Can democracy survive?

IMG_3928by Tessa Coombes, PhD Researcher at Bristol University

For the final plenary session of the conference Prof. Andrew Gamble, from Cambridge University, took us back to the issue of democracy and its ability to survive and even thrive. We were reminded that for the first time in the modern state system authoritarian regimes are in retreat and representative democracy, in some form or other, is on the rise.

Representative liberal democracies have been described as the least admirable form of governance not least because of their inability to take difficult decisions and their short term thinking. Despite this, in the 20th century, representative democracy came to be seen as an ideal state. But it now seems we are in a time of transition, where there is a real disengagement and disillusionment with mainstream politics, where the choice is narrowing and where people are indifferent to their right to vote. This crisis of representative politics reflects a crisis of trust in our politics and politicians. Once more, despite this process, representative democracy remains remarkably resilient, with the mainstream political parties maintaining their control.

In the face of this volatility and uncertainty, Andrew asked the question about what the prospects are for democracy and provided a number of perspectives from which to consider this. If we were to take the line proposed by Mark Purcell at the beginning of the conference, then the decline of representative democracy creates the conditions for experimental democracy, for new forms of government that don’t rely on representation. Or we could take a market libertarian approach, which strips out the welfare state, seeks full privatisation and produces drastic limitations on the role of the state. Or you could look at it from the perspective that whilst democracy has its limits and struggles to deliver it also has strengths that are worth hanging on to. This enables mistakes to be made but holds onto the belief that these can be rectified, representatives can be changed and decisive action taken.

One of the problems for representative democracy, highlighted by Andrew, is the risk that democracy is overwhelmed by the challenges it faces, with the result that authoritarian approaches take over. The important point here is perhaps that representative democracy needs to be responsive to change and needs to find a way of improving engagement. The presentation ended with a reminder that representative democracy can only survive if it expands its capacity to protect citizens and it can only do that if it re-engages with them.

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