Making the case for inconvenient democracy

Remi Chukwudi Okeke argues that democracy's adherents often jettison it for other forms of governance, like authoritarianism, when it is no longer convenient for them. Embracing an ethic of 'inconvenient democracy' may undo this pernicious dynamic

When democracy no longer gives us what we want

Sonia Bussu avers that democracy is far removed from our daily lives. Jean-Paul Gagnon reads this to mean that 'most of us do not have an "inner" or "psychogenic" democracy, and that most families/homes are not democratic. Nor are schools, workplaces, apartments/condo buildings, hospitals, aged care facilities, prisons, even many social/sporting clubs'.

We have failed to domesticate democracy.

The reason for this is that it's self-interest that motivates many of us. We consequently import this self-interest into our ostensive democratic beliefs. This explains why, in my experience, whenever it is possible to do away with our democratic fa癟ades, we conveniently jettison them. Thus, democracy is not domesticated in our social lives because it can contradict our self-interest as individuals in those spaces even within ourselves.

Our social lives would be more democratic if we could prove that democracy would further our self-interest whether at home, school, or in the workplace

It therefore stands to reason that democratic uptake would occur in our social lives if we could demonstrate democracys utility toward individual self-interest in those settings (families, schools, workplaces, apartment buildings, selves, etc).

Explaining the self-interest / democracy link

Many people are motivated by getting what they want. Democracy is, therefore, driven more by the thought that ones interests will be served under that regime type than by the altruism we may expect from our fellow citizens. Ironically, democracy's propagators are aware of their self-interest. They never play the democratic game with the intention of letting the other side win.

For example, in soccer, a team of old folk may be playing against a team of youths. We might expect the youths to let the adults beat them. Spectators, players, linesmen all presumably support the spectacle, understand what's happening, and find enjoyment in it.

Democracy's propagators are aware of their self-interest. They never play the democratic game with the intention of letting the other side win

But that's not how to play democracy. No charitable elections in party politics, for instance, let voters refine their preferences through symbolic trials with the electoral candidates, relevant public officials, or even with interested members of the public. There is little enjoyment in the 'game' of electoral, hierarchical, representative politics.

Most people want to win. Politicians who lose elections continue to contest subsequent elections or even try to undermine public confidence in the electoral process itself until they get what they want: victory. When they win, they aim to stay in power, to establish political successors and party succession. They do all this in the name of democracy.

As I see it, self-interest propels democracy more than, for example, selflessness. Under a parliamentary system, the leader of the party with the highest number of seats in parliament usually becomes Prime Minister. The circumstances which play out in this case do not border on an alternative value like selflessness. Otherwise, the Prime Minister could have opted to become Leader of the Opposition while the erstwhile Leader of the Opposition becomes Prime Minister, if both parties agree that this is in their countrys best interest.

Not philanthropy and not misanthropy

This realisation suggests democracy is not a philanthropic endeavour. But it is also not misanthropic. It falls somewhere in between, because people are incontrovertibly at the centre of democratic considerations. The point here is that the people-centeredness of democracy never precludes their self-interests.

Imagine, for example, that a democracy regularly worked against the interests of the people expected to participate in elections. Evidence shows that some people barrack for non-democratic alternatives if they hope their interests will be better met under them.

Making the case for inconvenient democracy

Despite the self-interest clause, the democratic system still retains immense validity. However, it is not an unassailable governance scheme. Incidentally, the inadequacies of democracy continue to make authoritarianism an alternative. In other words, to disallow despotism and absolutism, we must either live with the limitations of democracy, or defeat them.

The challenge is how to alter the inconveniences of democracy in order to protect democracy. I think this, at minimum, requires us to understand that what makes democracy inconvenient is locatable within us. Democracy is not yet an indisputable habit anywhere. It still mainly entails competitions between elites, which, ultimately, results in winners and losers. There are no victories in being the loser, such as with the earlier examples of youths who allow their elders to win.

To disallow despotism and absolutism, we must either live with the limitations of democracy, or defeat them

Rather than turning away from it, we must embrace democracys inconvenience. First, doing so can encourage democratic reform so that the regime serves personal interests better. Second, it can lead to personal development when one recognises that, sometimes, a greater self-interest can come from the sacrifice of a smaller one, such as wanting a gas rebate versus paying slightly more tax to build green infrastructure.

Living in a democracy serves our individual and common interests. No authoritarianism, despotism, or tyranny can out-compete a democracy with active citizens people who participate in, and direct, their regime together. A democracys imperfections allude to our own failings. The drifts and discontents of democracy only exist to the extent that we permit them under our watch.

Our democratic rights and privileges are communally, and continually, disused and undervalued because of our self-interestedness. We, the selfish ones, are the makers of the inconvenient democracy. Is it not time for us to embrace the inconvenience, to remake our democracy, and remake ourselves within it?

No.89 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the  to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Remi Chukwudi Okeke
Remi Chukwudi Okeke
Lecturer I, Madonna University, Nigeria

Remi holds a PhD from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), specialising in public administration.

He currently teaches development administration at the Department of Public Administration at Madonna University.

Remi has published extensively on democracy, development and democratisation.

He tweets @RemiOkeke2

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