I believe Gandhi is the only person who knew about real democracy — not democracy as the right to go and buy what you want, but democracy as the responsibility to be accountable to everyone around you. Democracy begins with freedom from hunger, freedom from unemployment, freedom from fear, and freedom from hatred. To me, those are the real freedoms on the basis of which good human societies are based.
America is the poster child for collapsed social trust.
Democracy is not working because we’re using it wrong. It does work in relatively small communities. Why?
When people organize themselves into communities, they’re more likely to feel comfortable to participate in democratic discussions. Ideally, everyone’s vote counts and the group comes to decisions together, often reaching consensus. Whether it’s a union-local, religious congregation, cultural group, student group, political organization, neighbourhood committee, social club, sports club…or even a potluck dinner…
The problem comes when we try to govern large communities, in which we don’t even know each other, let alone feel comfortable to discuss difficult issues with each other. The current ‘democratic’ system groups us together in random ways based on geography with people we don't know and have never discussed issues. In most cases, it ends up being simply a popularity contest, the winner being the one who raised the most money. Those ‘representatives’ can often be pressured in various ways to support corporate interests.
This is not really democracy at all. Instead of providing a forum for rational discussion and decision making, it's more of a reality TV show.
The contestants (politicians) participate in various activities (debates, rallies, media appearances, canvassing...) hoping to be chosen by the viewers (electorate). If chosen, they generally have four years to prove themselves to avoid being voted off the island of economic control. The producers of the show (corporations, hedge funds, the IMF, Davos attendees, think tanks...) are permitted to fill all forms of media with their expectations (low taxes, privatization, de-regulation, high stock prices...) as challenges for the politicians to meet. Even politicians who truly wish to put people before profits, have no power to do so under the current system. Barack Obama’s election was a great victory in the struggle against racism, but changed nothing about the roots of the system—property. Under Obama’s leadership, banks and corporations were given hundreds of billions of dollars to compensate for their losses gambling on a pyramid scheme they’d created in the real estate market—because they were “too big to fail”. The depression of the 1930’s had forced governments to regulate finance, but by the 1970’s another crisis of capitalism saw neoliberals call for de-regulation and smaller government which led right back to a collapse of the banking industry in 2008.
It is understandable then, why so many people don't bother to vote. Those in power are often able to design the voting boundaries in their own favour, and even exclude some people from voting at all. Most elections are a popularity contest based on who can raise the most money. Those elected representatives are pressured in various ways to support corporate interests or face the prospect of explaining to the public why their jobs are gone.
We don’t gather together to discuss issues but instead we’re all in our own bubbles of information and every few years get to make one choice. If people even bother to vote, they often hold their nose and choose the least worst option or ‘vote the bums out’ as a punishment. So, instead of deciding together how our world should be, we give someone the power to decide everything and all we have is the right to fire them at the end. Imagine if your life worked that way—once every four years you could choose the person who will decide everything for you. Who would consider that any sort of freedom. This top down process removes the essential ingredient: participation, from what we call democracy.
The idea that we need leaders is yet another myth—one of those stories we’ve been told literally for millennia. When people organize together, we develop better ideas. Brainstorming is democracy. This is not to say that we don’t need leadership, but rather that it should be collective leadership. There are situations which require decisions with no time for discussion—like an operating room where someone must decide and act quickly or a patient may die. But aside from emergency situations, even an operating room can be run democratically. Positions of leadership should be earned by inspiring confidence in the community, not by holding power over it. Elections have been turned into rituals without any substance. Politicians and pundits live for ‘election season’ in which someone will be crowned with a symbol of power when the real power always lies with those behind the scenes who own the most property.
We need to begin building a new system to govern the world.