Making democracy personal

Personal Democracy Forum Central and Eastern Europe 2017

April 6-7, 2017

European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk, Poland


Always eager to feed the governance geek in me, I have recently started re-watching The West Wing. In Season 1, one of the episodes takes the President and his White House staff to Virginia for a town hall meeting. In response to a student’s question regarding youth participation in politics, President Bartlet says: “A man once said this, ‘Decisions are made by those who show up.’ So are we failing you, or are you failing us? It’s a little of both.”

I couldn’t help but see a parallel between the scripted answer of the American President and the question that resonated with the audience during the opening remarks of the Personal Democracy Forum Central and Eastern Europe and became an imaginary ‘thorn in the side’ of its attendees: “Has democracy failed us or have we failed democracy?” I think it could be a little of both.

Constant influx of new social innovations makes governments more accountable, allows for more openness and enables citizen engagement. It is logical to claim and believe that openness is a weapon of democracy. But it is also important to note the disillusionment and revolt among citizens. These are caused by corruption scandals, unexplained budgetary discrepancies and other democratic failures brought to light precisely because of this increasing openness and access to more information and data.

One would argue that discontent of the general public with seeming betrayals of their governments to hold themselves accountable for their decisions is undoubtedly a good thing. After all, a citizen aware of governmental wrongdoing or abuse of one’s political power for personal gain perpetually widening the socioeconomic inequality gap is a citizen empowered to seek justice and right a wrong. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead are citizens being radicalized and turning to desperate measures: putting all their trust in emerging populist nationalist leaders who, in the grand scheme of things, have the potential to do even more harm.

Fear of the perceivably unstoppable wave of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa and scepticism of current governments’ ability and capacity to effectively address this issue lead the electorate to turn away from the neoliberal promise of socioeconomic prosperity which they now view as a failed dream and to turn towards much more radical and disconcerting solutions of populist political leaders: hostility, suspicion, protectionism, and propaganda.

Pawel Adamowicz, the Mayor of the City of Gdansk – an incredibly tolerant and open city – called on the need to ‘reboot’ democracy and immigrant policy. The latter is currently less of a policy and more of a struggle for reconciliation between a democratic local policy of integration and anti-immigrant sentiments of many central governments in the EU. Another reason why a ‘reboot’ of democracy is necessary is the fact that, as Andrew Rasiej from The Civic Hall community centre in New York, USA pointed out, we are still following the industrial-age model of what democracy should be and it no longer works.

According to Elena Calistru of Funky Citizens Romania, the reason people have begun to look up to populists is because in their eyes these address the real needs and fears of the citizens who are feeling marginalized and economically disadvantaged. They are convinced the current establishment refuses to acknowledge their concerns and are seeking alternative solutions. After all, the financial sector was bailed out at the expense of ordinary people; which only reinforced the frustrated feelings of dislocation and discomfort with the current system (Stephen King, Omidyar Network).

Hera Hussain of CHAYN said that the undeniable failure of our democracies is the inevitable aftermath of the failed promises of neoliberalism. Populists are benefiting from this by tapping into people’s fears. Ironically, transparency that should logically be enhancing democracy is actually reinforcing the rise of populism and radicalism because it reveals the scandals and corruption of the current system. One of the reasons for this is the asymmetry between how much we now know and to what extent we can act and change the situation for the better (Sandor Ledered, K-Monitor).

Thus, people are crying for a new social contract (Zuzana Wienk, Aliancia Fair Play), but at the same time they are disinterested in politics. It is hard to blame them since basic institutions and pillars of democracy are being dismantled and it is virtually impossible for them to gauge where to direct their hopes and trust. So they run around with new projects but they forget that progress begins by fixing themselves on the inside. “It’s an illusion that we can change the world. [In fact], we can’t reboot democracy without rebooting ourselves [first],” said Zuzana.

I myself am an advocate of the so-called ‘less is more’ life philosophy so I will close this article with a reflection on what Zuzana above said during the Forum for it has truly resonated with me. Actually, her thoughts inspired the title of this piece as well. It is only when we make the change that needs to happen personal that we have a capacity to bring about positive impact on the world and people around us.

Sustainability of the future of European integration depends not just on rebooting democracy but on adapting everything it represents: accountable governments, accessible information and involved citizenry. So I urge us now to individually think about the meaning of democracy in the context of the constantly evolving and rapidly technologically developing society.

Let us consider not only what democracy is but also what it needs to be so it can adequately respond to the new demands of its citizens and to properly react to the increasing radicalization tendencies of local governments and their electorates.

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