Monday, 1 March 2010

Ever Tried Homeopathic Democracy?

What distinguishes a proper medicinal cure from, say, a piece of lard? At a minimum, it should have certain active ingredients which are known to have an effect on what it is intended to cure or at least ameliorate. If it has no such ingredient, or has them in extremely diluted form that they could have as much impact as a feather landing on the Great Wall of China, then you might as well go and swallow some lard.

The more you think about it, the more curious it is that public money should be used to purchase any placebo substance which by design is diluted so that it could have no active ingredient. Hence the current outcry about state funding for homeopathic ‘medicine’. Better late than never in recognising their ineffectual nature and focus our energy and resources on what can really improve our health.

It’s no different with our civic health. Democracy was devised to help society fight off the ills of oppression and anarchy. To counter decisions made with no meaningful involvement of those affected by such decisions, it was proposed long ago that the power to decide the fate of all must be grounded on the participation of everyone concerned. Dignified citizens, not pitiful supplicants, would determine what is to be done for their common good. It follows that for democracy to work, it must have active ingredients in the form of engaged citizens – participating, reflecting, deliberating, and acting collectively to shape their shared destiny.

But what we have in practice is very diluted indeed. How many citizens form opinions, not on the basis of informed deliberations, but through reading tabloid headlines? How many in America would oppose reforms to improve access to healthcare, fight climate change, or curb the powers of irresponsible banking institutions, just because their deepest prejudices are fanned by the enemies of the public good? How few are confident that citizens can band together to rein in the influence of large corporations? How few believe that by investing their time in looking into public issues and discussing these with decision makers, they could make a difference?

It is often said that time is in short supply, and people cannot be bothered with all the democratic responsibilities citizens are meant to take on. Allegedly, they just want to leave it to others, and the ratio between citizens and the ‘others’ becomes so great that the civic ingredient needed for a vibrant democracy approaches vanishing point. But people do act on the things they care about. The difference between a mother fighting for better medical care for her child, and a hundred mothers conceding defeat to a developer ruining their neighbourhood is often the overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the latter case. When that is multiplied many times over, we have thousands, millions of citizens assuming – wrongly – that democracy is a lost cause.

Democracy can of course make a huge difference. The key is to revive its active ingredient – citizens who will come together, deliberate critically, place the common good above private gains, and pursue their objectives with confidence and determination. Many networks and organisations are doing precisely that in their efforts to develop active citizens: Take Part, Democracy Matters, the Community Sector Coalition, the Citizen Organising Foundation, Unlock Democracy, the Community Development Foundation, the Citizenship Foundation, to name just a few. They have the know-how and commitment between them to restore democracy’s potency. Separately they might find it difficult to achieve, but working together – with strategic unity and tactical collaboration – they will undoubtedly attain their common goal.

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