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Can democracy be salvaged for the 21st century?

Volume 10 Number 10 October 13 - November 9 2014

The ruins of the Roman forum, Italy. Photo: iStock.
The ruins of the Roman forum, Italy. Photo: iStock.


Public Policy’s Mark Triffitt explores the woes, challenges and opportunities of democracy in the 21st century.

For democracy, it is the best of times and the worst of times

On one level, things have rarely looked brighter.

National elections in 2014 in two of the world’s most populous countries – India and Indonesia – meant that more people participated in democratic elections than any year in history.

Around one billion voters filled out ballots and placed their political faith and aspirations in the liberal democratic system.

Beneath the surface, however, there are critical signs all is far from well.

Democracy’s woes

Across the West, trust in political leaders and democratic institutions has fallen to new lows.

Membership of political parties has dropped below 5 per cent in most Western democracies, while in Australia the most optimistic numbers suggest it is now barely 2 per cent.

Parliaments and politicians seem increasingly incapable of resolving the big challenges of our time as sound, future-focused policy is constantly overtaken by gridlock and spin.

Such is the malaise that a recent survey by the Australian National University found only 43 per cent of Australians believe it makes a difference which party is in power – a 25 per cent decrease in just seven years.

More worrying, young people – the future of democracy – seem increasingly disconnected from the political system.

Many of them are questioning whether democracy has anything special to recommend itself, compared with non-democratic systems.

This is a far cry from when Western-style liberal democracy emerged ‘unchallengeable’ following the collapse of communism 20 years ago as the ‘best’ system to manage the 21st century.

Why is democracy failing?

Why does Western democracy now seem to be eating itself from within? 

Conventional narratives blame poor political leadership. Our political leaders and parties have become so obsessed with spin and short-term political gain, it is argued, they no longer care about long-term policy.

This lends itself to a belief that democracy’s problems, while serious, are relatively easy to fix. All we need is better, more strategic leadership and all will be well again.

But what if the problems cannot be fixed by better leaders? What if the trends highlighted above are the result of deep problems with the system itself?

If we look objectively at liberal democracy – the predominant ‘delivery mechanism’ of democracy around the world – we start to realise it cannot function in the 21st century without major renewal.

Liberal democracy emerged from a specific historical environment and conditions. It is a 19th century political system built around 19th century assumptions and organising principles about how the political and policy world should work. 

My contention is that a combination of globalisation and the rapid development of internet-based communications technology (ICT) from the 1990s onwards have effectively blown these 19th century assumptions and principles out of the water. These two mega-trends have effectively super-sped, super-scaled and made super-complex the dynamics of political, social and economic activity.

These new ‘super-fied’ dynamics are fundamentally different from those which liberal democracy – with its parliaments, political party system and mass elections every three or four years – is geared to manage.

For example, liberal democracy assumes the world around it will move in a comparatively slow way. 

This gives elected representatives and parliaments sufficient time and scope to decide on policy and turn them into laws in a deliberate, proactive way.

It also assumes elected representatives are the prime decision-makers on policy-making. This is because they are at the top of policy and political hierarchy so they can ‘see’ further into the future to create future-focused policy.

It also assumes that national parliaments will always be the most important realm which will decide what, in terms of policy, will have a major and ongoing impact on the citizens they represent.

Lastly, it assumes that the political party system is the best way to represent and organise our collective political voices and identities.

A disconnected system

In the context of globalisation and ICT, not one of these assumptions or organising principles applies with any consistency or coherency.

Rather than a comparatively static world where information and authority flows top down, we now live in a highly fluid, rapid-fire world. This is a world that is increasingly networked horizontally, breaking down traditional structures of hierarchy and power. This a world where political identity and the voice of citizens are endlessly morphing as issues and constituencies come and go with increasing rapidity.

This is particularly the case as globalisation takes many of the issues that impact on people out of the reach and control of national parliaments.

Quite simply, it is becoming impossible for politicians to know or anticipate what is going on in the super-fast, super complex, scaled-up world that now surrounds them. Nor can they create timely or coherent public policy frameworks to manage it.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult for political parties, organised as they are around 19th century social and economic cleavages of class, geography and ideology, to represent the rapidly changing, fragmenting political voices of a social media-driven, globalised citizenry.

This means the political party system is increasingly incapable of organising broad support – otherwise known as a mandate – for major policy change. 

No wonder our political leaders and parties, increasingly shorn of their ability to command authority or shape policy, retreat more and more into the short-term and trivial.

What are the solutions?

While all this paints a bleak picture, it is important to recognise the problem is not with democracy per se.

To reiterate, it is the current delivery mechanism of democracy – liberal democracy – that has become fundamentally stranded from the world around it.

So what might be the solutions?

To begin we need to recognise the current system requires transformation, not tinkering. 

We need to consider new institutions and mechanisms that deliver democracy in a way that aligns with the radically changed dynamics of our 21st century world.

The sort of big questions we need to ask ourselves to find real solutions are:

What is the role of parliaments in a re-designed system and should they retain a prime place in law-making?

Should mass elections be supplemented, or even replaced by other forums of citizen input?

What is the role of social media in public consultation? Should it (or even can it) be formalised into decision and policy-making?

Is there scope for expert panels – insulated from short-term political and media pressures – to steer and decide on important policy issues?

What role should political parties have in this new system?

Coming up with a new, fit-for-purpose democratic system may well be both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity facing us all in the 21st century. 

Dr Mark Triffitt is a former political adviser. He lectures in public policy at the Melbourne School of Government.