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Democracy's Missing Pieces: Questions for You
This week, I'm turning the tables to ask you some questions about political writing and democracy. What are we missing? What do we get wrong? What should we cover?
For years, I’ve argued that democracy around the world, including in Canada, suffers from at least two major challenges. For one, we have limited participatory self-government, preferring to farm out political decision-making to professional politicians who are all too happy to hoard that power. The structure of liberal democracy asks and expects little from us, which creates a thin relationship between individuals and political life, disempowering them and letting the powerful get away with all kinds of decisions that work against self-rule and social and economic justice.
We have also chosen to ignore – or obscure – the fact that you can’t talk about democracy without talking about class and economics. For instance, if someone has a series of democratic rights — the right to vote, the right to protest, the right to hold office, etc. — but can’t exercise those rights because they’ve been structurally marginalized by economic policies and working conditions, then do they really have those rights? I argue no, they don’t. I have been in so many rooms where well-meaning people jibber jabber about democracy and neither class nor economics ever even comes up.
Writing about democracy is often gated, either because it’s literally restricted by publishers — especially academic rackets — or because it’s written in a way that inaccessible. I tried to write my book on political decision-making in such a way that almost anyone could read it and come away with the main points. If you wanted to go deeper, you could. But it wouldn’t take too much work to get the important stuff.
I think we should all take part in civic life, but I also think we’re all struggling to get through the day, and not everyone has the privilege to be able to engage in political life. In fact, that’s part of the problem.
Beyond the big problems I mentioned above, democratic scholars, journalists, observers, politicians, and others who are laser-focused on democracy also often suffer from a failure to touch grass. To get out. To talk to people. To get a sense of what they might be missing. It’s easy to become detached and arrogant in these professions, as if you know better by default, as if you couldn’t possibly be mistaken.
There are things you know. Things you don’t know. And things you don’t know that you don’t know. I try my best to do well at managing that third category: the things I’m not even aware I’m missing. This week, I’m using this space to ask you about what isn’t covered in our political discourse, or what’s covered poorly. What’s missing, particularly from coverage about democracy? It could be a theory, an issue, a perspective, some bit of democratic history, or something else altogether.
I’m considering writing another book about democracy. I’m also thinking about spending more time writing about it here — and beyond these pages, too. But after years of working on the topic, I’m concerned that I’ve shut out considerations that I should be paying attention to. I’m very keen to be schooled, corrected, and set straight.
As we live through a global democratic recession, the rise of far-right extremism, toxic social media with its flows of mis-/disinformation, economic exploitation, attacks on free speech, geopolitical crises, and the existential threat of climate change, it’s important that we assess and strengthen democracy — that we double down on it. That means bringing people into self-government, and it means making sure they have the resources to take part and a robust set of rights they can actually make use of.
If you have a minute, I’d be grateful if you’d share your thoughts in the chat below or by e-mail. You can be general or specific. You can be theoretical or practical. You can focus on Canada or another country. You can discuss contemporary democracy or the historical practice of self-government. I’m open to anything and excited to see what you’ve got in store.
Please feel free to share this post, too, and invite others to join the conversation. I look forward to reading.