The beauty of Big Democracy

Disillusioned with the current state of democracy? Good! *Vanessa Baird* celebrates the joys of disenchantment and the birth of hope.

'Give me a vote!'

Photo by: Daniel Lobo under a CC Licence

Who knows what she had in mind? In her purse were a return train ticket and one for a dance later that day, suggesting that martyrdom was not her intention.

Perhaps she was planning to attach a banner to a racehorse so that as it crossed the finishing line it would be, literally, flying the suffragist flag.

But that is only one of many theories. Emily Wilding Davison never recovered consciousness that day at Epsom near London in June 1913. She has gone down in popular history as the woman who ‘threw herself under the king’s horse to win votes for women’.

Global history is full of such tales of bravery and sacrifice in the cause of political enfranchisement. Much blood has been spilled to win rights we take for granted.

Century of democracy

In the 1970s fewer than half the world’s 192 countries were electoral democracies.

Communist dictatorships held sway across the Soviet Union; right-wing military regimes controlled Spain, Portugal, Greece and much of Latin America; and in many of the newly independent African countries one-party rule applied. In Asia, the citizens of the Philippines and Indonesia endured seemingly endless dictatorships under Marcos and Suharto respectively.

By 2000, around 120 countries were electoral democracies, representing about 60 per cent of the global population.1 Single-party states and dictatorships had become the exception.

It appears that we have entered a golden age of democracy. And yet…

Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in established democracies.

Today, in the former Soviet countries barely 50 per cent of those eligible use their vote. Despite the drama of the closeness of the race, voter turnout in Britain’s general election earlier this year was only 65 per cent. Canada turned out 59 per cent in 2008. Even the historic US contest that brought the first black president into the White House only inspired 62 per cent to vote. New Zealand/Aotearoa has seen turnout drop from nearly 90 per cent in the mid-1980s to 76 per cent. Australia, where voting is compulsory, usually brings out an impressive 95 per cent – but in the recent elections, many made clear that they had only voted to avoid being fined.2

Party activists are particularly concerned to get out the ‘youth vote’, identifying this sector as the most ‘disengaged’. In Britain fewer than half of eligible 18-24 year-olds vote.3 But it’s not just the under-25s who decide to give the polls a miss. One 70 year-old woman interviewed by the BBC said she wasn’t voting in the 2010 general election ‘because I am politically active’. When questioned further she detailed the campaigns in which she was actively engaged. She saw voting as a passive handing over of power to someone else.

Is the Party over?

In the mainstream media, politics is overwhelmingly defined in terms of elections, parties and – increasingly – the personalities of their leaders.

In Britain, as the annual shindigs of the party conferences get underway, the context has changed. For the first time in several decades a coalition, of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in power. Australia too recently returned a hung parliament for the first time in 70 years after a campaign described as ‘policy-light’, ‘lacking vision’ and ‘presidential in style’, a slanging match between Labor’s ‘ten-pound-pom’ Julia Gillard and the Liberals’ ‘mad monk’ Tony Abbott. Voters, it was said in both countries, had ‘punished’ the two major parties by giving neither the mandate to govern.

Why don’t more people vote?


Makes a difference – but not that much:

Countries with high literacy (above 95%) have a voter turnout of 71%.

Countries with lower literacy (below 95%) have a voter turnout of 61%.1


Voter turnout tends to be higher in the 30 or so countries where it is compulsory:

Compulsory: Peru – more than 80% .

Voluntary: Colombia – less than 50%.

But this is not always the case:

Compulsory: Egypt – less than 50%.

Voluntary: South Africa – more than 70%.2

  1. Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA.
  2. Andrew Fagan, The Atlas of Human Rights, Earthscan, 2010

Party animals view such voter attitude with dismay, researchers with curiosity. Canadians Neil Nevitte and Mebs Kanji have been tracking declining levels of trust in governments and democratic institutions.

In one cross-national study they found ‘the technological transformation of leisure’ had caused ‘a decline in civic engagement and social trust’. But confidence was also declining for more positive reasons. People were becoming more critical of traditional hierarchical organizations, with a lower acceptance of authority in all areas, including family, workplace and politics.4

The most trenchant blow to trust in politicians can be summed up in four words: ‘the war on terror’

Not everyone agrees with this view of a steady decline in trust. Charles Barclay Roger, a London School of Economics researcher, detects a pattern, rather, of extreme fluctuations, with sharp dips tending to follow corruption scandals.5

For people concerned with civil liberties the most trenchant blow to trust in recent years can be summed up in four words: ‘the war on terror’. Declared by George W Bush, and echoed with alacrity by politicians around the world, it has led to some of the most profound betrayals of democracy. Betrayals at home, as democratic institutions have been weakened, civil liberties suspended and citizens sent abroad for torture; and betrayals abroad, as we (or rather our governments) invade countries and arrest, torture or kill their citizens in the name of spreading democracy – while supporting despotic leaders in ‘friendly’ countries. (See Robert Fisk, page 23.)

Elections are a part of democracy. The big mistake is to think they define it. A deeper definition of democracy – literally ‘people’s rule’ – must also include freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, freedom from discrimination, and the rights to assembly, protest and to a fair trial. It should also include broader human rights to health, education, and the means of survival.

As Pakistan’s floods swept away lives and livelihoods, they also revealed the dim prospect of the country’s new democracy. President Asif Ali Zadari decided the catastrophe was not grave enough for him to cut short a trip to Europe and his government’s response to the crisis proceeded from dim to dismal.

The aim of multinational corporations is to exploit the world’s resources. But peoples’ movements will not let them. The indigenous Ecuadorians here are demonstrating to defend their rights to water.

Guillermo Granja / Reuters

Pakistan is not alone in being run by a political class that is seen as greedy, self-serving and out-of-touch with the public it is meant to serve. The pattern is repeated in new and established democracies alike.

A US survey found that 80 per cent think that the country is run by a few big interests looking out only for themselves, while 94 per cent thought that the government did not attend to public opinion.6

It is often said that elections are bought, not won. Political economist Thomas Ferguson calls this ‘the investment theory’ of politics: policies tend to reflect the wishes of powerful blocs that invest every four years to control the state.

Most countries have rules to try to guard against this, but reality is another matter. Even in the election campaign that brought President Obama to power, nine out of ten seats won went to the candidates who had the biggest fighting funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama outspent McCain by two to one, gaining major contributions from financial institutions and law firms.6

It is not just money that shallows out electoral democracy, but a conscious shift away from talking about real issues during campaigns. ‘Politics is not about issues,’ writes a leading consultant to the US Democratic Party. ‘Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are those aligning their positions most precisely with the majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are and a negative image of who their opponents are.’7

This PR-dominated approach to politics is becoming common even in countries with strong grassroots party traditions.

The beauty of dispersed power

The irony is, the better the spin and PR around elections, the more likely people are to become sceptical of the whole process. For many it only reinforces what they already sense: that the kind of formal democracy on offer – based on periodically electing politicians and letting them make the decisions – is woefully shallow. A con, even.

They want something more.

The mainstream media reports this desire quite negatively, especially when it involves young people protesting. It is presented as anti- this or anti- that. In fact, it is positive and creative.

You only have to look at the places where democracy is being made – in the streets, in communities, in meeting halls, in fields, where the key word is ‘participation’.

Ideas of ‘participatory democracy’ that emerged originally in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre have been gradually spreading, in quite a practical ‘nuts and bolts’ way.

Under the system of ‘participatory budgeting’ residents decide how to allocate part of the municipal or public budget. Citizens can identify, discuss and prioritize public spending projects. The model has spread to more than 1,200 municipalities not only in Latin America but also in France, Spain, Britain, Canada, Italy, Germany and India. Venezuela has spawned thousands of smaller but similar ‘people’s committees’.

Residents from the shanty city of El Alto, Bolivia, are famously unafraid to speak truth to power.

Jose Gomez / Reuters

Participatory democracy is about more than money and budgets. It affects the way communities or societies are organized, how power is dispersed rather than concentrated. Take the example of the extraordinarily successful and resilient Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil. In one of the most unequal countries in the world the MST has managed to settle 337,000 landless families on arable land. It has done so not by top-down management, but within a non-hierarchical, non-sexist structure in which decisions are made by consensus, rather than voting. As one Hopi Indian put it: ‘If you vote for someone, you vote against someone else. That’s divisive.’

In Bolivia’s El Alto, the massive shanty town near La Paz, residents rose in protest against plans to export the processing of the country’s gas reserves that would only benefit the country’s wealthy élite and foreign capital. In 2005 they marched on La Paz, causing the government of Carlos Mesa to topple. Micro-governments sprang up in El Alto, providing an enduring model of autonomous local democracy, and paving the way for the election of Evo Morales and his MAS party, itself a coalition of social movements.

In several Latin American countries – Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia – national constitutions have been rewritten, not by a handful of experts, academics and lawyers, but by citizens and their organizations. It’s a slow process, but that’s democracy.

Latin America, more than any other region, carries a history of domination by the US and multinational corporations keen to exploit mineral and agricultural wealth. In the name of ‘free market liberalism’ dictatorships, such as Pinochet’s in Chile, were backed and genuine democratic impulses violently crushed.

Yet it is in Latin America that the world’s most hopeful incarnation of democracy is taking shape and where the strongest challenges to global corporate power are being honed.

At the forefront are not the educated élites that have traditionally dominated political life but the most downtrodden – poor and indigenous people – who are organizing and demanding that the profits from natural resource wealth are shared. The consequences of this confluence of democratic foment and control over natural resources could be profound.

In his latest book, Hopes and Prospects, Noam Chomsky writes: ‘Today, the popular struggles in Latin America show promise of serving as an inspiration to others worldwide, in a common quest for globalization in a form that should be the aspiration of decent people everywhere.’

Similar challenges are happening in more established democracies too. In Canada, indigenous people are playing a key role in resisting the exploitation of tar sands (see NI431). In Britain, direct action by protesters played a significant role in getting the government to shelve plans to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, Kent.

Some actions are more symbolic – but the radically different ways of organizing are real enough.

The actions of Climate Camp campaigners at the meeting of the G20 in London, April 2009, were a clear riposte to anyone who thinks that radical democracy is bound to be shambolic and inefficient. Thousands of police were primed to stop activists taking over a key street in the City of London, but they didn’t stand a chance against Climate Campers who, armed with playful ingenuity, military precision, tents and bicycles, took control of Bishopsgate for the next 12 hours.

Concentration of power does not necessarily mean efficiency; the beauty of dispersed power and collective action is that it is empowering, motivating and, ultimately, liberating. The psychology of this is obvious – but perhaps it needs to be lived to be believed.=begin box


Women now have the vote in most countries – though not all these have fair and free elections.

Women still can’t vote in:

  • Vatican City
  • Saudi Arabia

In UAE and Brunei no-one votes.1

Political power

  • Of the 192 UN member states only 17 have women as heads of state (as of July 2010).1
  • Women hold 19% of seats in single or lower chambers of parliament (as of May 2010), compared with 11% in 1995.2
  • Women make up 42% of single/lower houses in Nordic countries; the Americas 22%; the Pacific region 13% and the Arab states 9%.2

  1. UNIFEM Report ‘Who answers to Women? Gender and Accountability 2008/2009’.
  2. Inter Parliamentary Union, ‘Women in National Parliaments’, June 2010.

Big Society

Variation on a quote by MK Gandhi (when asked about Western civilization).

Jason Alvey / lewishamdreamer

The language of participatory democracy is appealing – no less to those who would like to maintain old power in the old ways. Britain’s new old-Etonian Prime Minister David Cameron has launched, to great fanfare, his idea of the ‘Big Society’ as opposed to ‘big government’. Let the people run society, he says. Let’s reduce the overbearing state and encourage citizen initiative and community participation. Let volunteers set up and run publicly funded schools. This is accompanied by savage cuts in government spending on public services. But, hey, let’s be really democratic about that too and let the people decide where the axe should fall!

The government recently launched its ‘Spending Challenge’, inviting members of the public to suggest public spending cuts. But who took the decision to take publicly owned services away from the public in the first place? It’s rather like inviting victims of an imminent burglary to choose what the burglar takes – though possibly less honest because the ‘choice’ is then ignored.

A previous attempt – soliciting knowledge and expertise from the public to find solutions to problems – produced 9,500 online replies but ended without a single government department altering any policy.8

The beginning of hope

If ossified parties are to have any kind of plausible democratic future they need to learn from social movements. Perhaps some parties that have their roots in social movements can do this, before they too become institutionalized, bureaucratic and retentive of power. The tensions that are currently emerging between the social movements in Bolivia and the MAS party they gave birth to are ones to watch in the coming months. (See Raúl Zibechi, page 26.)

Simply adopting the language of social movements isn’t going to fool anyone, but learning from them could nourish democracy and enable it to grow into something stronger, more vibrant, engaging and mature.

Paradoxically, the impulse for that maturity may come in part from younger people turned off by the current state of politics – but savvy enough to see through the PR spin that is supposed to win them over.

‘When politics is most popular with young people,’ says Noel Hatch of the Young Compass, a left-leaning youth group, ‘is when it’s not called “politics”. They feel a sense of powerlessness with the structures that are in place, whether it’s political parties or trade unions. But where initiatives exist to help them express their views, they get involved.’Patrick Wintour, ‘Coalition’s first crowdsourcing attempt fails to alter Whitehall line,’ The Guardian, 2 August 2010.3

Local and national initiatives are important. But much pro-democracy activism – with the help of the internet – is crossing national frontiers. And some of the most vital activity is coming from the Global South.

Current disillusion with party politics reminds us that democracy is not a static entity or set of rules but, rather, a process. It may not even have an achievable end in the sense of ‘the ideal democratic society’ – but as with equality, the process of working towards it makes things better.

Enchantment is what happens to naïve princesses in fairy tales. Disenchantment is the beginning of wakefulness, the beginning of empowerment, the beginning of hope.

Because we’re worth it!

To combat corruption and unfair influence, most Western-style democracies have rules about party financing.


  • In Canada the law prohibits corporations and trade unions from making political contributions
  • In Australia, non-Australian individuals, businesses and governments may donate to political parties
  • In Britain, all donations of over £7,500 to a party’s central organization must be declared. There is also a cap on campaign spending before an election.


  • In 2009 an ‘expenses scandal’ revealed that scores of British MPs had been using the public purse to pay for private benefits – including pornographic films, mortgage payments, garlic peelers, a duck house and ‘moat clearing’.
  • In Canada, the abuse of $100 million of public funds (paid to various communications agencies) in Quebec lost the ruling Liberal party the 2006 federal election.
  • In the US, oil and gas interest groups spent more than $354 million on lobbying activities between 1998 and 2004. George W Bush received more campaign contributions from oil and gas than any other candidate – a total of $1.7 million.1
  • Mexican Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, makes lavish donations to his country’s PRI party (including a one-off $25 million at a fundraising dinner). Slim used his ‘influence over the government’ to secure a telecoms monopoly on the best possible terms, according to The New York Times (in which he later bought a substantial stake).

  • Center for Public Integrity, ‘Big Oil protects its interests’, Washington 2004.
    1. Freedom House
    2. Government of New Zealand
    3. Libby Brookes ‘Young people don’t think their vote will make a difference’, The Guardian, 6 April 2010.
    4. Neil Nevitte and Mebs Kanji, ‘Authority Orientations and Political Support: A Cross-National Analysis of Satisfaction with Governments and Democracy’, University of Toronto, 2002,
    6. Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, Hamish Hamilton, 2010.
    7. Paul Waldman, Boston Globe, 6 September 2006.
    8. Patrick Wintour, ‘Coalition’s first crowdsourcing attempt fails to alter Whitehall line,’ The Guardian, 2 August 2010.