Understanding Modern Democracy, in Theory

In the first article of his three-part "Understanding" series, Tom Marrs explains the concept of modern democracy. 

“Change from below, the formulation of demands from the populace to end unacceptable injustice, supported by direct action, has played a far larger part in shaping British democracy than most […] have ever cared to admit.”

Tony Benn, 1970.


This article will attempt to depict some of the more relevant democratic theories that apply to the modern world, in both an educational and personal format, whilst also retaining a focus on empirical evidence that reinforces the importance of said theories.

Why is this important? Since the 2008 recession, politics within individual democracies has changed drastically, therefore an understanding of the theoretical aspects of democracy is a requirement for an informed electorate.

Primarily, can the modern world be categorised by one specific democratic theory?

To categorise the modern world into one specific democratic theory is impossible, as the world has a wide variety of political theocracies, democracies and autocracies, each with their own versions of an individual theory at their cores. As an example; although the USSR’s founding is seen as a socialist uprising, it is often regarded by revisionist historians as Stalinism not socialism, and later a true communist state following the death of Stalin himself and the initiation of de-Stalinization by Nikita Khrushchev.

Consequently, one could argue that as ‘socialism’ has its various branches such as the aforementioned, ‘democracy’ must also have its own branches — including overlap between the two, embodied by United States Senator Bernie Sanders. According to Barnett & Duvall’s ‘Power in International Politics’, on the concept of power they reject the pursuit of a ‘master’ theory. Furthermore, following their development of a new power taxonomy, they state that scholars and relevant policymakers should employ a variety of theories to draw from in a single instance. One would argue the idea of employing multiple concepts that work hand in hand, translates directly from theories of power to democratic theories in similar instances, with relevance to global governance.

What is an example of a theoretical concept being illustrated in a real-world event(s)?

Such a theoretical concept, that is arguably most interesting to me but certainly not appealing, is the idea of a democratic deficit. To summarise, this occurs when a ‘democratic’ institution is unable to achieve the basic principles of democracy as witnessed by their own actions — including the influential participation of the citizenry. This takes us into the Greek Eurozone crisis, in which the Greek economy was on the edge of bankruptcy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in alongside the European Central Bank, to assist with a bailout. However, this bailout held certain conditions that are closely associated with austerity. Therefore, Greece was required to cut their social spending and public programmes in order to focus on rebuilding their economy ‘pragmatically’. This is often referred to as a democratic neo-liberal approach, as are the conditions that the IMF often holds on its loans. It was only once Greece received its third bailout, that it followed the IMF and EU Central Bank’s step-by-step guide for austerity.

Whilst neo-liberalism has a strong focus on a free-market for economic development, this leaves nations without the correct infrastructure lacking a safety net to prevent them from unwinding into a semi-periphery or full periphery country (according to world-systems theory). Whilst public opinion suggests that Europe’s bailout of Greece is often referred to as an act of charity, this is not the case. The effort was led by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, noted as the driver of the European Project, whose sole focus was the safeguarding of the Euro — as Greece was a member of the EU single currency project. As stated previously, Greece was forced to agree to harsh terms of austerity in order to receive the bailout, allowing the Euro to gradually return to its pre-crisis value so that the various other member-states in Europe did not suffer. As a result, the democratic deficit is highlighted by the Greek electorate’s reduced influence on the terms of the bailout. One would argue such a strategy led to distaste towards Greece in European public opinion, for their poor economics that led to the economic downturn of the other member-states that participate in the single currency project.

What is one of the more relevant and applicable democratic theories of the Western world?

One would argue the theory of representative democracy is the most relevant and applicable to the modern western world. Representative democracy comes in three core forms; elitism, pluralism and political hegemony.

  1. Democratic elitism argues that the citizenry has no direct involvement in policy decisions, but they do indirectly as they elect officials who they believe will act in their best interests — essentially as proxies.
  2. Democratic pluralism is very similar but regards elections as when politicians are held accountable for their actions by the citizenry. However, it argues interest groups are a vital part of representative democracy.
  3. Democratic hegemony, suggests that there is a power structure of elites, capable of absorbing the consequences of their actions in political, social or economic spheres, due to significant financial backing by interest groups or lobbyists — examples of US equivalents would be the National Rifle Association, fossil fuel industry, or the evangelical voting bloc.

One would argue the most frightening yet entirely relevant aspect, is the idea that democratic hegemony leaves the elected officials responsible to the interest groups that back them financially as opposed to the citizenry, allowing public opinion to become irrelevant. Consequently, the citizenry and democratic officials are left disconnected by a wide political chasm. This is one of the more realistic explanations for the United States specifically, as is depicted on television programmes such as House of Cards, critically acclaimed for its political realism.

Side note: The example of House of Cards, despite being fictional, helps identify a simplified understanding of lobbyists and interest groups’ influence in political affairs and policy (i.e. Sancorp’s relationship with Frank Underwood).

How should the citizenry organise and govern themselves?

How people should organise and govern themselves is a different conversation altogether. The most appealing possibilities are an evolved form of Classical Democracy, as witnessed in the ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and depicted by Pericles as being pushed forward by ‘public-spirited men’, or a Participatory Democracy as witnessed at the turn of the millennium in the European Union.

The original concept of Classical Democratic theory suggests that men of Athenian descent would serve no more than one-term, in an assembly that met 40 or so times a year. However, this would most certainly need adaptation into a modern format, as this concept only applied to non-slave men, often owning property of Athenian descent specifically. Since then, we have seen an increased level of international migration with people of various ethnic or cultural descents comprising populaces across the world due to the influx of international trade and the labour movement. Furthermore, it must be adapted to include members of various groups with different interests and meet more often than 40 times per year. Safeguards must then be applied for when there is no majority can be achieved, a minority lacks true representation on a specific issue.

Participatory Democracy on the other hand, emphasises the public’s participation in a similar format, however, includes the aforementioned features required in a modern democracy that prevents the citizenry from being ‘apathetic’ as a result of believing they are powerless due to a declining level of influence, whilst straying from the negative aspects of a traditional representative democracy as previously mentioned. The greatest systems developed with such features in mind are that of Spain and Italy. Jacobsen argues that such features translate directly into public influence on participatory budgeting policies.

However, a participatory democracy would require a great focus on political education so that the public cannot be swayed or manipulated by concepts such as ‘crafted talk’, according to Rottinghaus, in which public opinion is utilised to garner support that could lead to not being in the public’s best interest in the long term; as witnessed with Donald Trump’s transition from election to the actions during his Presidency.

Another form of manipulation and spread of misinformation is through the media. Happer & Philo argue members of the citizenry who lack political understanding or prior contextual knowledge, are more easily influenced by ‘soundbites’ in order to maintain their position in a ‘herd mentality’ specifically when they lack direct experience and alternative sources of information. This leads to the media adopting the role of a platform solely to release anger and frustration — as opposed to being a forum for developing solutions. This contrast can be seen between the reality of Fox News and its ambitions of catalysing one sides distaste for the other, and the fictional media outlet ACN’s ‘News Night’ from The Newsroom television series, created by Aaron Sorkin, that aims to provide insight and vital information to the American electorate — in a modernised yet equally romantic depiction of Don Quixote and his quest to civilize.

Side note: The purpose of using the fictional news programme ‘News Night’ as an example, is to highlight what the media could be in a Utopian world, in which news networks are not beholden to investors or parent companies with specific business ambitions that contradict the core values of the network — as witnessed in the show.

From a social psychology standpoint, one would argue the herd mentality concept presented by Happer & Philo, overlaps with Zaller’s resistance axiom. Zaller argues that those with preexisting knowledge are less likely to have their beliefs or understandings swayed or manipulated, most notably by the media.

Final Thoughts

There is a wide array of democratic theories that have strong applicability to modern governance, at least in the western world. Indeed, each theory contains a preselected collection of main actors that could be outdated, but entirely capable of evolution into a modern format — including the modern media industry or financial contributions by lobbyists and interest groups.

Whilst it may appear complex and intricate in nature, commitment to political understanding is a prerequisite for socio-political progression, leaving education in such topics is necessary for truly meaningful participation by the citizenry. However, an absolute requirement should be the refocusing of the responsibilities of political officials away from said interest groups and back towards the needs of the citizenry and each official’s constituents.

Furthermore, since the refugee crisis, nationalism has taken centre stage in politics leaving individual constituencies to suffer in sacrifice for nationalised political ambitions. A key objective is to step away from (but not entirely abandon) the national front lines of politics, with the intent of re-focusing on individual constituencies to allow for greater participation and influence of the citizenry.

Disclaimer: This article was originally submitted and graded as a university paper at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and has since been edited for publication on the Young Fabians blog.

Thomas Marrs is a final year History & Hispanic Studies student at the University of Liverpool, with a focus on Muslim & Christian Relations during the Crusades. He is an independent writer and researcher in; history, international relations & foreign policy. His writing can be found at https://medium.com/@marrsdthomas

He tweets at @marrsdthomas

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