Is Participatory Democracy Under Attack?

In Episode 1 of our 7-part series on Democracy and the Media, Stu sat down with Valerie Lemmie of the Kettering Foundation to explore the current state of citizen engagement, the role that it plays in protecting Democracy, and how it has come under fire as the bombastic politics of the United States bleed over into the political mindsets of other nations.

We’re at a crucial juncture, she says, where we cannot ignore our civic obligations if we are to ensure a thriving democratic state. We must participate in the process.

Threats to Democracy

The freedoms of Democracy have come under heavy fire since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the resulting groundswell of opposition toward the institutions that have traditionally served as protectors of Constitutional rights.

The White House’s increasing inaccessibility to the press; the Russian election scandal;  violence against lawmakers; media, policy, and opponents all under siege by the U.S. President along with America’s deep political divisions and distrust of government have all contributed to a rising fear that Western democracy is gasping for air.

 In a Democracy citizens must protect three contested principles: popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality. We also uphold three premises: deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity. —Historian James Kloppenberg

The threats to democracy aren’t just a North American phenomenon. Non-Governmental Organizations throughout the European Union are faced with mounting regulations and restrictions that are threatening their ability to function as protectors of this freedom.

NGOs inform citizens about matters of public interest, provide the public with channels through which they can speak to their political representatives between elections, and serve as accountability gatekeepers for lawmakers, to name only a few of their functions.

They are seeing an increase in smear campaigns, assaults against administrators, funding cuts, and regulatory increases, according to Israel Butler of Liberties EU.

All around the world, the tenants of democracy appear to be eroding. The solution begins, Lemmie told Stu, with citizen engagement.

Why do we need to engage in order to preserve Democracy?

The realities of human nature make citizen engagement necessary in order to protect the pluralism that is the basis for healthy democracy.

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Washington Post Opinion Columnist E.J. Dionee Jr. said in a column dated Dec. 27, 2017, that the greatest threat to democracy right now is our own indifference.

Plato worried about the ability of democracy to succeed thousands of years ago, that citizens would “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment.”

It’s not a new concern, but one that Lemmie and others believe we must diligently watch in order to ensure citizen participation remains a vibrant part of the process.

Tyler Cowen, in his book “The Complacent Class,” states that Westerners no longer have a fire in their belly for the tenents of democracy and that North Americans no longer have goals and projects which they are working on together for the common good. Political parties with rapidly deteriorating bases and ideologies have been our fallback.

There is the distinct possibility that, in the next twenty years, we are going to find out far more about how the world really works than we ever wanted to know. As the mentality of the complacent class loses its grip, the subsequent changes in attitude will be part of an unavoidable and perhaps ultimately beneficial process of social, economic and legal transformation. – Tyler Cowen

What does this mean for democracies around the world? A shift in mindset is what many experts believe will happen.

Indeed, that may be what is taking place as a result of the political chaos.

The Observer declared 2017 the year complacency died. 

And, policy influencers such as Valerie Lemmie see this period as motivation to begin to re-evaluate citizen-based government and how we engage with it.

What Now?

One of the tools that Conversations That Matter is about to begin working with is PlaceSpeak. It’s an engagement platform created and managed by a team here in Vancouver, B.C. which elected officials, regional districts, and other organizations are using across North America to engage their citizens.

Look for the launch of this partnership later this winter.

What do you think? Leave your comments below and be a part of this ongoing dialogue on the role of participatory democracy.

NOTE: Do you enjoy content like this? Conversations That Matter relies solely on funding from its supporters. We take no advertising, which allows us to create content without influence from others. If you value our perspective, please consider becoming a patron of Conversations That Matter.

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