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The intelligent citizen

A quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union, is the Western model of government under threat?

Last updated: 11 Mar 2014 07:52
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.
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Through the shock effect of demonstrations, the street has become the new parliament, writes Bell [Reuters]

Political crises around the world are casting doubt on representative democracy and the Western model of government. A quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union, and declarations about the inevitability of liberal democracies, that paradigm is under serious threat. From the economic crises in Europe, to revolutions in the Arab world and beyond, a shadow has been cast on the efficacy of Western systems.

There are other camps. China tempts with a kind of constructive authoritarianism that delivers while avoiding the messiness of democracy. In Russia, a modern Tsar dons the trappings of democracy, defies the "imperial West", and elicits pride in those who hate the hegemon.

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But, across the world, it is the street protests that pose the greatest challenge. Through the shock effect of demonstrations, the street has become the new parliament. Although many protestors may be seeking liberal democracy, the chaos they unleash further erodes confidence in democratic processes.

What is the future of the Western model of representative democracy? Does it fit the bill for the challenges ahead? The pressures are coming from several directions.

All states are feeling the pressure from unregulated global flows of capital that create obscene concentrations of wealth, and an inability of the nation-state to respond.Relatedly, citizens either ignore or distrust traditional institutions, and ethnic groups demand greater local autonomy.

A recent Pew survey shows that Americans aged 18-33 mostly identify as political independents and distrust institutions. The classic model is indeed frayed, and new developments have made it feel like very old cloth.

One natural reflex is to assert even greater control, a move suited to the authoritarians, such as China, Russia or General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's Egypt: Strengthen the nation by any means to withstand the pressures. The reality, however, is that all systems, democracies or otherwise, were designed for an industrial age, and the management of an anonymous mass, and cannot cope with globalised economics and the information world of today.

The question remains: What can effectively replace the Western model? The answer may not lie only in the invention of new structures, but in the improvement of a key component found in all: The citizen.

The citizen today is mostly a consumer, focused on the purchase of goods or services, or the insistent consumption of virtual information, often as an ersatz politics. Occasionally, when a threat rises, he or she also becomes a demandeur of absolute security from the state. Indeed, some are using the new technologies for democratic purposes, they are better informed, criticise abuse or corruption, and organise and rally movements.

But, the vast majority is politically disengaged and cynical of political process; many others are too busy trying to survive to even care. A grand apathy has set in, the stage left vacant for a very few extremists, or pied pipers of the old tunes of nationalisms and tribal belonging disguised as leaders. The citizen is either invisible in this circus, an endangered species in the 21st century, or increasingly drawn to dark and polarising forces.

A grand apathy has set in, the stage left vacant for a very few extremists, or pied pipers of the old tunes of nationalisms and tribal belonging disguised as leaders. The citizen is either invisible in this circus, an endangered species in the 21st century, or increasingly drawn to dark and polarising forces.

Some see the glass as half full and believe that technology and direct democracy can bridge the gaps. Indeed, the internet provides a plethora of information and a greater sense of empowerment. Lesser-known protests in Bosnia have led to direct democracy plenums, and the Swiss do revert to national referenda. However, whether direct or representative, democracy will still depend on the quality of the citizen, and his or her decisions.

Opinion, dogma and bias

Opinion, dogma and bias remain common political operating system and, as a result, our politics are still an unaffordable game of chance. The optimists may be right, but discussions in social media on issues ranging from Ukraine to gun control reveal more deep bias and the lure of excitement than the pursuit of a constructive answer.

People crave excitement in their politics. Whether it is through asserting their own opinion or in battling others, politics offers a great ground for this high. The cost, however, comes in poor judgment and dangerous decisions. George W. Bush was elected twice, Vladimir Putin has much support, climate change is denied, and an intoxicated Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, may be re-elected.

Few are willing to admit their role in this state of affairs, but they will gladly see the ill in others. Even fewer, including often myself, will admit that they don't really know how to think through a challenge, political or otherwise. This may seem absurd, thinking feels as natural as walking, but the formation of political opinion is a complex affair, a flawed duet between our minds and outside input. Media, government propaganda, family, culture, and our own unique set of personal experiences, from traumas to chance meetings, all play into the mix. High states of emotion, "excitement", also weigh in, making us dumb and easily manipulated.

The real citizen

However, as we learn over a lifetime that a cheeseburger a day is not good for your health, so we can also learn that our thinking patterns can be a mess. Dr Edward de Bono is one individual who has produced many books on how to improve our thinking processes. Learning how to think, through de Bono or others, is a useful exercise for any citizen who wants to engage more directly with reality, or politics.

This step may also be a precursor for another that involves the ordinary person. Today being a citizen involves occasional voting, politics as spectator sport, and, among some, being a watchdog against corruption or street activism. What may be required is more citizens' participation in local democracy, not just in assemblies or casting votes, but in local management and administration.

This will help people understand the complexities of politics, gain greater responsibility, and mitigate some of the vices of centralisation and representative democracy. It may also harmonise with the information age, where everyone, it seems, wishes to be empowered.

Do people have time in their busy lives? A rotational involvement in local affairs can help solve this, and many might even find the engagement enjoyable. This injection of a real citizen into the mix may improve the future of politics while large institutions continue to hum their tune.

In the end, a citizen who has responsibility for his actions can probably make any structure work, while rejecting any that would endanger his independence and dignity. The rise of a more intelligent and committed citizen may clarify politics, improve liberal democracies, and make populism and authoritarianism less appealing and likely paths.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace (Madrid)

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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