd’s neck for the best part of nine minutes. The incident was filmed, the whole world watched and on that day, the 25th May 2020, people all across the world decided enough was enough.


The killing comes almost exactly 3 months after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, another African-American who was jogging around his local neighbourhood when he was chased down and executed. The quick succession of these two high profile cases seem to have stirred something in the American people; a spiritual fatigue permeates the country: there’s only so much injustice the human soul can take. James Baldwin once wrote, “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep”. That was in 1978, yet as photos of military police pepper spraying young black girls circulate our social media, no one can deny its relevance today.


So the seeds of an uprising have been sewn but how ought we proceed? Of course the first port of call should be the ballot box. Despite all their flaws the UK and the US are extremely free countries in many regards and we should not overlook this channel of influence; especially Americans who are entering into, arguably, the most important election cycle ever.


However, despite their merits our democratic systems are, in many ways, extremely limited. In a functioning democracy it should be the case that public policy is a reflection of public opinion, yet this is not what we see. For example, despite a huge majority of Americans supporting some form of national healthcare plan, it remains the only industrialized country on the planet to not have such a system. This disconnect between attitude and policy is partially caused by the fact that the bottom 70% of the U.S. population simply have zero influence on policy makers. In a world ever governed by private tyranny, money talks, and sadly most Americans simply do not have the economic weight to affect policy. In the UK our politics stand slightly more independent of corporate power, for now, yet the system is still very crude. Whilst many follow politics all year round, for most people the only active involvement is pushing one of two, maybe three, democratic buttons once every 5 years. For the remainder, we are meant to be mere spectators.


Yet protests and civil disobedience cast a different light on democracy. For activists, democracy and the realm of the political is something with which one is always engaged. Direct democracy allows for the masses to subvert the bureaucracy of our traditional systems and thus provides an opportunity for real social change. Goals are pursued for incorruptible aims. If one looks back at almost all of the major social changes over the last century from Suffragettes to Civil Rights, they’re almost all the product of hard-fought popular movements. This is because such social changes usually don’t benefit the ruling business class and thus only happen when instigated by those who will benefit. This pattern can be seen over and over in the US yet, to me, seemed to peak when citizens realised that the only way Mr Arbery’s killers would even be arrested would be via a mass protest. Thus, protests ensued, the story was picked up by the mainstream media and after sufficient pressure built, they were arrested. This was 2 months after Ahmaud was murdered.


Whilst it’s a sad realization that civil disobedience is sometimes a necessity in getting the law applied, the recent Black Lives Matter protests that have spanned the globe have shown just how much can be achieved through organization and mobilization. Minneapolis has vowed to defund their police, New York has banned chokehold restraints and imperialist statues have been toppled in the UK. Victories made ever sweeter by the fact that they’re the product of committed citizens working together to improve the society in which they live.


Despite these small, although not insignificant victories, many make the case that said victories are essentially just symbolic and that any lasting change is going to be top down. It is clear that in their current forms our systems and institutions breed or, at least sustain, the racism we see today. So one may ask the question, if any lasting change is going to have to come from the top down, what is the point of popular movements?


Well beyond the aforementioned point that civil disobedience quite literally forces those in power to deal with the issue, it also serves to create the space for an awakening of mass public conscience. You certainly cannot arrive at systemic change if the majority of the population remain apathetic.


It is plain to see that over the course of recent history, especially since we have entered the age of mass consumption, the average citizen has become apathetic and disengaged with what Hannah Arendt called the realm of the political. This is not to say people are no longer interested in politics but rather they’re not actively engaged, and how can you expect one to be when there are entire industries devoted to convincing you to direct your energy elsewhere, be it shoes or Facebook likes. The political is deliberately portrayed as something which is best left to a small subset of elite citizens.

But Arendt believes that participation in the public realm is not only how as humans we derive our values, but an intrinsic part of our nature. Creedence is given to this idea by the fact that we time and time again see this public conscience bubbling over; despite the huge efforts to keep it suppressed.


I believe the benefits of the recent civil disobedience to be two-fold. Firstly the demonstrable steps of progress such as the upgrading of Chauvin’s charge to 2nd degree murder. Yet more abstractly it seems something has shifted within the public conscience. Of course to a degree it is the perfect storm; with people out of work and forced to pay attention one may argue all the stars have aligned. But why doesn’t matter, what matters is that people have awoken out of their consumeristic slumber: instead of concerning themselves with what shoes to buy people are realizing that there are real issues in the world. Issues in the world that, despite what advertisers would like to believe, you actually care more about than shoes. Issues that, as people are realizing, if we organize, we can do something about. This awakening of public conscience is, I believe, the prerequisite for any major societal progression and something we should strive to maintain. It seems elementary to me that if we are all engaged with social issues and willing to actively participate in our democracy, every facet of our society will be better for it. If this is a crisis of democracy, this is the type of crisis we ought to be striving for.


Image via Wiki Commons

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