So, what do we mean by Democracy? – Let’s explore Episode 13

Written by Katja Rackin, Edited by Fisayo Fadahunsi

Democracy has been on the frontlines of social and political movements and debates since ancient Greece. Since 508 BC, when Athens established the first known democracy, people have persevered and struggled in the pursuit of it. Despite being weaved into the fabric of our politics, it is a slippery term which has evolved into many forms, and to date has seen over 2000 different approaches and meanings. It is used in patriotic discourses to defend our establishments, whilst simultaneously used as a weaponry word against dictations and restrictions of those same establishments. So what are our current understandings of democracy? How is it used today? Is it worth defending, and how do we do it?

To unravel what democracy really means, let’s begin with an official definition. Democracy as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is:

The belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.

Democracy means, ‘the rule of people’. It is the equal participation of people in governing their own societies, and being part of the choices which affect their every-day lives. People participation can be implemented in many ways, which is why democracy takes so many shapes, but the main types of democracy are direct democracy and representational democracy.

Direct Democracy: Every person within the democracy votes on each individual policy and decision, without representatives, but rather as individual voices.

Representational Democracy: People vote for representatives who enact policies and decisions on behalf of them. It takes the form of elections, where people vote for officials to represent their views. This is an indirect democracy and is what most current countries have. It is defined by governance through an intermediary, and so there are many nations which have representational democracies but which differ vastly in their uses of it. Representational democracy therefore exists in countless definitions, a few of which are:

  • Parliamentary Democracy: This is what the UK has. It is a democratic system of government where the executive branch of a parliamentary government is typically a cabinet, and headed by a prime minister who is considered the head of government.
  • Illiberal democracy: Although there are still elections which take place, once the representatives have been voted in, people are cut off from knowing about the activities and practices of their government. It is not consistently transparent, and people have no voice in implementing change between elections. Examples of illiberal democracies are Russia, Iran, Turkey, Singapore.
  • Liquid Democracy: This is a delegative democracy which allows electorates to delegate, or to pass over their vote to someone else whom they might feel is more qualified to make a decision on a specific policy or vote.

Most democracies are said to rest on pillars. These differ slightly per country and in the UK, we have 4 main pillars – the legislative, the executive, the judiciary and the press. Put simply, the legislative makes the laws, the executive enforces the laws and the judiciary keeps a check on the laws that are made and ensures that these laws and orders do not curtail the fundamental rights of the citizens of a country. The press/ media ensures that people are aware of what is happening, and is meant to ensure the transparency and accountability of the other three. The latter is one that our guest Anjan Sundaram goes into more detail about, as he defines the crucial role of journalism, and its power to both create and destroy democracies, whilst our first guest Oliver Sidorczuk dissects how the UK parliamentary democracy really works, and discusses tangible methods of engaging with global politics.

Meet our Guests

Anjan Sundaram is a journalist, television presenter and author, known for books such as Stringer, and Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship – a book which delves into the notion of democracy by addressing the complete absence of it. Bad News reveals the power of journalism and addresses the danger in destroying free speech, through showing the Rwandan regime’s totalitarian control over life and liberty.

Oliver Sidorczuk is a political campaigner, who has spent nearly 10 years working in and around social change and political influencing. He works extensively to educate people on what democracy is and how they can engage in it, and has played an active part in influencing decision-makers across the public, private and third sectors.

Both guests discuss varying elements of democracy, drawing from their personal experiences in the fight towards it. Although they are moving towards the same goal, of achieving people power, they approach their pursuits from different angles, and allow us to see the multitude of opportunities available to us in engaging in the fight for democracy. They also provide meaningful definitions and interpretations of what democracy currently looks like, what it should look like, and why there’s a gap between the two.

‘Do you feel that democracy exists anywhere currently?’

Both Oliver and Anjan see democracy to be an aspiration that societies have been struggling towards, but have never fully achieved. ‘No I don’t think this idea of people having a fair and equal say in how decisions are made exists anywhere because of the huge amount of influence that currently exists at the very top of the tree. There is also the huge role of the media, in influencing what we think,’ says Oliver. Anjan also explains that even in its early rise, during the enlightenment, Emanuel Kant, one of the pioneers of enlightenment who wrote about equality and liberal values, also wrote that the white race is the only race that can retain perfection and that people of colour are all inferior in various ways. Hierarchy and inequality have existed within democracy since its beginning and up until today. The rise of science and objective thinking also coincided with a racial hierarchy of people, with white people at the top and different colours going down the ladder. Democracy has always excluded sections of the population from participation, and we still see that today

Democracy has only ever existed for members of a democratic society. For example, women were excluded from participating in UK democracy until 1918 when they were given the right to vote, and even then, through the Representation of the People Act, only women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification could partake. This restriction only allowed two thirds of the female population to participate. In the US, African American males didn’t get the right to vote until 1870, and African American women were excluded until 1965. And even today, in the UK, without citizenship you cannot vote, even if you have resided in that country for your entire adult life and contributed to that society through work and taxes. When we talk about democracy as equal participation, the equal element of its definition is only applicable to those that the state and government defines as people of its democracy, and therefore often excludes immigrants, and in many countries women.

Political march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital, Montgomery, that directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Reporting on these injustices, about racism, dictatorships and abuses of power, is what Anjan sees as a means to achieving true democracy.

To me, the press is society’s defence against abuses of power – they speak for everyone, on behalf of everyone, they speak to protect all people and hold the powerful accountable.

Both Anjan, and Oliver touch upon the role of the media in affecting and influencing people’s thoughts, as well as its role in divulging important information about the workings of society. Through transparency and holding powers accountable, the press and media provide a voice for the people and a source of knowledge about our governments and societies. But the media can also be exploited and used as a tool to attack freedom of choice and subvert our knowledge to lean towards a biased political stand-point, hence eroding this notion of equal participation, and of democracy itself. Anjan goes on to say that because the press criticises everyone, particularly those with power and wealth, its status as a medium for free speech and an unbiased source of democratic power for people, is always at risk, as it requires a certain maturity and openness from leaders.

We don’t represent governments, we represent people. We trade in the most powerful of things which is words and information but we don’t have any special protection if we come upon sensitive or dangerous topics and report on them. So to have an environment in which people feel that the press can operate freely is truly a special place and I don’t know if such places exist anywhere in the world.

Anjan finds his purpose in reporting on societies that are affected by violent dictatorships but which don’t have enough of an established media framework to amplify peoples’ voices or garner international attention. This speaks to the fundamental purpose of journalism as a pillar of democracy, to uncover truths about societies and hold power to account. ‘It was in Rwanda,’ says Anjan, ‘that I came to really understand that the press isn’t about simply informing people, it isn’t simply about entertaining people; a press serves a very fundamental function. I saw the Rwandan journalists battle for their lives in order to play that role in their society – because they wanted a society which their family, children, friends, fellow country people could live in with a certain degree of freedom.’

Importantly, Anjan notes that there are many ways to engage in journalism, outside of the traditional means that Western societies promote, like newspapers, radio and TV news. This is especially true in 2021, where the means to make and share media have become a lot more accessible. Look at the events of the global ‘Black Lives Matter’ uprising in the Summer of 2020, for example. It was a video recorded on a mobile phone that shocked the world into action; social media that was used to mobilise; infographics, books, films and podcasts that were used to educate. Everyday people are increasingly getting involved in journalism, becoming ‘citizen journalists’, and holding even our media establishments to account.

Citizens have increasingly been adopting the role of journalist

How can we influence change if we are excluded from or unaware of the politics in our society?

Political education is crucial in allowing people to engage with politics, but is not currently prioritised by our governments. Oliver argues that this decision is deliberate. In his fight to implement politics as a mandatory subject in schools he has faced continuous opposition, something that he believes is rooted in the government’s desire to retain power and control. He says, ‘there is a hesitancy by our government that you don’t want to widen the pool of people getting involved in democracy[…]why would you teach people how to get involved in something which then makes your job more difficult. By excluding the masses from a basic level of political education, the government increases the likelihood of excluding people from political engagement throughout their lives. Politics becomes something that people don’t feel allegiance with or a responsibility towards. It becomes something alien which only bears relevance to people during elections. This deliberate lack of political education also devalues our votes, as many people do not have access to adequate information and resources to make informed votes on policies which affect their communities. Fisayo states that, political education should be showing young people that politics is everyday and it’s everything. It’s not something separate from us.’ If we look at something recent like Brexit for example, we see how people’s lack of political knowledge led many to regret their votes, as YouGov polls now show that only 38% of people are in favour of it, compared to the 52% that voted for it at the time. Until the term ‘Brexit’ began to circulate in government debates, many were completely unaware of what the EU was, and why it was relevant to them. Even then, it has since been revealed that much of the information that was readily available to us was biased and filled with false promises of saving the NHS, fixing our mental health systems, boosting our economy and saving millions of tax-payers money per year through elimination of EU fees. In reality, our economy is 2.9% smaller than if we had never left the EU, in February 2020 Brexit was said to have cost the UK more than £200 billion in lost economic growth, and it has inevitably been through austerity policies which affect working-class people that the government are trying to rebuild. Educating people on the power of their vote is something which both Fisayo and Oliver deem to be crucial in a democratic society, and beginning to understand how our political systems work is a vital stepping stone in our journey to democracy.

So, what are some of the separate elements within our UK democracy?

  • In the UK our type of democracy consists of a constitutional monarchy, where the Queen is the head of state. So we have the Queen’s courts, the Queen’s revenue, the Queen’s customs service, etc.
  • The Queen is a symbol, symbolic of the crown, and so underneath that is her government, our government – the people that we elect. We elect people to a UK parliament, where we have 650 MPs.
  • Alongside that chamber of the House of Commons where the MPs sit, is the House of Lords – unelected members of parliament, some of them inherited their titles (about 90 have inherited their seats in the house of lords)
  • Across the UK there are smaller level governments like local councilors, city councilors, county councilors, borough councilors, right the way down to small town and parish councilors. There are also systems of directly elected mayors.

Oliver explains these layers of democracy, which also allow us to see how much scope and opportunity there is to influence those elected decision makers, by writing to relevant people, voting in all elections and getting involved in movements and organisations at a community level.

Understanding the power of our voice has never been more important as people feel increasingly disillusioned by a lack of choice in their representative options. Our two main political parties in the UK, Labour Party and Conservative Party, often merge in political agendas and overlapping policies. Research collected in Rethinking Democracy by Leo Pantich and Greg Albo, also reveals that government approval ratings in the US have shifted from 73% in 1958 to just 19% by 2015. Representational democracy hinges on the idea that we elect someone whose opinions and politics we trust. If there are no candidates who adequately represent the views of a community or a nation, can we call it a democracy? This just goes further to assert the importance of collective political participation.

People are interested in equality,’ Oliver explains. ‘They care about racial justice, they care about environmental justice. Connecting that care and interest to an understanding of how to participate, and the way politics is linked to those issues is key. Once you can begin to connect the dots to how politics affects your life, and how you can begin to change the things you want to change through politics – that’s when the real magic happens.’

Within these discussions of participation, we also need to incorporate discussions about disagreement, and protest. Protests and the right to speak up against democratic institutions that we might disagree with, is a fundamental part of democracy, as it gives voice to people’s dissatisfactions and is monumental in the history of social change. The abolishment of slavery, working hours, women’s rights, minimum wage, and welfare systems – these are all things which have been fought for. This is why the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill is so dangerous, as it aims to dictate rules of protests, limiting its reach and efficiency. The new bill allows police chiefs to set a start and finish time to protests, to set noise limits, to fine people up to £2500 for not complying, and allows sentences of up to 10 year for damage to memorials. It also means that protesters will be in breach of the bill if they are ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’.

Demonstrators gathered in Manchester City Centre to protest against the Government’s Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill (Getty Images)

Protests are by nature disruptive, as they aim to create public awareness, and to target and demonstrate against institutions and people in power. Here, the government is trying to dictate the way people should protest against the government, which contradicts the purpose and effectiveness of the entire operation. Protest does not create change if it is undetected and unnoticed, it does not progress our society if it is convenient for those that it aims to provoke. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill stifles people’s rights to disagree and create change, and hence stifles equal participation in the governing decisions of our society. This will only serve to create further barriers against our move towards democracy, and push us closer towards a fascist state.

So, what can you do?

There are countless ways of engaging in politics and fighting for your rights.

  • You can sign petitions for and against policies
  • Write to your local MP about things you want to see change
  • Join trade unions and grassroots organisations that align with your social interests and politics
  • Look for movements to participate in
  • Go to protests
  • Try and influence political candidates
  • Debate and discuss with friends and family
  • Register to vote and actually vote – not just in general elections but in local elections too.
  • Think about how you spend your money, directly and indirectly eg. be conscious of where your pensions are and what it’s funding.
  • Engage with your local community – read the local news, find out about democracy in local systems
  • Educate yourself about local, national and international politics so that you can have an effective voice – know and understand where power is, who holds it and how you can influence it
  • Engage in jobs and activities which have social impacts
  • Connect with people in other countries and stand in solidarity
  • Read alternative news sources, not just mainstream sources which might be biased in the government’s favour – understand the role of the media and how to use it to your advantage
  • Speak up against injustices, your voice is powerful. Stand up for people in your community and be unafraid of representing your own political stance.

Democracy presents the promise of a fair political system – one which represents the views and opinions of its citizens and aims to provide people with an equal voice in participating in policies and decisions of a society. Whilst its promises have arguably never become fully formed within any society, due to many reasons such as excluded populations, biased media, lack of political education, unequal opportunities and so on, it is nevertheless a vital tool within our current system which we can use in order to influence change. Your knowledge, your voice, your body is power – and by knowing how your society is governed and understanding its democracy you can use this power to participate in meaningful solutions in the fight towards a true democracy.