The Struggle over Actually Existing Democracy

Dennis Pilon


By many accounts the world is more democratic today than ever before. This is usually understood to mean that more countries observe the popularly accepted procedural norms of nation-based democratic practice, such as regular elections, parliamentary control of the executive, and the ability to organize politically, free from coercion by the state or forces within civil society. From a low of just nine democracies by this definition in 1943, the number had increased almost tenfold by 2010 to 87. But as more and more of the world has embraced electoral democracy, public satisfaction with its workings in the countries with the longest experience of it has plummeted. American research reveals the starkest shift, from a 73 per cent approval rating of government in 1958 to just 19 per cent by 2015. Other western countries report more modest increases in ‘dissatisfied democrats’ but the trends are clear. The targets of public dissatisfaction are many, including political parties, the behaviour of specific politicians, the media, and the rather meagre openings for public input. Yet at the same time, public involvement in existing political opportunities – elections, political party membership, social movements – has declined precipitously. For a variety of pundits and political scientists, this increasing public disdain for and seeming indifference to politics, combined with the rising electoral support for populist anti-system parties from across the political spectrum, is indicative of a broader crisis in western electoral democracy. But just what the crisis is or what is causing it is less clear.

The failure to come to grips with the present democratic deficit in conventional public and academic discourse is not accidental but rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is and how it works. The most basic issue with western electoral democracies is that they are not – and never have been – terribly democratic, a problem that was masked for a time by the postwar economic boom. Political scientists and media commentators tend to miss this because they mistake ideal-type processes and institutions for democracy. But the achievement of what we call democracy – what we have dubbed here ‘actually existing democracy’ – was not merely about securing certain processes or institutions. It involved a broad social struggle to install a kind of relationship amongst people for their own self-governance. It was and remains a struggle because those who would prefer privilege and/or property to be the basis of governing decisions have resisted these attempts. To understand how and why our democracy works as it does, to develop a better explanation of its origins and reproduction, we need to examine the concrete struggles to gain and give shape to actually existing democracy, specifically in advanced capitalist countries.

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