Is a truly global democratic future possible?

There is an assumption that when we use the word ‘democracy’, we all have a common understanding of what the word means and how it is expected to play out politically. There are 167 out of 192 countries that call themselves a democracy but they are certainly not homogenously democratic by any stretch of the imagination.

The active practice of democracy on a daily basis is largely based on the democratic tradition that has been adopted to govern the people of a nation-state and looks different in each country. There are, however, some broad common characteristics such as regular elections (theoretically largely free and fair) and an adherence to the rule of law which can be found in the countries currently defined as democracies.

These common characteristics are however what could be called shallow democracy.  Deeper democracy requires active citizenship, an accountable and transparent state, with the private sector adhering to socially just business practices including fair trade and being environmentally accountable, amongst others.

The type of democracy a country adopts is often based on the political ideologies of the negotiators that first drew up the constitution that governs a democracy. These documents are laden with conceptual ideas – and the political systems, processes and citizen action that follow, are often a consequence of the competing ideologies that find temperance in the political negotiation for a constitution that gives rise to a democratic country.

This also pertains to amendments that may be made, in order to construct a deeper or different aspect of democracy that wasn’t conceived of at the time of negotiation. An obvious example is the inclusion of citizens who were previously excluded from voting on the basis of race, class, gender or other classifications.

In addition, the policies, rules and regulations that follow in years, decades or even centuries later will also be influenced by changing or new ideologies as they arise.  An example of this is the current debate in the South African parliament on the rules of impeachment for a president, whereas in other countries this ideological “contest” has taken place before.

Political science has traditionally defined political ideologies into conservatism, liberalism, socialism and communism, and democracy was seen as a sub-set of the first three (Lawson, K. 1989. The Human Polity: An Introduction to Political Science. Indiana University). Given the developments over the past three decades, I would argue that democracy is now a stand-alone ideology on its own.

Given the predominance of democracy in our current historic epoch, it can be argued that democracy has now claimed a place for itself in the political science pantheon as a specific ideology albeit with sub-sets therein. There may even be some crossover between previous scientifically agreed upon ideologies and democracy as an ideology itself, such as Democratic Socialism or Liberal Democracy (as per the constitution of a country rather than a political party in power).

Democracy requires that values, political systems (including a separation of powers), political organisations, economics, the media and citizens are unfettered in their search for freedom, justice and empowerment, except for where the search may impinge upon the rights of others.

The question then becomes – what are the sub-sets of democracy that can then be identified?

One argument is that democracy is simply by the people, for the people, but a democracy that excludes prisoners or people with certain disabilities is not the same as ones that include these groups. Within this definition, there are already exclusionist ideas at play.

Countries who hold regular elections but have no provision for presidential term limits such as Germany, or who make constitutional amendments to constitutions in order to secure longer terms, but still have all the other characteristics of democracy, are another form of democracy that could theoretically be named as a specific sub-set.

A relative newcomer to the democratic theory stage is Cosmopolitan Democracy that separates itself from other manifestations of democratic ideology. It argues that we can and must begin, to build a democracy that transcends national boundaries as economics and other social structures already do so. The definition of Cosmopolitan Democracy is a theory which considers how individual global citizens can transcend their national boundaries and directly participate in a global democratic system and processes, amongst other democratic mechanisms.

We as the people of the world need to be able to rally and democratically agree on our value system to set up a global democracy, in order to ensure that the world is governed according to principles informed by human rights as a framework.

The environment, for example, can only be protected through an agreement of common values of all global citizens through mechanisms such as the environmental commons policy statement at the first World Climate Conference leading to global agreements on specific matters, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) These are examples of global co-operation but not quite yet a cosmopolitan democracy. The refusal of the United States to commit in the same way as other nation states highlights that we are still not close to an actual global cosmopolitan democracy.

The United Nations is potentially an international organisation that can serve to facilitate cosmopolitan democracy but it is not quite an alternative global democratic system. It still relies on the nation-state, and the representatives to the body are not directly elected by individuals from within nation states but rather through their legislatures i.e. a form of indirect elections.

The tension between individual states and regional bodies continues to play itself out across the world, with some groups of people demanding independence within nation states, with yet others wanting to opt out of long-established regional institutions. This sometimes results in conflict. This is a manifestation of democratically organised groups of people from more traditional ideologies straining against cosmopolitan democracy, with human rights as a critical organising framework.

We are however without doubt, intertwined as individuals living on the planet; and it seems – given the pace of integration in other spheres – that ultimately we will have to ensure that mechanisms that facilitate a cosmopolitan democracy, become a central aspect of the work of progressive Democrats across the world.

Yvette Geyer is a consultant in the field of governance and democracy.  She has over 20 years’ experience covering a range of specialities such as elections, local government, safety and security, youth development, gender, anti-racism, transitional politics, HIV/Aids, water, civil society and policy development. Her skill set includes qualitative and quantitative research, training, facilitation, curriculum development and project management.  She has a BA in Political Sciences and an MA in Public Development Management.

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