Is democracy on the slide?

If the public have little or no understanding of the decisions and institutions that govern our lives and we continue to ignore the warning signs, how long before we can no longer say with honesty that we live in a democracy?

Daniel John is a law student who writes on democracy and society since the 2008 financial crash

In my mind democracy is not so much a system of governance, but rather the result of a system of governance. It appears to me, and many others, that in the past three to four decades the word democracy, despite retaining its dictionary definition, in practice has become something else altogether.

The control of the systems and institutions that have a dramatic effect on all of our lives have been handed over to undemocratic and private institutions, such as the IMF and The World Bank for example; institutions that are something of a mystery to most people.

Since 2007 the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published the “Democracy Index”. It aims to provide a snapshot of democracy worldwide and as of 2012, according to the index, democracy is at a standstill. The causes of democratic decline put forward by the EIU are probably not that revelatory; the lack of confidence in political institutions exacerbated by sovereign debt crises and political participation decreasing are no real surprise; but from this a depressing picture of sustained decline emerges, with no sign of abatement.

Some may argue about the kind of metrics used to measure an international decline in democracy, and the conclusions one can draw from the EIU’s research may vary. I say this to highlight what is sometimes referred to as the ‘blind-spot’ of objectivity. In a world of so much information, truth and understanding seem to be more elusive than ever.

It probably wouldn’t take more than an hour or two to find a study from an equally reputable institution that contradicts the study by the EIU. Anyone who spends their time monitoring the ‘digital info-tsunami’ that is the internet would probably concede that a fair description of the internet could be that of millions of people hurling ‘think-tank report’ after ‘independent research’ after ‘sound bite’ at each other in comment boxes all over the web, peppered with ‘ism’s’ and conspiracy theory-driven paranoia.

Repetition

This is probably why most people still rely on traditional media for their information. The reassuring sight of a ‘talking head’ providing insight and comment from experts, MP’s and the public is a much neater and more digestible form of information provision; but this has its own, equally worrying drawbacks.

Despite news coverage being a 24 hour operation, the same stories are repeated throughout the day. You would think, with all the material on the internet, that the conventional news would be able to provide the viewer with a near endless stream of fact-checked, verified stories on a daily basis, instead of the yawningly repetitive ‘voxpop’ news that makes up the better part of the mainstream news.

Some of the reasons for this gap in news coverage are discussed in the book Flat Earth News, a book by the journalist Nick Davies. According to Davies, a large number of news outlets are now a source of “distortion, falsehood and propaganda”. The pressure of deadlines and the cutting back of staff have made it impossible for journalist’s to check facts and chase stories of real public interest. The news nowadays comes directly from PR offices and are published almost without question or review, the public’s obsession with the sex lives of z-list celebrities is used as an excuse to not cover more important issues – the fear being that if they do not pander to the public’s base interests, the readers and the advertising revenue will go elsewhere.

The limits of the mainstream media

The Positive Money campaign is one of the many victims of this shift in journalism and news coverage and the vastness of the internet. Irrespective of whether you agree with Positive Money’s position or not, it comes as a surprise that a legitimate campaign on a subject that is so relevant to the public interest and at the front of people’s mind at the moment, that it receives absolutely no coverage in the mainstream media.

Positive money are but one example but there are many more, such as the successful ’38 Degrees’ campaign to make eight multinational corporations pay the tax owed on profits from the Olympic village in 2012, despite the government giving them this perk in the first place. None of this makes the news, and when it does it is fleeting, despite it being a story fitting into the media’s narrative arc.

If society loses the means to question decisions that affect our lives we have reached a dangerous place. If the public have little or no understanding of the decisions and institutions that govern our lives and we continue to ignore the warning signs, how long before we can no longer say with honesty that we live in a democracy?

5 Responses to “Is democracy on the slide?”

  1. Alex Swatton

    Agreed, I think the notion of our country being a democracy is dangerously on the slide. 24 rolling news has become so tedious, surely they can broadcast far more content – what is going on?

  2. Jakka

    Policy making has been privatised by this government in return for bribes.

  3. willneedham

    “In my mind democracy is not so much a system of governance, but rather the result of a system of governance. ” – That’s pretty much the equivalent of saying if you don’t like the outcome it’s not democracy.

    The emergence of UKIP is a resurgence in democracy. Repatriating powers ceded to the EU, wil increase democracy. So a vote for UKIP will also increase democracy.

  4. Lady Luck

    That Britain is barely a democracy is hardly news; that this ‘democracy’ is certainly not representative, even less so. We are governed by a neo-liberal elite who share the same world view as the commodity oligarch gangsters, media moguls and corporate carpetbaggers who pull the strings of the political classes who give their destructive and repressive ideologies a sort of spurious legitimacy. Clegg? Cameron? The New Labour gang? Same product, different packaging. Government exists as a facilitating organisation for the franchising of its own true responsibilities and functions, namely, the provision of services that should benefit the majority of the population. Instead, it is giving them away for fun and profit to the likes of Serco, Capita and Virgin. Your taxes, their tax havens. Contrary to their lies, the state isn’t shrinking. It’s simply being handed over to these unaccountable corporate entities. This is the corporate state, protected by supine and willing politicians, eager to kiss corporate arse and licking their lips at the thought of those lucrative post-Parliament non-executive directorships. Freedom of information? Taxation? Not for them.

    Welcome to ‘democracy’, 2013 style. Almost looks like the real thing, from a distance. Close up, smells like shit.

  5. Daniel John

    I Take your point, but it’s not the equivalent. I didn’t say that if you don’t like the results of an “election” it’s not a democracy. A democracy needs many things to function, the vote is just one part – as I sure you would agree, the EU is not exactly a poster child for democracy, but it’s representatives are voted for; how many people voted? what do they know of the EU institutions? what media coverage did the elections get in the popular press? these are all key elements of a functioning democracy.

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