Sustaining a vibrant democracy in a challenging world

– OPINION –

Sir Peter Gluckman, Director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures

The complex balance of sustaining democracy while governing at a time of public health crisis surely must be one of the foremost issues for many countries during the pandemic.  Even before the pandemic emerged, the fragility of democracy was a hot topic in many democracies, with issues ranging from mis- and dis-information and electoral interference to voter apathy and even cynicism.

Representative democracy, to meet its generally understood goals, requires trust between those who are elected as representatives and those who elect them. In turn, trust requires transparency and truthfulness from the representatives and a shared understanding, with majority acceptance, of the goals of those elected.

But the relationship between those elected and voters has changed in recent years. Shorter news cycles, social media, greater expectations in a very changed world, and the dimensions of our political identities have diversified well beyond a simplistic binary of Left and Right economic and social ideologies. Today, a greater variety of social issues, moral issues, environmental issues, technological issues, issues of national identity, personal identity, collectivism/individualism, and leadership style all play a role in defining voter preferences and even whether they will vote.

If we want politicians to be responsive to our needs, we need to be able to engage with them in ways that are meaningful to both them and us. This needs more than the application of opinion polls, undertaken by political operatives, which is a process that now influences much short-term political decision making.

While technology is changing the potential for a much more connected relationship between politicians and citizens generally, how to do so is not yet clear.  Citizens must be reliably informed; otherwise we risk a more ‘vulgar democracy’ to use the term coined by the noted philosopher Philip Kitcher. Mis- and dis-information, which are now so common and can be intentionally driven, are making further inroads into democratic process as we know it.

A recent report by the New Zealand Initiative has focused on the need for every citizen to be informed about how they are governed. This is an important reminder. But, while few would argue the importance of basic knowledge of current civics in a representative democracy, and while the report focused on ‘deficit remedies’, it is also important to explore other solutions such as a more participatory democracy. Indeed, could it be that supporting democracies requires  not just civics knowledge but whole new institutions?

In New Zealand, the Select Committee process  does not tend to apply the depth or breadth of scrutiny  that is seen in similar parliamentary mechanisms in other countries, and only very rarely allows issues to be explored outside a very constrained legislative review. Referenda are one response, but they effectively create binary choices on matters that may be highly nuanced and need greater dissection and stakeholder analysis.  For example the current consideration of marijuana law reform creates a difficult singularity of choice, requiring voters to weigh up the trade-offs between the harm-reduction approach of decriminalisation, and wanting to discourage marijuana use, especially among young people. How can we balance these perspectives where there are large values components and levels of uncertainty?

Could citizens’ juries, increasingly used in other countries, help governments here make more socially-robust decisions? Would this be a way to get consensus when values and worldviews are in contest on some very complex issues such as moving from a criminal to a health focus in drug reform, or addressing the use of new technologies in agriculture? Koi Tū is exploring the potential for a ‘made-in-NZ’ form of participatory democracy, which could be better suited to deal with such difficult issues within our local cultural and historic contexts.

Other work in our centre, which is focused on social cohesion and societal resilience globally, points to the critical role of both horizontal and vertical trust within society, and the respect and embrace of diverse worldviews. That is, we need trust between members of society and trust in the social and governance institutions that affect us all.  Both losing trust and breaking it are equally threatening to a democracy. New Zealand is in a fortunate position compared to many countries, but we cannot be complacent. And just as politicians need to respect the trust placed in them, so too do voters need to better understand the constraints and challenges of elected officials as they weigh up decisions on the public’s behalf. Not to do so will ultimately be counterproductive and lead to more disengagement, disaffection and a fractured and less competent society.

Finding the balance between representative and participatory democracy in a world awash with information and mis- and dis-information is a challenge. But it is a challenge we cannot afford to ignore. In our fast-changing world, a well-informed and engaged electorate is critical.