The most important thing for democracy is to establish a catalogue of its constant, repeatable and inalienable features – the so-called DNA of democracy. Such a DNA code could no longer be manipulated or diluted, because nothing without it could be called democracy, writes Janusz Ruszkowski
Each of us has our own subjective perception of democracy. We bring this with us as we confront with the reality in which we live. A subjective perception of democracy is based on our imaginations, ideas and individual understanding of democracy, and our emotions around these.
We can study subjective perception through the prism of cognitive neuroscience. The main role here is played by cognitive mechanisms that coordinate perceptual mechanisms and take care of solving problems. This lets us control the decisions we make in order to participate in a democracy and to control our behaviour.
The subjective perception of democracy is sequential rather than static, and often emotional rather than real
Cognitive mechanisms are, on the one hand, related to the possibilities of action. On the other hand, they are related to emotions, such as those influencing voters. We can assess democracy through the lens of these possibilities and emotions, which take place across time. Thus, the subjective perception of democracy is sequential rather than static, and often emotional rather than real. For these reasons, it is harder to use this perspective to see that something is wrong with democracy.
Democracy becomes the result of our decisions, behaviours, and also cognitive mechanisms: a neurodemocracy. We can thus model decision-making and control mechanisms in ways derived from neuroscience.
Neurodemocracy is a subjective and individualised perception of democracy based on emotions and cognition. It is driven by cognitive mechanisms and is therefore sequential and emotional. This means that neurodemocracy may not reflect the essence of democracy.
Meanwhile, objective perception is based on a democracy that we experience empirically and in reality. This includes democracy with variations, deviations, or even aberrations. This perception has to confront many types of democracy which have actually existed in various political, social, geographical and historical contexts.
For example, we describe democracies with some limitations as illiberal democracies. Democracies which deliberately lie and falsify their features are classified as simulative democracies.
Democracy has a tendency towards aberrations, and many kinds and types of democracy occur in various political, social, geographical, or historical contexts
Moreover, democracy has a tendency towards aberrations. This is because it is a system with certain and fixed rules and principles, but the results of democratic decisions and elections are uncertain and changeable. As a result, it is possible for such results to bury democracy. One example is the well-constructed democracy in the Weimar Republic, which aberrated towards extreme totalitarianism. Also, the advanced and historically grounded American democracy was able to give rise to unpredictable and chaotic Trumpism.
The third perception is the ideal perception of democracy, which can be a kind of reference point, pattern or model for the other two perceptions. Unfortunately, an ideal, uniform, commonly accepted and consensually approved perception of democracy does not exist. Not only does it not exist in practice (being, of course, not realistic), but we lack scientific findings that would illuminate the essence of democracy and explain all its immanent and inalienable components and features.
Scattered attempts to construct an ideal, even if intended to produce an exhaustive understanding of democracy, only deepen perceptual diversity. It seems that the only way to create such an ideal model of democracy would be to develop a uniform catalogue of constant, repeatable and immanent features of democracy that must occur whenever we talk about it or build it.
Such a catalogue of features would therefore constitute a specific DNA code of democracy. In other words, it would be a constant, unchanging and generally accepted point of reference for both the subjective and objective perception of democracy.
However, creating a generally acceptable DNA code of democracy seems to be a most difficult and rather unrealistic task. And even if we could create such a theoretical model, could we then apply it effectively to political practice? After all, democracy is changeable and dynamic, with highly variable contexts.
I argue that the starting point for the task of quantifying democracy is the fundamental mechanism of democracy based on the principal-agent problem, concerning the relationship between the principal and the agent, or representative. The principal chooses an agent to carry out tasks he is unable to perform himself. The principal expects that the agent's work will benefit him, while the agent will receive a reward (payment) in return.
The nation or demos may be the principal. However, this is not necessarily the case; it may also be society as a whole, or some other social group. Meanwhile, the agent is the government (authority), designated and commissioned by the principal.
If the agent (government, authority) escapes the control of the principal (society, demos), it may become autonomous and lead to democracy drifting
In the contract between the two, the principal delegates functions and responsibilities to the agent while maintaining control over him. In turn, the agent must carry out these functions on behalf of the principal, and for his benefit. A contractual relationship between the principal and the agent legitimises the agent's power.
There is a certain tension between the principal and the agent. The principal is not only the beneficiary, but also the owner of the results of the agent's work. Therefore, the principal expects these results. However, in practice he does not always receive them at the expected scale, and is even often disappointed with them.
However, the agent can gain an information predominance over the principal. In this instance, it may escape from the principal's control and auto-maximise its functions and competences. At the same time, it may gradually become autonomous. In such circumstances, democracy can drift, often in a very undesirable direction.
The main way to protect against such undesirable drift would be to construct a democratic mechanism that limits the agent's ability to slip out of the principal's control and auto-maximise its functions. Thus, we could inhibit the tendency to become independent. Perhaps such an inherent limiting mechanism would be a starting point to both construct the universal DNA of democracy, and to secure it from the inside.