As Europe, the United States, and Latin America confront a growing wave of populist discontent, fuelled by a widespread perception that democracy has ‘let us down,’ it is worth taking a step back from all the action, to ask: “What exactly were we expecting from our democratic institutions, and was it anything they could actually deliver?”

According to the standard narrative, at least in Europe and the United States, democracy is a system of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Acting “in the name of the people,” democracy is meant to deliver a series of premium services: first, to give a voice to ordinary people at the highest levels of power; second, to provide a comprehensive and equitable regulatory framework for social life; and third, to deliver a host of public goods, including security, economic stability, healthcare, and a public interest broadcasting service.

If our democracy was actually delivering all of this, or even came close to doing so, I doubt we would have a wave of populism sweeping across the Western world. The question is, can it? Is it reasonable for us to demand this Christmas wish list from the modern democratic state, or are we effectively setting ourselves up for a recurring cycle of frustration, disillusionment, and populist revolt?

The typical populist response to the failure of democracy to ‘deliver the goods’ has been to point the finger at a corrupt elite or an incompetent administration, and say “they failed you, but if we just put in place the right leaders, and the right policies, we can do so much better.” It is understandable that they take this line. Who, after all, would elect someone who says, “the problem is not this government, but the democratic system.”

Populists and anti-populists alike tend to buy into the idea that democracy has the resources to secure a long laundry list of goods that citizens demand, from a meaningful say in the future of their country to a comprehensive welfare system. But if we start to unpack this list, we soon discover that expecting all of this from democracy is about as realistic as expecting a low interest mortgage from Santa Claus.

Let’s start with the simple idea that democracy should give everyone a meaningful say in the future of their country. This is something that I doubt even a very creative fairy-godmother could arrange. The numbers just don’t add up: unless we are talking about a small parish or commune, the only way to run a democracy is to put a few people in power, put some appropriate checks in place, and hope that they will feel the weight of their responsibility to serve the public interest.

Perhaps they will. And perhaps people will be happy with their performance, and reward them at the polls. But to suggest that ordinary people ‘have a say’ in the way their country is run is being ‘economical with the truth,’ to say the least. Ordinary people have some say in the selection of an elite group to run their country. Elitism with a slightly democratic flavour is exactly how modern democracy works.

So even the name ‘democracy’ is really a misnomer. We live in a mixed political system. It is oligarchic inasmuch as a small group of people govern in their own interests. It is aristocratic inasmuch as elite actors, whether politicians, judges, or civil servants, do sometimes put the public interest ahead of their private interests. And it is democratic inasmuch as we can hold our politicians answerable for some of their deeds by refusing to re-elect them.

Occasionally, we can even approve or disapprove a constitutional amendment or two. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that any of these democratic elements gives us a meaningful voice in the routine operations of government.

In a large-scale society, the promise to give everyone ‘a say’ in how their country is run is basically a hollow fiction that helps to legitimise a system in which power and capital is heavily concentrated in the hands of certain classes of persons and certain institutions.

The state and its various agencies obviously exercise massive public power, but large corporations and banks provide centers of power well able to rival those of the State, as we have seen in the case of Ireland’s so-called ‘bailout,’ in which the Irish government was pressured to make Irish taxpayers pay for the sins of a greedy and reckless banking elite.

As we have seen, besides pretending to give everyone a voice in government, democracy promises to provide, or at least underwrite, a wide range of public goods. With growing levels of public debt, aging populations in the West, and a world in which economic and regulatory power is increasingly shifting away from the State, the promise of the modern state to provide welfare, pensions, security, and comprehensive public regulation rings very hollow indeed.

If modern democracies can neither give citizens the say in governance that they long for, nor provide them with the wish list of public goods that they clamour for, then will our political systems crumble under the weight of unrealistic demands?

That will depend on whether citizens are willing to radically re-adjust their expectations and start to draw on resources beyond the State to find their voice and solve the problems the State can no longer solve for them. A good place to start would be civil society’s vast network of untapped social capital.

Professor David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder Republished with permission from The Burkean, an online publication run by university students in Ireland. 

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