We often take it for granted that democracy is the best way for us to run our societies. In democratic countries, governments are given consent to rule and legitimacy by the people through the electoral process, and elected governments are presumed to be generally representative of public opinion. But how well does democracy function when the prevailing paradigm of our times is called into question?
For the 1992 US presidential election Bill Clinton campaigned under the slogan “ It’s the economy, stupid ! ”, and indeed it is nearly always the economy which is the critical deciding factor in democratic elections across the world. Conventional indicators measure economic success in terms of increased wages and spending power, job creation, and growth in GDP. The electorate will tend to vote for the political party who they believe has the best chance of delivering these economic goodies.
However many people are starting to realise that the current growth economy cannot be sustained for much longer, and that we will have to transition towards a different economic model if we are to head off a crisis. Yet for a political party to come out in favour of policies which would lead us in this direction would be an act of political suicide. It is only by promising the spoils of the old economy that politicians can hope to be elected. This acts as a powerful disincentive for any political party to get serious on issues such as climate change, which require fundamental changes to our way of life. There have even been suggestions from various politicians, who clearly lack any sense of irony, that we can only afford to address climate change at times when the economy is strong.
The fact that governments of all political stripes are forced to trumpet the same old economic gospel in order to get elected is one way in which the democratic process actively impedes moves towards a more sustainable society. A second way is through the imposition of short-term electoral cycles. When a government has only four years in power before the next election, long-term issues such as climate change tend to be put on the back burner; in the pile of things for the next government to take care of. Often, impressive sounding commitments are made for many years into the future, when the people currently in power know they will be long gone from the political landscape. Short term thinking, brought about by electoral cycles, therefore tends to hinder, and often prevent, any progress being made on complex environmental issues.
A third failing of democracy is its vulnerability to lobbying by special interest groups. Every day news reports are filled with accounts of governments around the world taking decisions which appear go against the interests of the people, often to the benefit of specific industrial lobbies. Some of these decisions are quite breathtaking in their disregard for the democratic process by which the government was elected. For example, here in Canada, the current federal government appears to be in thrall to the oil and gas industry. So much so in fact that they have gone so far as to gut environmental regulations, muzzle their own scientists, and paint anyone who believes in environmental protection as being a dangerous extremist. This includes well-respected environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the World Wildlife Fund, who are treated in government press releases as though they are Al-Qaeda affiliates.
The fourth failing of democracy is that in a multi-party system the electorate has to choose between a number of different visions for government (two in the US). However, political parties formulate their policies over a wide range of different issues. The result is that voters may like the position of one political party on several issues, but favour the stance of another party on other issues. Thus an election becomes about making the least-worst choice for government, which tends to result in voter cynicism. More often than not, the choice is illusory anyway, since whichever party is elected will do broadly the same things to try to encourage economic growth.
So what we have in democracy is a system which appears to give voters a choice, but one which seldom results in real change. It is also a system which virtually guarantees that the necessary actions required to tackle the environmental and social challenges facing us will not be initiated by government, since taking the kind of radical action required would effectively guarantee defeat at the next election. The need for re-election ensures that elected governments tend to be reactive, rather than proactive, when dealing with environmental issues.
Of course, not all democracies are created equal. The four failings I have identified above are generally applicable to democratically elected governments around the world, but there are huge variations in how democracies work. Different approaches include first past the post systems, such as those found in the US, Canada, and the UK, and, European-style proportional representation systems, which aim to ensure that parties standings in parliament reflect their broad popularity within the country as a whole. However, even bearing in mind the differences between electoral systems, it is unlikely that any democratically elected government, anywhere in the world will willingly move away from the current business as usual economic model in the foreseeable future.
So democracy will not solve our problems any time soon. Does this mean I am advocating totalitarianism? Absolutely not; the failings of government are generally magnified in dictatorships, where there is no opposition to hold a government to account. And although benevolent dictators have existed in the past, they are very much the exception. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
Forces for Change
I believe that eventually all countries will be forced to take action to move their societies towards sustainability, but that it will take a crisis or a series of crises exponentially greater than anything we have yet seen to galvanize them into action. It is only once all players in the political landscape appreciate the seriousness of our predicament that we will see concerted actions of the type that are needed. Only then will there be sufficient momentum to overcome the inertia built into our current economic system. Until that time governments will be at best unwilling partners, as in Europe; and at worst will seek to actively impede constructive action designed to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, as in the case of Canada.
It is at the non-government level that our best hope for transition lies in the short-term. The last two decades have seen the rise of the Non-Government Organisation (NGO) as a force to be reckoned with. There are now a bewildering variety of NGO’s, which focus on addressing a multitude of social and environmental issues. In many ways NGO’s are the mirror image of corporations, since their primary focus is on achieving change, rather than generating profits. NGOs are working to hold governments to account, to promote corporate social responsibility, to publicize environmental transgressions, and to improve the lot of disadvantaged peoples worldwide. Though the role of individual organisations may seem small, taken together as a sector, NGOs form a powerful counterweight to the power of industry lobby groups; all the more so because NGOs do not usually have a financial motive, and are often composed of volunteers standing up for causes they believe in.
Democracy has proven to be a useful tool in ensuring stable governance for many countries. Although there have been many other systems adopted through history, movement towards democracy and the development of democratic institutions are seen as being hallmarks of development for a country. However as we have seen, the fundamental structure of democracy makes it unresponsive to pressing long-term global problems. In order to move forward to long-term sustainability it is essential that the inertia within the democratic system is overcome. This is where the influence of NGOs, and internet activism can play a very useful role.
However it is likely that our governments will only take truly effective action when the full effects of our nascent environmental crisis become apparent. It is only when we reach this stage, when it is no longer necessary to sell a discredited economic vision to a jaded electorate that I believe democracy will finally achieve its full potential, not as a means of reinforcing current paradigms, but as an agent of change.