Human beings have both social and political lives. As social beings we strive to create meaning and are dependent upon our families, communities, associations and the moral and cultural traditions that underpin them. As political beings we strive to create order and are dependent upon our governments, institutions and the values that these reflect. The foundations of liberal democracies have been shaken by the changes that technology, urbanization, globalization and the increasing fragmentation of our communities have wrought. Creatively revitalizing these social and political institutions is vital if we are to preserve the freedoms and rights that liberal democracies have delivered in the late 20th century.
Social Contract and Social Covenant
According to Jonathan Sacks (2007: The Home We Build Together), “Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences.”
A Social Contract is an implicit or explicit agreement among members of a society to cooperate for social and economic benefits and security. This requires a trade-off where individuals consent to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of their government, and in democracies the decision of a majority, in exchange for collective rights, benefits and the protection of the state from internal and external threats. Today, many of our old social contracts with their underlying assumptions about fairness, reciprocity and benefits have broken down and there is instead enormous distrust between all factions of society including citizens, businesses and the government.
A Social Covenant is an agreement based on core collective values that is entered into by the differing ethnic, religious, and ideological groups in a society. This agreement, which can require extensive dialogue and negotiation between these groups, is designed to create a new vision for their society and new frameworks for co-existence. A social covenant is a deliberate and conscious attempt at building a society that helps create a common identity based on mutually agreed upon values and a common narrative. It also provides members of society a common vision of where to go along with a sense of purpose.
A democracy, unlike a despotic system where power is clearly delineated between those who have it and those who don’t, is based on individual autonomy and with it the willing delegation of one’s own power to representatives that we choose. The people we delegate power to are said to have the authority to exercise it, coming as it does from the people they represent.
Even as we, the people, delegate power and authority to a few to exercise on our behalf, we still retain considerable rights that are in essence non-negotiable and hence inviolable.
This is a complex tradeoff and a bargain which is both innovative and extraordinarily optimistic. For this system to work, democratic societies need to be built on a foundation of common values and understanding. This is no small task.
Universal Humanities Education
The right to responsibly self-govern and make decisions on behalf of others requires enormous understanding and skill. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated, well informed and be able to appreciate both what it means to be human and the serious limitations that come with the territory. They must also have the capacity to understand what constitutes reality, regardless of convention, fashion or self-interest.
This is not possible through narrow technical education or even a humanities education that treats students as mere consumers of educational services. Nor is this possible through what used to be called Moral Education, which tends to be religious or preachy and does not place a premium on critical thinking and the development of a complex moral compass.
This also requires all democratic nations to invest in a universal public education system where the young are exposed to a broad and deep understanding of the classics, sciences, arts, world history and contemporary politics.
Reasonableness and Respect
All democracies have systems of voting and elections by which the people choose the representatives that they will send to their legislatures and parliaments. However, the act of voting by itself is inadequate as a measure of a successful democracy. Competent and mature democracies are dependent upon its citizens having the capacity for intelligent debate, reasonable discussion and generous cooperation.
While protest and dissent are vital and noisy argument is inevitable, it is a spirit of reasonableness that allows people to engage with differences. This requires both a high level of generosity, humility and an appreciation for others’ opinions and needs, even when these are reprehensible to us. Given that democratic government implies a government by the majority, an absence of empathy for minority positions can create conflict and destabilize the social and political contract that allows the state to function effectively.
While some of these could be taught through traditional, religious and moral education that ‘tells people how to behave’, this is usually at the cost of independent thinking. It is our experience that societies are better served through a broad education that includes critical thinking and training in skills such as meditation, dialogue, and negotiation.
Democratic societies strive to be free and open. A culture that is accepting of dissent and debate leaves itself open to conflicts that have the potential to create serious stresses on the system. While most mature democracies have sophisticated and non-adversarial ways of managing these conflicts and can weather many of these stresses, this also makes democracy a vulnerable political system. The system’s very openness makes it vulnerable to internal stresses, external attacks and manipulation. The price, as they say, of liberty, is eternal vigilance.
While vigilance is necessary, excessive state vigilance can create a surveillance regime that undercuts the very freedom and openness that are vital to democracy. This is why citizens, too, must be vigilant, though not in the manner of despotic regimes that turned people against each other but by becoming guardians of the values and processes of their democratic state. This is vital to prevent those who would, in the name of efficiency or expediency, dilute the core values that alone, keep a society liberal and democratic. Knowledge and understanding of these values needs to be fostered through ongoing training and conversation about what it takes to sustain a democratic system.
Apprenticeship Through Local Self Government
Citizenship is a privilege and an act of public service. Hence all citizens in a democracy need to be educated in the working of democratic institutions through membership in student councils, community groups, city councils, municipalities, town hall meetings, etc. This exposure and experience gives people practical knowledge about public administration, the skill of balancing multiple interests and needs through the art of negotiation and graceful compromise. Membership of local bodies and clubs should be encouraged and become part of the experience of all communities. These should be non-partisan, while also structured for democratic functioning through introduction of fair and clear rules of debate, dialogue and decision making.
Traditional and conservative cultures, usually non-democratic, tend to appreciate the importance of interdependence and are often high on civic awareness and personal responsibility.
However, by not encouraging critical thinking and dissent, they tend to maintain traditional customs, practices and power relations that prevent social and economic mobility, and in the process, consign large sections of society to lives of poverty and indignity.
On the other hand, materialistic, consumerist cultures tend to be hyper individualistic and ego-centric. Their emphasis on everything individual has a tendency to fragment society, fraying the ties that bind communities. Over time, this tendency breeds social and economic inequality where people struggle to develop a sense of collective belongingness or ownership that is essential to a strong society and civic culture.
Democratic societies will constantly struggle with balancing individual autonomy with civic responsibility and cooperation. This puts a huge burden on democratic societies, which have to deliberately and consciously work harder than traditional communitarian societies to encourage and reward civic engagement and responsibility, both of which are necessary to maintaining a sense of belongingness and ownership.
The link between ownership in the collective and intelligent and conscious exercise of individual autonomy is vital to democracy and it is this difficult balance that can give rise to a healthy interest in public life and community engagement. Beyond preaching and advocating for increased civic responsibility, cultures that aspire towards being democratic need to develop in their young, simultaneously, the capacity to develop critical thinking and the importance of interdependence.
Democracy depends on reasonable people thinking clearly and rationally and behaving with generosity towards people they disagree with. This does not come naturally to our species. Our brains are not designed to be reasonable or deliberate, being reactionary is more our style. The good news is that with effort, we can learn how to think more clearly and manage our emotional and reactionary selves.
Critical Thinking, or in other words, learning how to think rather than what to think, should be taught from primary school all the way to university with refresher programs being made mandatory for all working adults and parents. The education system also needs to be re-designed to improve human capabilities like thinking, collaboration, problem solving and building relationships.
Contrary to popular misconception, an inquiring mind and critical thinking do not breed hyper individualism. Critical Thinking, the capacity of being able to think beyond one’s own egocentric and sociocentric limitations, allows one to recognize his or her complex and vital interdependencies. So, while this allows people to question their own cultural assumptions, practices and traits it also helps them recognize that with this inquiry into tradition and critical questioning also comes a greater responsibility to the collective wellbeing.
For critical thinking to flourish there can be no law that prevents unpopular thought, even if it be deemed offensive to some sensibilities, is considered blasphemous or even anti-national.
Freedom of Speech, Association and Press
Democracy, more than any other system of government, gives citizens the right to personal freedom in thought, speech and in choosing the life they wish to lead. While it is commonplace to say that freedom of expression is not absolute, in a democracy, restraints on free expression have to be the exception and not the norm. When speech is restricted, except when it advocates or calls for physical violence to an individual or groups, it weakens the right to think and express freely without which no society founded on reason can exist. Yes, freedom of speech is not absolute, but speech should be regulated or censored only when there is demonstrable threats to physical safety, national security or under very judiciously and narrowly applied laws of libel.
The current practice of banning expression that causes offense or at the threat of possible rioting by aggrieved mobs sets a dangerous precedent in silencing independent thought and honest expression.
Caving into the demands of the violent, or those who threaten violence, and allowing them to determine what should be acceptable expression and worse who should be allowed a voice is what is often called The Heckler’s or Assassin’s veto. This is the way of oppressive societies, not that of free and open societies. Most vitally, when speech is curbed in this way the people who are hurt most are those who are weakest and whose complaints and demands are most likely to offend those in power.
The right to dissent and even offend public sentiments are essential not just for the development of the individual and society but also for creating a culture of democracy where the management of differences is primarily through dialogue not through brute use of power or by silencing speech that is offensive. Apart from the state’s ability to guarantee the protection of individuals and groups whose opinions are not mainstream, it is important that society itself must find a way to see dissent and criticism as critical to its own growth and sustainability, and much as we learn how to operate the computer or drive a car, societies and citizens need to develop the skills and tools to manage dissent and differences. Needless to say, this requires modeling by public figures who are seen to be welcoming of criticism and even satire as well as continuing education on what democracy is and the criticality of free expression.
A Written Constitution
The rights that citizens claim as theirs in a democracy are dependent upon laws that are enshrined in the legal books and a written constitution. Having a written constitution that cannot be easily amended according to the whims of those in power helps to safeguard the core rights of citizens and protect them from each other as well as over reach by the state.
To this end, a constitution should not be written to protect or advance the interests of specific groups, but to establish basic principles that are designed to ensure fair treatment of all citizens. Having said this, frequent amendments to the constitution will signal to citizens and special interest groups that gaining power through the ballot box is a legitimate way to force their bias and will upon the whole country, and thus should be avoided.
However, it is equally true that constitutions that are seen as sacrosanct can be used to prevent societies from adapting to changed circumstances, new technologies and market conditions that require new rules that cannot be envisaged by the framers who, despite all their wisdom and vision, still are limited by the context and understanding of their own age.
Unequal Access to Wealth and Power
All human societies tend towards inequality. Given the differing natural abilities, motivations, interests and capability for hard work within any population, democracies (especially those that exist within a capitalist system) cannot create totally equal or egalitarian societies. Any attempt to do so would require aggressive state intervention and with it the danger that individual rights will be abused, dissent will be suppressed, minority groups will be marginalized, not to mention individual genius and entrepreneurship will be suppressed.
While inequality is a natural enough phenomenon, unequal access to power or wealth are not only morally troubling but can also, by creating differing levels of belongingness and ownership, undermine democracies. Like rioters who destroy public property in their own neighborhoods, people who do not feel invested in their political system cannot feel any loyalty or even advantage in protecting it.
The failure of democracy in many developing countries can be attributed to groups or individuals who, with their vast resources (or access to resources) have been able to commandeer the media, buy influence, votes and public offices. To prevent the more egregious aspects of this, the state cannot be neutral and needs to make corrections whenever extreme variations of wealth threaten people’s ability to lead a dignified existence. This will always be resisted by the most powerful in society who will be hard pressed to willingly compromise their ability to accumulate more resources or power. This is where the social contract needs to be constantly deliberated and revitalized.
Accepting Losses and Failure
Democracy requires the ability to commit to the relationship even when there is no agreement. It also requires the ability to accept with grace that one’s Interests will not always be met: It is natural that most people will focus on their own interests and values. It also follows that we will be unhappy or frustrated when we don’t get what we feel we need or think we are entitled to. In most societies this creates an ongoing competition between stakeholders that becomes increasingly divisive.
Democracy is a radical idea, that even when we do not always get what we need (and what we may even feel entitled to) a mature society will ensure that we are still able to walk away after the negotiation and live with the decision.
We are able to do so as long as we believe that we are being respected, our voices are heard and we are given the right and opportunity to continue to advocate for ourselves and what we need.
The difficult thing in a democracy is that NO TOPIC is settled once and for all, but everything needs to be discussed and re-negotiated periodically. All democratic societies hence need to encourage and allow for open and continuing debate and discussion about issues that are important to its citizens. To do so, a democratic society needs to create concrete and accessible platforms where citizens can reach out to their fellow citizens as well as those in authority. These platforms, while most effective at the inter-personal level, can make use of instruments of mass media, communication technology and institutional processes and procedures that allow citizens adequate and reasonable opportunities for representation and advocacy of their viewpoints and interests.