Peter Donkor argues that the democratisation of our social lives is contingent upon a democratic political sphere. Doubling down on 'spillover theory', he urges governments to lead bolder democratisation efforts to show how ever-more democratic procedures are, indeed, preferable to authoritarian regimes and authoritarianism at home, school, work, and beyond
The global issue (it is truly a world problem for the Anthropos) of an absence of meaningful democracy from our social lives has been neglected for too long. To address this, we must invest in direct democracy practices, universal and equal access to voter registration, voting, and political education. Governments must reform existing electoral systems, and promote the growth of a strong civil society. This is a tall order, even for the world's so-called advanced or developed democratic countries.
I urge governments to invest in, and to lead, bold and evidence-led democratisation programmes in all these areas. Democratic gains can make people reject authoritarianism in their personal or social lives. Spillover theory underscores this belief. It posits that democratic gains in one sphere of life, such as the political, can feed – or spill over – into other spheres, like the social. Researchers have observed this dynamic between governments and private firms.
Initiatives such as automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds all improve the quality of participatory democracy
Direct democracy is a system of participatory decision-making that gives citizens power to make decisions on policy directly, without representatives. Participatory budgeting, citizens' assemblies, and online voting platforms are all examples of direct democracy that allow citizens to prioritise their interests and have a direct say in the allocation of public funds. To ensure that citizens use these practices effectively, access to voter registration, voting, and political education must expand. Initiatives such as automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds can help achieve this.
Existing electoral systems must reform to ensure that citizens enjoy meaningful representation. Through measures such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and the elimination of partisan gerrymandering, citizens can make their voices heard. A vibrant civil society is also necessary to ensure citizens can participate meaningfully in decision-making, and advocate for their interests. Accomplishing this involves strengthening the rights of unions, NGOs, and other civil society organisations.
To enhance the prospects of embedding meaningful democracy into social lives, global collaboration, and cooperation on democratic issues, are crucial. International organisations including the United Nations and European Union have, for example, been key in promoting democracy and human rights.
Additionally, harnessing the power of democratically-made pro-democracy technologies can help ensure that all citizens have access to political education and voter registration, and can participate in dialogue and debate. Finally, reducing economic inequality is also necessary to ensure that everyone has access to meaningful democracy. Improved access to education, enhanced employment opportunities, and adequate financial support will all help achieve this.
Harnessing the power of democratically-made pro-democracy technologies can give marginalised citizens access to political education and voter registration
Giving citizens access to information about the decisions their representatives are making, and the policies they are proposing, increases the transparency and accountability of elected officials. To do this, authorities must promote open-government initiatives and digitise public services, improving citizens' access to information and holding their representatives more accountable.
Strengthening anti-corruption laws and making public institutions more independent, will also help ensure that public funds are responsibly used, and that citizens can place a little more trust in their governments.
To increase the chances for democratisation in our social lives, we must promote democratic values and norms in educational systems. Young people can then learn the importance of meaningful democracy and civic engagement, and put those principles into practice.
Civic education programmes emphasise the importance of participation in the political process. They reinforce democratic values, including freedom of speech, equality, and justice. Governments should implement these programmes to develop young people's critical thinking skills. This will make them better able to make informed decisions about which policies and politicians they support.
Meaningful democracy cannot be achieved without equal access to opportunities and resources
Meaningful democracy is not just about having a say in the decisions that affect our lives. It is also about having equal access to opportunities and resources. To this end, governments should provide training and employment prospects for disadvantaged groups; they should increase access to education, and expand welfare programmes.
Governments should also invest in public infrastructure, including transport and digital networks. Thus, all citizens would have access to the same resources and opportunities.
Growing evidence suggests that citizens in many countries lack trust in their government. These people are disengaging from the political process. Such disengagement can lead to a lack of accountability and transparency, as well as an erosion of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Furthermore, the increasing prevalence of populist politics in many countries has only added to the problem, leaving citizens feeling increasingly disconnected from their elected representatives.
Making democracy meaningful is a problem that affects all countries, large and small, rich and poor. Perhaps the greatest challenge today is to ensure that all governments effectively represent and empower the citizens they serve. Decision-makers should not only hear citizens' voices. They should listen to citizens' opinions with grave attention, and treat them as respected sovereigns.
Of course, that seldom happens, especially at national levels of politics. This may help to explain the recent rise of autocratic regimes and the erosion of democratic values in many countries across the globe.