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The End of Representative Democracy
What becomes of a nation when it is untethered from the people?
As Wisdom of Crowds continues to delve into themes around democracy, decline, and national identity, we’re excited to publish Part 1 of an essay by Sam Mace, a writer who recently completed writing his PhD in political theory. We look forward to hosting more original contributors interested in digging deeper into the premises and first principles raised by recent challenges to democracy. For more from Sam, you can follow his Substack at Theory Matters and on Twitter.
Part II will appear in two weeks. Subscribe here to receive it when it comes out.
For a while I have heard a voice in the back of my head whenever I hear a discussion on the crisis of democracy. The voice tells me we are at a reckoning point, but not for the obvious reasons many would expect. The voice remains unheard and unacknowledged but grows louder and more impatient. To address this crisis of representative democracy, I believe we are beyond a little tinkering. Instead we require a large-scale re-arrangement of how we 'do' democracy.
Peaking at the end of the Cold War, representative democracy appeared to offer an inevitable future that promised stability, economic prosperity, and increased happiness. Yet only two decades into a new century, these expectations seem odd and naïve at best—or outright delusional. We live in an era of economic stagnation, increased polarisation, and an epidemic of despair and loneliness. These crises exist because representative democracy itself no longer meets our needs; it is an “old” system that is now unsuited for a hypermodern age of excessive personalisation.
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I do not believe in the letting democratic crises play out. Indeed, while a thunderstorm may clear the air, the political equivalent of a thunderstorm leads to deep fissures, which are best avoided. Rectifying our current political model is necessary. This cannot be achieved without citizens feeling represented. In countries with large populations, representation is hard to achieve. The systems of representation that we have today were devised in a period that no longer matches our own. If people are to be satisfied with their democratic arrangements they need to feel as if they matter, they need to feel as if they have a say, and they need to have a tangible relationship to the political process. These things are no longer true.
Today, we exist as part of communities where we inhabit differing identities, with the self at the center. Individualism, recognition, and heterogeneity are the watchwords that increasingly define our political order. As Timothy Stacey argues in Saving Liberalism From Itself, liberalism has fostered separation from groups, traditions, and institutions creating a weakness in the rope tying together our collective social bonds.
As I have argued before, Fukuyama was not a liberal triumphalist but was rather concerned with the demand for equality and recognition stimulated by liberal democracy which ultimately went unsatisfied. In The End of History and his more recent book Liberalism and its Discontents, Fukuyama identifies many of the dangers to liberal democracy emerging from collective identity movements feeling dissatisfied by a lack of true equality, whether real or perceived. However, this analysis has neglected the transition in recent decades to the focus on ‘the self’. Increasingly, we center our relationship to identity groups according to our own personal experiences, thoughts, and evaluations of what that means. This is conveyed through now ubiquitous references to “lived experience.”
At its most serious we see this presumption that the experiences that matter most are “lived” in speeches and statements made by public officials, and at its most frivolous through “vibes.” Enabled by community fragmentation and the rise of the self-referential individual, modern societies persist in a seemingly endless process of fracturing. Because the ‘nation’ has always been and must be to some extent exclusionary, it requires a shared collective imagination of ‘who we are’. Today, with our personalised communication channels, social media, and demand for individual recognition, believing in (or hoping for) such ‘imagined communities’ drifts increasingly out of reach.
It is not realistic to pretend that we can draw a neat distinction between the social and the political. Each intersects with the other, the two becoming intertwined in the process. This relationship can be witnessed via the emergence of the supposed “rational voter” in the 2000s. The rational voter hypothesis proposed that voters were akin to shoppers, deciding what they want and who can give it to them. Consciously or not, this is a trait many of us now take on. It’s a nice thought. It allows us to both elevate the self and believe that we are rational creatures smarter than others.
In such a context, why would anyone really accept others making decisions for them? It’s not as if political elites have a great record in delivering good outcomes. The move towards expert-managed bureaucratic-institutional rule has produced financial crises, wage stagnation, high levels of personal debt, social atomisation, and a polarized political environment. Policies that produce social and economic degradation leading to a wave of populist events hardly screams competent management. There is also the question of numbers. The expansion of higher education has given increasing numbers of citizens the tools to be part of the ‘elite.’ And so the claim that only a select few can be trusted with the task of government seems ever more absurd.
Hollowed-out systems only become obviously so when they fall. And then it’s too late. We tell ourselves that this cannot happen to liberal democracies, that liberal democracies are inherently secure but this is a questionable assumption. Both the long ago collapse of Weimar Germany and modern day examples such as Hungary should warn us all against such complacency. Liberal democracy, despite what we may tell ourselves, is neither inevitable nor inviolable.
Given how many citizens are angry and struggling under representative democracies, we need to pay closer attention to the cracks emerging right before our very eyes. If democracy is genuinely about rule by the people, then what do we have when there is no ‘people’ but rather a collection of selves? Yet, our political institutions have not reflected this deep sea change in in the “self.” Our current model of representative democracy was fit for the twentieth century but no longer for the twenty-first. Rather than society being made up of large homogenous groups, today society is made up of heterogeneous individuals. Because of this change, representative democracies face crises of confidence, legitimacy, and performance.
The theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau once mocked the British Parliament by proclaiming that it was no true democracy. Rather, ‘the people were enslaved but for one day every four years’. This may be something of an exaggeration but if democracy is the right of participation then representative democracy as we have come to understand it is no longer satisfactory. Despite strong levels of citizen participation in politics, there are few outlets for citizens to truly affect politics. If, as Pericles said of Athenian democracy, that "The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life" today we must ask ourselves which freedoms that we enjoy in our every day life do we want to experience in government? Our need for belonging, recognition, a feeling of equality, and having a say that matters are foremost on this list. The big question is how do we make this happen?
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