Watching the Egyptian Revolution (has anyone started calling it that yet?  BBC slowly moved from “Egypt unrest” to “Egypt crisis” but I don’t remember seeing “revolution…) got me thinking a bit about democracy.  Sure, we take it for granted here, but in recent weeks we’ve seen the South Sudanese vote for independence from the north in a referendum and protests in Tunisia, Egypt itself, Algeria, Iran and Yemen aimed at toppling regimes and installing democracy.

Thing is… aren’t they twenty years too late?

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published a much-debated paper entitled “The End of History”, which, three years later was expanded into a book titled “The End of History and the Last Man”.  Fukuyama’s central argument was that, with the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy had won and established itself as the central principle which would inform how all states would be run.  Now, of course there are plenty criticisms of Fukuyama, and I myself have always been more oriented towards Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” theory (without the inherent racism apparent in some sections) but the point I’d make is that, at the time of Fukuyama’s writing, he did have some evidence for his thesis.

That’s not to say that “we’re all liberal democrats now” (note the lower case) in any form – and I don’t think that he’d argue that we would be, just that we are all on that trajectory.  But in the 1980s and 1990s we did see a major shift towards liberal democracy (predominantly in Eastern Europe) in line with Fukuyama’s theory.  States who had never seen democracy began to embrace the concept, replacing totalitarian communist states with varying degrees of democratic institutions.

But while these new democracies began to, if not love the concept then at least learn to live with it, modern western democracies began to fall out of love with democracy – or at least in the way they themselves practised it.  Witness falling election turnouts in Britain (1992 onwards), US Presidential (1960-2008) and Federal (1962-2006), French Parliamentary (1945-2007) and the general malaise about political representatives and apathy about our political systems.  Okay, I’m using figures which emphasise my point (and you can find states which will contradict me – Italy’s turnout has increased, though you’d hardly call that a model western democracy) but you see what I’m saying.  We’re getting to be fed up with democracy just as these states are understanding why we loved it in the first place

But maybe its not democracy that we’re fed up with, but how we practise it.  Maybe representative democracy has had its day, and we need to move to more direct or deliberative democracy.  Yeah, I know – trying to get a chamber of 129 MSPs or 650 MPs to decide agree on anything, how do you get a population of 5 million or 60 million to make decisions?  But it doesn’t need to go that far.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is feeding into some of my research at the moment.  I’ve been reading more about deliberative democracy – Habermas,  Rawls, Fishkin and Dryzek mostly, since you ask – but it is mostly a theoretical concept, with no real practical application for political systems, except for a handful of ideas, which include ideas like deliberative polling and citizen’s juries.  But the principle is, I think, something we should be looking at – more public engagement in democracy through some of these innovations, and focusing more on the deliberative aspect of decision-making, on letting the arguments convince more than the political up or downside.

Of course I realise this is naive.  We can’t do politics without the politicians (or can we?).  But we’re losing our will to love our own democracies, which if we don’t remedy, may endanger the new democratic projects in the Middle East and Africa.  Perhaps we need to be less apathetic not for our own sake, but for the sake of global stability?  That’s a big, pretentious bull-s*** thought to finish on.

Vote in the AV referendum to save the democratic world?  As a campaign slogan, it’s got its merits…