Democracy needs heroes to champion the cause

‘Goddesses of Democracy’ in the 21st century: Thomas Marsh sculpted a replica (left) in Washington DC of the statue destroyed in Tiananmen Square in 1989; on the 21st anniversary of the massacre, Hong Kong students erected a statue on campus (centre) after police had seized a plastic replica. Flickr/DB King; Flickr/Ryanne Lai; Flickr/Ryanne Lai, CC BY-NC

Laureates, like symbolic ambassadors and commissioners, draw attention to causes and issues that we, as a society, consider to be of widespread importance.

In various parts of the world, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, literature, peace, poetry, children, writing, research and human rights all have the dedicated service of their own laureates.

For all these fields and interests, plus many more, governments and organisations approach people deemed to be great at what they do. The idea is that these people will then lend their renown – and sometimes their celebrity – to draw public attention to, and become heroes of, the causes we deem vital for the common good.

UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson is an advocate for the empowerment of women and the HeForShe campaign. EPA/Ivan Franco

However, democracy – despite being considered by many as the only legitimate form of government, an ideal that countless people around the world have pinned their hopes to now and in centuries past – has no laureates to call its own. No stars are explicitly in its service.

Sure, there have been a number of “ambassadors for democracy” during the 19th and 20th centuries. People like Nelson Mandela, places like colonial Williamsburg, even countries like Estonia, India and the United States have all in one way or another been associated with championing the cause of democracy.

Fictional characters, too, like Mickey Mouse and Superman, have had the label of ambassador of democracy thrust on them. But all these people, places and characters received the title only retrospectively or in an off-hand, critical and facetious manner.

Democracy needs prospective, pro-social laureates to draw attention to it. We think this is so for three reasons.

Representative democracy is under siege

The first reason is that representative democracy, the most used model of democracy in the world today, is widely considered to be under siege. In academic circles, writing about the so-called crisis of democracy has turned into a notable cottage industry.

It’s not just academics who think so. There’s also a popular impression that these democracies are ineffective at getting things done. Many believe that representative politics has become irrelevant to our day-to-day concerns. Average citizens tend to think that representative democracy is not only repulsive, but also a joke (a look at question time in Westminster-styled parliaments will prove this point).

Yet research is increasingly showing that these impressions are overblown and often incorrect. With a few reforms, democracies can be made more efficient, relevant and attractive to us. Democracy is more important now than ever.

Laureates are needed to draw attention to the causes of ailing representative democracies. Most of us don’t know about these ailments and even less about the medicines that can be prescribed to bring democracies back to life. This, among other things, is a job that democracy laureates can do.

Many feel that democracy is under attack. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Old democracies have stood still

Second, laureates can publicise the new democratic innovations that scholars have been pushing for years. It’s a sad fact that too few Westminster-styled democracies employ democratic innovations already in use in supposedly “less democratic” countries.

Countries like mainland China, Vietnam, Brazil and Yemen are increasingly at the forefront of institutionalising innovations like deliberative juries, citizens’ councils, public policy co-production and digital or televised town-hall meetings.

There’s a growing impression, especially in China or Vietnam, that citizens in these “non-democratic” countries are culturally more democratic in the way they live their lives and co-govern with local governments than the citizenries in “full democracies” like Australia, the US, Canada and the UK.

That’s a tremendous irony, because it’s predominantly the Westminster-styled regimes that claim to be the democratic leaders. But these days it’s the non-English-speaking democracies, and some of the countries labelled as “flawed democracies” or “non-democracies”, that top the charts when it comes to democracy innovation.

Shouldn’t the countries claiming to be the best democracies in their spheres of influence – the US, the UK and Australia, for example – be leading the way in using democratic innovations to cure representative democracy of its ailments? A democracy laureate can point out this irony – and give credit where it’s due.

China has more ‘town hall’ meetings than the US, UK and Australia. Does this make China’s citizenry more democratic? Wikimedia Commons

Stories of democracies are neglected

The third reason is unlike the first two in that it does not deal with the present day. Instead, this reason hinges upon past and future conceptions of democracy.

Scholars now tell us that the histories and futures of democracies are almost constantly being retold if not re-imagined. Scholars are uncovering forgotten democracies and their secret histories or the potential futures presented to us by things like democratic innovations. Imagine a world of mass, worthwhile and peaceful democratic politics predicated on people co-governing with their governments.

Despite how vital it is for us to understand where democracy has come from, why it functions the way it does today and where it might take us, this information is in large part unavailable to people outside the cloistered walls of the university. Democracy’s many stories are both important and interesting, but ultimately little known.

If democracy really is as crucial to this world as many claim it to be, then it deserves laureates explicitly in its service. The stability and improvement of our democracies today depends on us knowing what its problems are and how we can solve them. Demystifying its past and properly understanding its future trajectories should be important to democrats everywhere.

It’s essential that we come to know all the different stories – past and future – about democracy in this world that go untold. Will no hero champion this cause?