‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government’
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments exist to serve the people. In a democracy, the political system allows all citizens or residents of a country to take part in its political life. Voting is the most obvious means of representation but other means include petitions and ballot initiatives, community forums such as council meetings or actions such as strikes and demonstrations.
Democracy can take two forms: direct, when people vote directly for the laws of the country, and representative, when people elect representatives to legislate on their behalf. All democracies today are representative. This form of government is preferred in countries where the great number of people makes direct democracy difficult to implement.
Representative democracy involves indirect decision-making or agency
Agency is a relationship between principals, the citizens, and their agents, the representatives they elect. Political decision-making requires a combination of knowledge-in politics, history and philosophy, as well as strong moral values and reasoning capacities. Citizens transfer their political power to representatives because they are more skilled at making political decisions.
Political representatives are the guardians of the moral principles shared by the people and are expected to act with integrity in the interest of their constituents. Failure to uphold their political and moral obligations can see them removed from office. In practice though, citizens have little to no practical authority over their representatives, other than not re-electing them.
Transparency is a prerequisite for accountability
Transparency means public access to information such as records, statements, public investments or business deals and live broadcast of government meetings. The idea behind transparency is to prevent fraud and corruption and keep tabs on political representatives. Citizens can’t hold their representatives accountable if they are unable to assess their performance.
Physical or digital access to information alone is only half of the transparency principle. Citizens must be able to navigate through the political language and understand what they read. This is achieved through user-friendly government websites and by simplifying bills, agreements and treaties. The opposite of transparency is secrecy, hence its importance as a fundamental principle of democracy.
Political institutions are extensions of the moral beliefs of the citizens of a country
Democratic accountability is a three-way relationship. Elected representatives are supposed to answer to the people while citizens are expected to abide by the law. I would argue that the third and most important relationship is that citizens are accountable to their co-citizens in sharing the responsibility of electing representatives and voting the laws.
The role of a democratic citizen comes with demands and expectations called civic duties, in line with the four pillars of democracy. These include supporting fair and democratic policies while opposing and removing unjust ones. Staying informed and reviewing one's political opinions periodically. Last, holding political representatives and the government accountable for their actions.
Education is the cure for society’s ills
Education is the overlooked pillar of democracy. Democracy without education leads to populism, or believing in what the majority believes. In a democracy, it is the role of the government to educate its citizens when they are not ‘enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion’, said Thomas Jefferson, author of the United States Declaration of Independence.
The most significant example in recent years is the Brexit referendum. British citizens were asked to choose between staying in the European Union or seceding. How many voters do you think had any knowledge of the European Union, its institutions or the influence of European treaties on British politics? The Brexit campaign was an embarrassing spectacle of misinformation from both sides fueled by the medias.
Moral responsibility cannot be outsourced
One limit to agency is that not everything can be passed onto political representatives. Moral responsibility cannot be outsourced. There are limits to transparency and accountability too. Public disclosure of sensitive information such as war strategies can threaten a country’s national security. Excessive control and monitoring can be counterproductive and hinder a government’s activities.
Economic inequalities distort political representation. Democracy requires the separation of economic and political powers to work best. Yet, when material wealth equals political power, citizens’ political authority is greatly unequal. In his book Unequal Democracy, political scientist Larry Bartels demonstrates how the poorest third of Americans are virtually not represented politically.
Important decisions are not taken by the people
Our mistake is to take democracy for granted. The rise of populism and global rates of abstentionism, particularly among young voters, are failures of democracy. A democracy exists only when the majority of its citizens play their part. When enough citizens default on their civic duties, we are left with a democracy in name only. An empty shell.