Statute of Keith Holyoake under wrapping

On the path to democratic renewal

John Pennington suggests how the work of Canadian political scientist Mark E. Warren can help us help us think about the task of improving our democracy.

There can be little doubt that the Covid 19 pandemic has shaken many of the institutions and practices which we thought were immutable e.g. the economy, globalisation, politics, leadership, ethics, health to name just a few.

The pandemic has also cast a light on the ways in which different political systems have managed the crisis and how apparently successful they have been in reducing the curve and opening-up their economies.

Those countries of a liberal democratic persuasion have been a mixed bag in terms of how they have combated the virus. The US and England have been demonstrable failures whilst states such as Aotearoa New Zealand, South Korea and Australia that have demonstrated liberal democracies can perform the key tasks assigned to them competently and with the overwhelming support of their citizens. 

Regardless of how well or badly countries ‘like us’ have performed in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of their citizens, post-Covid demands a rethinking of the democratic political institutions that we believe are necessary to support the ideals of democracy.  One reason why this is a necessary task is the fact that the future, now seen from the rubble of Covid 19, cannot be the kind of future presented to us before the new dispensation. The Covid interregnum has allowed us to question many of our practices such as the way we work, what the economy is for, the need for time to foster social relations, etc. 

We need to address these, and other pressing issues collectively.  Technocratic/expert solutions or pathways to a newly envisaged future cannot be the way forward. Of course, expertise is necessary, but it cannot be sufficient. Addressing this new democratic future will require collective engagement and agreement as to what features a functioning democracy will require to serve the needs, preferences, desires, and ambitions of its people. Hopefully Trust Democracy will have a prominent role in promoting, encouraging, and fostering such a project.

What follows is an attempt to give some structure to how we as a group of people, vitally interested in making our existing democracy more democratic, think about those features we believe are indispensable to achieve this task. Of course, democracy, like so many normative terms, is contestable and that is how it should be. What follows is not intended to be prescriptive but rather to lay out some thinking that hopefully will help start an ongoing conversation between ourselves and others. 

I make no claims to originality here. What follows is indebted to recent work published by the Canadian political scientist Mark E. Warren. Mark is one of the most important political theorists writing today, as well as someone who has extensive empirical and practical experience in deliberative processes.

‘What democracy is’ is a contested concept. The contest is often over a narrow set of definitions e.g. democracy is about voting, or elections, or some other feature(s). Prioritising certain features and using these to make claims about what democracy is diminishes our thinking about democracy.

For example, emphasising a model of deliberative democracy centred on deliberation tends to neglect questions of power, inequality and political decision-making. Deliberative democracy is primarily about communicative responses to disagreement, preference formation and collective will formation.

Warren asks two strategic questions that help structure thinking as to what features are essential to democracy.

Q1. ‘What problems does a political system need to solve if it is to function democratically?’ 

Answer: ‘If a political system empowers inclusion, forms of collective agendas and wills, and organises collective decision capacity, it will count as “democratic”.’

Q2. ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses of generic political practices as ways and means of addressing these problems?’

Answer: ‘Political systems that solve democratic problems make use of seven kinds of generic political practices: recognising, resisting, deliberating, representing, voting, joining, and exiting.’

According to Warren, ‘a democratic political system should combine these practices, usually into institutions, in ways that maximise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses’. How might a variety of practices – voting, deliberating, representing etc – be organised to address these functions?

As mentioned above, according to Warren, a political system must accomplish the following to count as “democratic”: empowered inclusioncollective agenda and will formation, and collective decision making

  • Democratic political systems include those people entitled to voice and impact into political processes 
  • Once inclusions are achieved, democracies need to form this input into collective agendas or wills, through communication, deliberation, negotiation, and bargaining 
  • Finally, democracies need to make decisions through which “the people” are constituted into collective agents capable of doing collective things for themselves.

It is normatively necessary for a political system to solve each of these problems if it is to count as “democratic.” If any one of these functional capabilities is missing, the system cannot count as democracy. 

Why these three (normative) functions, and not more or fewer? According to Warren, ‘these are the functions that describe the relationships between individual and collective agency that establish democracy as “rule of the people”.’

  • The first function frames questions as to how individual agents gain status and influence within collectivities. 
  • The second frames questions as to how they enter relationships of understanding with others, such that they can identify and understand their preferences, and relate their preferences to others and to collective agendas. 
  • The third frames questions of collective agency through which people provide collective goods for themselves.

This is a minimalist description of what democracy needs and there are many other goods that are often associated with democracy such as social stability, peace, prosperity, human development, freedom, and liberty. These goods are not neglected by Warren but are included in the three functions.

I have tried to present Warren’s ideas in very abbreviated form without doing too much damage to what is a complex set of arguments. Personally, I think the key ideas presented here are ones that Trust Democracy should subscribe to. At the very least, hopefully, it provides a structuring device that helps us start down the road to articulating, practicing, and arguing for what we believe are the essential features a democratic Aotearoa New Zealand must exhibit. 

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