Democracy is good, right?
Well, it’s complicated. Because of the tremendous scope for corruption, not all democracy is equally good. It’s a topic that bears much discussion, but for now, here are six ways we can immediately improve our democracy:
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
What would happen if we updated our education system? Geared it toward creating capable, autonomous adults instead of people who are accustomed to rote and following an uninspiring routine?
If people learnt how to think for themselves at school, and think incisively, they would be less likely succumb to manipulation and false arguments in debate and politics. It’s clear such an approach could provide the most important positive change to our democratic choices. And it needn’t be so drastic. Integrating Critical Thinking as a core subject has long been on the agenda for some people who want positive education reform. Add in Media Literacy and Civics as important, if not core, subjects, and society would be well on the way to a superior democracy in which debate is based on reason, and fallacies rejected.
2. Ensure and Enshrine Independent Media
Everything a society knows about its democracy is filtered through the media. This means the scope for political corruption is tremendous when it comes to reporting the news. And media corruption happens on a grand scale even in the most civilised of countries for this reason. An immediate way to curb and limit the scope of corruption is to pass a law ensuring that all media becomes independent, and stays independent. That means if you own a news outlet, that’s all you can own. You can’t be affiliated or have vested interests in other businesses or political groups. You can’t own an entire media empire dedicated to one particular political world-view. Once passed, any surplus news outlets owned by the same person or group would be sold in an auction of non-affiliates at a fair price. The immediate knock-on effect of carving up media empires would be more journalistic freedom. Even if a political or corporate group still manages to illegally co-opt one news outlet, it becomes almost impossible to secure a majority of voices, and the truth – or something closer to it – becomes the dominant narrative.
3. Hold Politicians and the Media to Account
If someone knowingly lies in court, that’s called perjury and can carry a heavy criminal sentence of its own. Why? Because a legal court is a formal establishment that decides the future of people, and respecting it is of the utmost importance. Equally, decisions taken in parliament have a direct effect on many people. At times these decisions can change the course of a nation, foster widespread poverty or even decide the deaths of millions of people in acts of war. So why is it that politicians are under no legal obligation to tell the truth, at the very least in parliament? A political perjury law, an independent watchdog and punitive action for serious perjuries, ranging from deselection to imprisonment, would aid in maintaining truthful, positive debate, which in turn would lead to a fairer democracy making better decisions.
Likewise, the press at times knowingly print distortions of truth to influence a political debate one way or another. Here there are watchdogs in place, and it can reach the point that, for example, a newspaper is forced to print a retraction. But under the current system much misinformation goes unchecked, and even if a retraction is printed, it comes much later in an obscure corner of the newspaper when the impression is made and damage already done. Stronger action is needed against misinformative press. A retraction of a knowing, or major, untruth could be reserved as the only article for the front page of the offending publication. Serious repeat-offending journalists and outlets should be prosecuted and face anything from disbarment from journalism to imprisonment, far before it reaches the farce of a News of the World trial. These measures could return journalism to its job of reporting the news. Having said all that, such measures must be reasonably applied to ensure freedom of press, with careful exceptions made for lesser and accidental mistakes.
4. Proportional Representation
In the Kingdom of Imaginatia there are three parties in the running for democratic government: the Browns, the Oranges and the Greys. Some people – about 15% – want the Greys, but under Imaginatia’s first-past the-post system it’s obvious they can’t win a seat, not having enough voters in any one constituency. So all potential Grey voters shift their vote, this time voting against the party they like the least instead of for the party they like the most. Most dislike Orange, so vote for the Browns.
The election passes. In every constituency, coincidentally, the population vote 52% for the Browns and 48% for the Oranges. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Browns gain 100% of parliamentary seats.
The real representative demographic (what people truly wanted) is: Browns 40%; Oranges 45%, and Greys 15%, but the result is: Browns 100%; Oranges 0%, and Greys 0%.
Democracy has not been served.
Proportional representation is a voting system designed to eliminate many of the problems encountered in Imaginatia’s election, and equally our elections (even if the figures aren’t so extreme). Under proportional representation if 15% of the population vote for Grey, 15% of parliamentary seats go to the Grey party. It’s hardly rocket science to realise that a more representative parliament is more democratic, reflects the pluralism of the state, and is less open to corruption.
5. Vote for Policies
It’s amazing how many of the electorate never see or read the political manifestos of the parties they vote for. Much voting seems to happen on the basis of superficial impressions and a couple of sound-byte promises. On the website voteforpolicies.org.uk, people are encouraged to read all the policies and select those they agree with in a blind test, then the site will reveal which party you agree with most, and break down your political decisions. In the last UK general election, visitors to the site voting purely on policies voted a clear majority for the Green Party. The Conservative Party, which won the election, came in fourth for its policies. The Green Party, despite having the most popular policies, only elected one MP to parliament that year.
It wouldn’t be difficult to set up an election in which a similar questionnaire was posed, instead of simply the names of candidates and their affiliate party. The upshot of such an election is that parties would be highly encouraged, almost forced to publicise and focus on their policies during the campaign. This would educate the electorate to the intentions of the parties, encourage parties to have popular and decent policies, and detract from the shallow personality politics of today. After the election, the winning party would be far more obliged to follow through on promises, and popular policies of other parties would see the light of day and also have their chance for inclusion into parliament and law. Criticisms of this system are that an election would take more time (survey-filling time) and discourage some people, who would be reluctant to complete an entire questionnaire. But taking two days instead of one is hardly a large price to pay for important and fair elections, and a Vote For Policy system could only deter those who would make a frivolous choice anyway, while encouraging voter engagement on an unprecedented scale.
6. Engage Yourself
“The first duty of a man is to think for himself.”
(And a woman. But yes.)
It goes without saying that while these are all ideas that would improve our democratic situation, we live for the time-being under the rule of a political class that is not keen to oversee such progression. The best way to aid democracy is to implement these things in our own lives. If you’re an adult not versed in the skill of critical thinking, why not? We live in a digital age and there are plenty of free resources to teach ourselves. Learn and become stronger. Teach your kids. Read every news article you’re suspicious of with a critical eye, and those you like with two critical eyes (they also have an agenda separate from the truth). Question what politicians tell you, think about what they gain from their narrative. Read the policies of each party and make an informed decision when it comes to voting. If you believe in a cause, actively voice that belief, pursue it, don’t leave it to the political class to decide. Engage yourself in the debate and become a part of the democratic process. That’s the most important and immediate improvement we can make.