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Can representative democracy survive in the 21st century?

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 26 October 2013

Can representative democracy survive the 21st century? According to Leon de Winter, the Dutch novelist and intellectual, the chances are not too good. In an opinion piece [in German] for the German conservative newspaper Die Welt, he explains why citizens across Europe are turning their backs on established political parties. His arguments bear relevance not just for the Old World of Europe.

De Winter is writing against the backdrop of rising populism. In France, the extreme right Front National is on track to become the largest party in next year’s European elections, currently polling 24%. In the Netherlands, the combined share of left and right populists is around 40%. In the recent Austrian election, 31% of the voters opted for protest parties.

For de Winter, these developments are linked: “In my view, the modern populism is a reaction to a version of representative democracy, which might fail as a result of its own success.”

He detects a growing dissatisfaction of citizens with the behaviour of their elected representatives and the practical results of democratic decision-making. To ordinary citizens, democracy can appear to be the game of a remote political class engaged in keeping itself employed and wasting taxpayers’ money on white elephants.

There is, however, a deeper underlying problem with representative democracy. In the 19th century, it was a way of representing distinct social groups, allowing them to voice their views and negotiate their wishes with one another.

Today, these groups have lost their integrative power. This is not least due to the democratisation of education, which allows the individual to form his or her own views on a variety of political issues. The more politically enlightened citizens become, the more difficult it will be to unite them under the one-size-fits-all umbrella of a political party or only allow them to vote every few years.

Adding to this growing political awareness of the individual are the new technological possibilities. Previously, political knowledge was more bundled with the elites. Nowadays, information has also become more democratic. It is available at a click of a button.

De Winter concludes that “as long as the fruits of good education and modern technology do not have a place in the process of political decision-making, populist parties will remain an attractive countermovement.” If he is right, representative democracy may have run its course.

Perhaps in order to preserve democracy, we need to make it more democratic – even if that makes it less representative.

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