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Futuristic Democracy: Is it by Choice or by Compulsion?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
January 7, 2019

Across every continent democracy is desired but there is a little agreement on exactly how to achieve it. Each country has its own set of procedures, each claiming to be democratic but based on a distinctive mix of beliefs about what is important for democracy, what is feasible and what is acceptable to the population. Democracy is now widely seen as the best method to use for national government. However, this dominance is less than a century old. The growing acceptance of democracy came with changing views on what it entailed, new suggestions about the appropriate worth and treatment of people and evolving social structures.

Lincoln declared a commitment to “the government of the people, by the people and for the people” and so summed what most would recognize as democracy.

Challenges of a Modern Democracy?

First, we need to consider the relationship between political democracy and social democracy. In the late nineteen century the franchise was being expanded in many European countries and democratic rights were recognized and protected in the political spheres. The concept of political equality was thus being extended in such societies. Ideas about democratic political equality, however, raised questions about drastic inequalities to be found in the economy and the wider social order. The social democratic movement; therefore, adopted the principle that the economy and society should be constrained to serve values such as equality and social justice. The democratic transformation of politics is seen as a major step along the road to a similar transformation of the economy and society.   

Of course, it was not the view of these early social democrats this process was going to be inevitable or easy. The dilemmas inherent in this process have remained central to social democracy ever since. If it is assumed that the political action in a democratic society can lead to transformation of economy and society, how is this to be achieved by democratic means? Should the social democratic appeal be to the votes of the working class, who have the greatest objective interest in such a transformation, or should social democrats create a broader appeal across society, to try engage the interests and the votes of the middle classes? In other words, social democratic parties be class based and try to secure a transformation of society in the interest of the working class? Or should social democrats attempt a strategy based upon a wider set of values and interests, particularly through an appeal to values such as citizenship to help to achieve their goals? The problem with the former is that the class base may prove to be neither homogeneous nor large enough to sustain social democratic parties. The difficulty with the latter is that in order to incorporate a wider group into supporting the politics of social democracy, the more socialistic of its values must be compromised. This dilemma is intrinsic to social democracy that uses parliamentary methods to attempt the general transformation of capitalistic societies. This is not just a theoretical issue but has been a central practical dilemma for social democratic parties.

Throughout their history democratic parties have existed between the horns of this dilemma. In India, for example, the India National Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance in 2005 in their program called “Bharat Nirman” combined the elements of class-based analysis together with a poverty reduction program by strengthening the core infrastructure.  The implementation of the program brought out interesting class dynamics with a very strong citizen participation by colluding the national and the individual interests together. The poverty alleviation and development program were successful enough to ensure the reelection of United Progressive Alliance II in the next general election.

Democracy in the New Era

The main movements to increase democracy have an element of localism with decision taken to smaller groups of people with common identity and close to the issue. While subsidiarity seeks to blend local decisions with international ones there is still problem of allowing smaller groups to make large decisions. With the spread of decisions to the local communities then there is a dilution of the types of decisions that can be made. Problems are broken in to number of local reactions rather than national approach. So, there is tension between desire for small community groups and the desire to make decisions for the whole state. This distinction also marks the difference between solution based on local structure and solution that attempt to impact on the total infrastructure of the nation. Agenda 2030 SDGs faces the same problems as it sets up a global desire for sustainable development and recognizes that problems cross national boundaries, but also stress that solutions are not only in the hands of the national governments but must also involve local groups. It also recognizes that there will be different local responses to the commonly agreed problems. An international problem but many solutions based on a mix of very localized projects, national schemes and international agreements.

The challenge for democracy in the current scenario is not so much how democracy is achieved but which decisions are taken democratically, and which group of people participates. Choices of democratic procedure will follow from the composition from the group and the type of decisions that are made. No set of democratic procedures is perfect, and concession are made for practical reasons. Where democracy is totally lacking is in the growing number of decisions that are made by other means or by people who are not accountable to the elected representatives.  

Author: Pooja Paswan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph. D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected].

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