The urgent need for democratic renewal

A year and a half ago I wrote a short book called The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change. There was a lot of consideration and hesitation about the title, particularly the sub-title, whether or not it sounds a bit too urgent.

Thinking about the Brexit vote and the Trump win, first of the Republican primary, and now the presidential election, perhaps it wasn’t urgent enough.

Politics and democracy need to change, now.

The analysis focuses largely on the UK and Western Europe. But the argument applies more widely. A deeply held scepticism about the ‘establishment’, declining voter turnout, low party membership, voter volatility and the struggle of mainstream parties are not new trends. They have been evolving for decades, with a steady rise in support for populist parties since the early 1990s.

There are certainly economic and cultural drivers behind these trends. But there is also an overarching feeling that politics does not work, that politicians are not representative, that the system works in favour of those who run it, which has been an equally important driver fuelling support for populist parties and actors.


Much of the analysis and reflections I have come across the past few days still focus on either economics or culture. The revolt of the ‘losers’ of globalisation. The white working class mobilised by a candidate who understands their culture and their needs. The pace of change has been too fast.

And there are important elements in these analyses which shouldn’t be ignored. Economic insecurity is a widespread phenomenon and merits discussion about solutions. Finding the right balance between promoting an inclusive, collective identity and celebrating diversity (i.e. a progressive patriotism) is imperative for combatting an exclusive and divisive nationalism.

However, many arguments that have been about the need for political change have touched largely on surface level issues. Liberals came across as too ‘smug.’ Democrats need to campaign with more emotion.

One of the notable exceptions is Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker piece about not giving up on politics in dark times. His interview with Charles Taylor brings some of measured reflection about all of us seeking a sense of being fully connected to something, of really living and not merely existing.

Democracy is “a collective effort with a noble goal: inclusion.”

Despite the fact that Taylor reverts to traditional policy solutions — raising taxes, giving the money to small towns — it’s the overarching message of localism, rooted, meaningful democracy that he advocates.

It is this positive form of empowered communities and empowered individuals we, as progressives, should be contemplating in the search for answers to the ‘Trump phenomenon.’

Part of this is down to economic solutions (Anthony Painter and Matthew Taylor’s thoughtful contributions on the basic income are recommended reading).

Another part is down to a compelling patriotic narrative (see the Canadian Liberal party).

The last element is down to a radical change to the adversarial structures of representative democracy.

The message about regaining control struck a chord with so many because the vast majority of people do not feel that national politicians listen to them, or that their voice counts in the decisions that affect their lives.

Many of the reforms needed have been obvious for ages: less gerrymandering; less money in politics; automatic voter registration; electoral reform, etc.

But these fixes are not enough; democracy is about more than just elections.

Politicians, starting with those at the local levels, need to embrace democratic innovations which give ordinary citizens a more direct and genuine voice in public decision-making.

Not referendums. These are not, in my view, an accurate way of finding out what ‘the people’ want. Complex issues are boiled down to a binary, ‘simple’ choice. People need to choose a side, perpetuating the populist politics of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Rather, we should be seeking new ways that help people find common ground and take ownership for important choices affecting them and their neighbours, towns and cities.

My forthcoming publication, The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), details around 50 examples of long-form deliberative processes in Canada and Australia over the past decade of major decisions taken by mayors, ministers, premiers and politicians.

In almost all of these cases, around 50 randomly selected citizens have met numerous times over two to three months, heard from experts, stakeholders and interest groups, discussed with one another, and found consensus to make proposals to the government or public bodies.

Their voices have led to legislative changes, to influencing the nature of multi-billion dollar budgets, and to setting priorities long-term infrastructure investments among other things.

This type of public, engaged, transparent, informed and consensus-seeking approach for finding collective solutions to society’s problems is the anti-thesis to the adversarial status quo, which populists also propagate.

It is not a quick fix solution for regaining trust. But the commitment to democracy is already sliding away in some places. To reverse it, progressives need to build new democratic institutions that give people control over their lives in a genuine and constructive way.