As a part of the second generation of “transitologists” interested in the causes, processes and consequences of political regime change, I was exposed to a considerable amount of writing on democratic theory and practice. After all, if one is going to study the reasons for democratic collapse, authoritarian rise and fall and the re-emergence, restoration or first appearance of democracy, one should have a pretty good grasp on what democracy is and is not. In recent years the theme amongst third and fourth generation transitologists includes the unfortunate subject of democratic decline, something that is global in nature and has been evident in mature as well as relatively nascent or immature democracies over the last decade or so.
In a book that I wrote about the relationship between the State, organised labour and capitalists in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, I used my understanding of democratic theory to break down what it looks like in practice. I distinguished between procedural democracy, which is the (electoral) means by which incumbents of political decision making positions are selected, and substantive democracy, which are the institutional, social and economic dimensions underpinning the procedural level and which gives it intrinsic merit.
Without going into the type of detail that a 400 page book carries in it, it is at the substantive level where small “d” democracy signs in. Large “D” Democracy basically refers to the procedural and institutional bases of a particular form of elected political representation–rule of law, separation of powers, universal franchise, horizontal and vertical accountability etc. Although there is overlap with the institutional dimension, small “d” democracy refers to societal and material traits that are inculcated in a politically organised collectivity–a polity, in other words–and which have the potential to become self-reproducing. Over time, concepts like equality, fairness, consensus and consent, mutual respect, toleration and compromise move from being ideals or notions about the proper social order to being baseline characteristics of small “d” societies. These values do not just inform collective decision-making at all levels. They imbue individual behaviour with a personal ethos grounded in them.
In short, the substance of democracy is ideological, which determines the values upon which its institutions and procedures are founded.
Entire careers have been made studying the procedural and institutional bases of democratic political systems. Electoral analysis, polling, constitutional law, legislative studies, party politics, executive relations with the judiciary and legislature–all of these fields (and more) have focused on the mechanics, interactions, processes and personalities involved in the formal side of big “D” Democracies. They assume away, ignore or take for granted that their subjects are underpinned by an ideological foundation grounded in collective agreement on behaviour and representation. This misses a fundamental aspect of the social construct known as democracy.
Put another way, focusing on the procedural-institutional aspects of democracy without considering its substantive dimensions is akin to studying a hollow shell.
Consider this: we repeatedly hear about the importance of the “rule of law,” that no person is above the law and that democracies are founded on laws, not people. But a universal law prohibiting people from sleeping on park benches in fact only prohibits some people from doing so. The practical impact of universal laws, to paraphrase Gramsci, descends through a complex tissue of class, racial, ethno-religious, gender and other vulgarisations on its way to becoming enforceable edicts, with the effect being that law enforcement is often non-universal or discriminatory in nature. In order for universal laws to be universal in application, there needs to an underpinning consensus that they be so regardless of circumstance.
That is where the substance of democracy–its ideological foundations translated into everyday social practice–matters. And that is also where the core problem of democracy currently lies.
International polling over the last decade or so shows a steady erosion in support for democracy and, more alarmingly, greater dissatisfaction with democracy amongst younger people. The erosion of support for democracy is linked to the emergence of elected authoritarians like Dutarte, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan, but also in the rise of the Alt-Right and various nationalist populist movements across the globe. The problems of of democracy appear to be both institutional and ideological.
Institutionally, most advanced democracies display signs of sclerosis. Lobbying, corruption, clientelism, patronage, gerry-mandering, vote-buying and voter suppression, rank partisanship and other pathologies have turned the institutional edifice upon which most current political democracies are perched extremely brittle. That has increased public cynicism and distrust about politics and politicians to the point that the disapproval is of the system as a whole, not just a few “bad apples.” That in turn has made contemporary democracies susceptible to manipulation by external actors using disinformation and psychological operations campaigns in order to exploit social cleavages and further sow divisions from within, knowing that these will be reproduced rather than ameliorated by the political class.
The problem is compounded by the elimination of what used to be called civics education in secondary schools. Replaced by non-critical “social studies” programs that fail to address both the structural and ideological bases of democracy, recent generations of students have no real grasp on what democracy entails. Among the worst areas of confusion are the notion of “rights,” especially with regards to the comparative rights of majorities and minorities and the exercise of freedom of speech. This occurs against a backdrop of increased vulgarisation of social discourse at all levels, so what used to pass as informed debate on contentious issues has now descended into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks from the halls of parliament to local board meetings, ratepayer assemblies and a host of community AGMs ( I write this as I am in the process of filling out my local government voting papers and in light of what I have seen and heard about recent “meet the candidate” events).
More broadly, the focus on rights without regard to responsibilities ignores the mutual second best trade-offs that lie at the core of democratic social culture. To recall: in a democracy no one gets everything they want all of the time but everyone gets some of what they want most of the time, with the guarantee of being able to revisit contentious issues at regularly scheduled intervals (politically, in the form of elections and referenda). That is the core of small “d” democracy: acceptance and reproduction of the values of toleration and compromise based on notions of quality and fair play.
That is the crux of the matter. Large “D” Democracy persists in that it has a procedural and institutional facade with much history and to which much attention is paid. But it is substantively corroded from within and without, and worst yet, it lacks the ideological glue that would allow it to continue to survive as a genuine political alternative to various forms of authoritarianism.
Therein lies the the problem. From politicians to institutions to individuals, the small “d” value system that once sustained big “D” Democracy appears to have diminished into a faint echo. What is left within big ‘D” Democracies is partisanship, opportunism and authoritarianism disguised as problem solving, “common sense” and freedom of expression. Rather than civic minded people of virtue interested in public service, big “D” Democratic politics is increasingly populated by charlatans, demagogues, self-interested grifters, con artists and hypocritical reprobates of various stripes.
With politicians acting in bad faith, partisan cleavages deepening, foreign actors (state and non-state) manipulating news and younger generations ignorant of what democratic values are and are not, it should not be surprising that as a cultural norm, small “d” democracy is on the wane.
Even so, there is room for hope. Things like student climate activism, Code Pink direct action campaigns and the spontaneous activities of a wide range of community groups are signs that there is a thirst for small “d” democracy around the world. But that requires returning to the notion of democratic values as a starting point for any discussion about collective action, political participation and interest group representation. It requires confronting undemocratic bullies who lead local government bodies and volunteer organisations as well as those in the halls of parliament. It needs, in other words, a re-appreciation of the basic social value structure that overrides collective and individual egotism and which forges fresh horizontal solidarity ties between groups as well as their vertical ties to political representatives.
That is a matter of education, not politics.