Democracy is defined both as representative (elected) governance and governance by the people, which implies a desired sense of freedom and autonomy by its electorate. Traditionally, the world’s democratic nations, whether socialist or capitalist, opted for representative democracy rather than participative governance by the people.
Under representative governance, professional politicians are policy-bound by their parties even though they are elected to their positions. For the most part, the parties, not the voting public, control the representatives’ actions particularly if they wish to stay in ‘good standing’ with their party. “[T]he survival of the party, and its chances of gaining office, overrule the needs of the individual candidate and the individual electorate (Emery 1989) .” Thus, the will of party politics, not the will of the nation’s people, governs a nation’s agenda. For voting citizens of a representative democracy, we do not participate in deliberating legislative processes unless specifically invited to do so. Those deliberations are managed and controlled by politicians and their staff. Is it any wonder we witness global movements like Arab Spring and Occupy.
Clearly, the electorate is asking to be part of the debate, and no wonder given that decades of research consistently register the following consequences of representative democracy:
- voter alienation from the political process
- voter apathy and cynicism
- voter distrust and declining electoral participation
Proponents of representative governance systems suggest voter incompetence, ignorance and indifference impede the systems’ ability to function and thereby further electoral apathy. Although these arguments were refuted in the late 1800s by Mosca (1884, 1896), they are still used today to rationalize stupidity, ignorance and mob irrationality and to cover up the fact that representative democracy fell short of its founding ideal (social equality). This inability to realize social equity may be due to two ‘ruling class’ fears, which continue to prevail today:
- political liberty for the mass would produce such pressures for conformity that individual liberty would be threatened
- political liberty for . . . the poorer classes would threaten the economic freedom of property owners. (Emery 1989)
Regardless of which argument appeals most, it is fair to say representative governance, whether political or economic, has not and is not serving the majority of its constituents. As a voter committed to honouring my right to elect political leadership, I attest my interests are not being debated or represented irrelevant of the political party in power. Similarly, my main reason for not accepting employment in the business world is I would limit or forfeit my opportunity to make decisions in an arena where autocracy not representative or participative governance prevails. Although the union movement has attempted to provide working people with a representative voice, it is sorely underrepresented in the private sector with only 16% of workers unionized. In contrast, 71% of the public sphere is unionized but typically controlled through hierarchical decision chains where individual autonomy can be severely restricted.
Much of my organizational consulting work over the past 25 years consisted of redesigning autocratic hierarchies into participative decision structures where workers, owners and customers deliberated over and designed the governance models and work flows best serving their joint needs. In today’s business environment, top-down decision making is too limited to navigate the complexity, speed of change and ambiguity confronting organizations. Even less autocratic, representative systems (i.e., Greece’s economic and political structures) are crumbling under the speedy and weighty demands of our radically transforming times.
The silver lining amidst all the destruction and wicked problems is that the cry for social equality echoes louder than ever. This democratic principle is even more relevant today. In an economy of accelerated change where survival and thriving necessitate balancing continuous improvement and disruptive innovation, we need to hear from every voice. Not only is participative governance essential to bring us all together, social equality asks each individual to self-govern their own thoughts, words and actions. For tools and techniques to strengthen your self-governance, read my book, From Now to WOW: An Invitation to Transformation. No longer are our organizations the initiators and leaders of change, we are. And with greater power, comes greater responsibility.
What one action can you take to strengthen your self-governance?
Emery, F. E. 1989. Toward Real Democracy and Toward Real Democracy: Further Problems, Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre.
Mosca, C. 1939 (1923, 1898, 1884). The Ruling Class, New York, McGraw-Hill.