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I’m part of a CoVi panel addressing exactly this question a couple of nights before the election, and I wanted to do a bit of writing to get my thoughts in order. So here’s a few reflections – and I’d love any comments to help me develop the thinking further.

If no one votes, is democracy dead?

Of course, taken literally, you have to say yes. If absolutely no one votes, the representative democracy we currently have would of course be dead. But then all manner of questions follow.

Perhaps the most obvious is “What do we mean by no one?” What turnout do we need to see for there to be sufficient legitimacy in whatever follows? Given that turnout for the last three elections has been pretty pathetic, how bad would it have to get for a genuine rethink to follow? When you put low turnout together with a likely minority government, what public support could really be said to be behind any particular policy initiative?

All very interesting.

What’s much more interesting for me, though, is a second implicit question: “What do we mean by democracy?”

Do we mean the structures we now have – representative democracy, party politics, politicians in an upper and a lower house, in which the only real role for the general public is to vote once every 5 years?

Or do we mean democracy as the rule of the people by the people for the people?   This might be a vaguer definition, but it carries two important consequences:

First, it contains within it the possibility of many different ways of doing democracy. There might be other specific structures than those we have in the UK today that could cohere with this definition.

Second, there is within it a crucial implication: democracy is most fundamentally a cultural, not a political phenomenon. It is core to this conception of democracy that we the people govern ourselves in our own collective interest. For this to be possible, our culture must equip us accordingly.

And that is precisely the opposite of what we have in today’s “democracy”. Let me illustrate that with a little reflection on the voting process.

The original conception of the vote is a kind of “wisdom of crowds” principle. Each of us has a different perspective on what is best for society as a whole, and if we aggregate those perspectives, we give ourselves the best possible chance of achieving the best outcome. This sort of voting would fit with my second definition of democracy, and indeed is the system we perhaps think we have.

But now think what the vote has become. I would argue it is less and less about aggregating our diverse perspectives on what’s best for society, and more and more about each of us demanding what’s best for me or you as individuals. The clearest sign yet, in the midst of the well-intentioned scramble to rescue our current version of democracy, is a campaign directed at young people called #voteselfish, which uses the line “Vote for what matters to you. Everyone else does.”

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The language is pretty hideous, but it’s hard to argue with them in some ways: they’re just saying out loud what many of our most conspicuous politicians are implying. Consider for example the day in the build-up to the Scottish referendum when Alex Salmond announced in the morning that independence would make every Scot £1000 better off each year, only for Danny Alexander that very afternoon to claim that staying in the Union would put £1400 on every individual’s bottom line. Plenty of people that day commented on the ridiculousness of economics; rather fewer lamented the idea that this narrow, short-term, material self-interest could really be considered the major factor in decision making.

What concerns me if anything more than how many vote is how we vote, and the very fact that voting – essentially an act of consumption – has come to be the defining act of citizenship and what we call democracy. Such a “democracy” is the inevitable result of a culture where the dominant story of the individual in society is that of the Consumer – where we are constantly exposed, through ubiquitous advertising and through measures of national success like “Consumer Confidence”, to the message that the right thing for us to do as individuals is to get the best deal for ourselves, as narrowly defined individuals, measured primarily in material standards of living, and in the short term.

At the New Citizenship Project, we tested this effect by working with YouGov in perhaps the least reported poll of this election. We asked 3000 people two questions: to what extent do you think it’s important to participate actively in society, and to what extent do you think it’s important to participate actively in your local community? Before they saw those two questions, 1000 of them were asked: to what extent do you think it’s important to find brands that fit your personality? Regardless of the extent to which they agreed with this “consumer” prime, the people who saw it were significantly less likely to agree with either of the participation questions.

If that were the whole story, this would be a desperate piece. I would be forced to conclude that however many people vote, democracy – at that cultural level, where it really matters – is in real trouble.

But here’s the thing. Far away from this election and all the nonsense surrounding it, in the UK and around the world, and at that deep cultural level that really matters, democracy is being dramatically reinvented. From grass roots initiatives like Transition Towns, 64 Million Artists, and ShareAction, all of them democratising the worlds in which they work; to more formal political but fundamentally local experiments like the Civic Enterprise movement being led by Leeds City Council CEO Tom Riordan; to global experiments in participatory democracy in Argentina, Iceland, Spain, Finland, and more… the world of democracy is being reclaimed everywhere and as we speak.

Here, then, is where I have got to with our question.

Whether everyone votes or no one does, democracy is in crisis.

In particular, our present democracy is surely doomed – but that might be no bad thing.

The opportunity today is to give ourselves space to reimagine and rebuild democracy from the level of culture up.

If we can do that, it is still more than likely that our kind of representative system will be a museum piece by the middle of the century.

But from its ashes will have emerged a more authentic and very 21st century reinvention.

Or to put it another way:

Democracy is dead. Long live democracy.

Get your ticket for the CoVi penal discussion on Tuesday 5th May, 6.30 pm here.

2 thoughts on “If no one votes, is democracy dead?

  1. refreshing read! Thank you.

    I understand that you think democracy is dead already, but I am still wondering how many people do we actually need in percentages or numbers before we can conclude this definitively?

    Ie. if only 500 people out of the total population choose to vote at the next election, would the status quo still remain? And how low in voter turnout do we need to go until we give up on this particular model of democracy that we have today?

    • I don’t think we’ll get low enough to declare it that way unfortunately… remember there’s still quite a few people buying CDs and even tapes… the new will emerge before the old ceases completely!

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