Posted by: Alan D. Price, PhD | December 11, 2009

Evolution of Democracy, Part VI

In the five preceding installments of this essay, I have considered the political-psychological views of Doron Shultziner, Ph.D. as expressed in a paper, entitled “Evolution and Liberal Democracy,” presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 2005.  In this paper, Shultziner concludes that democracy has evolved over millenia and has been strongly driven by the human striving for recognition. 

So, what conclusions can be drawn regarding the past and future evolution of democracy?  Shultziner writes that he has presented a causal theory of democratic transitions.

The transitions of the 20th century cannot be fully understood without reference to the evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind and human societies. Evolutionary forces are pulling and shaping human societies toward more egalitarian structures, which are consistent with the way human beings lived through most of their evolutionary history. The engine of the generic historical course of democratization is the pursuit of recognition. There is no “gene for democracy” in human beings, but there are predispositions to pursue recognition and refrain from low self-esteem which are more easily satisfied in democracies. Despotic and other nondemocratic regime most often inflict a sense of low self-esteem in their citizens because of their hierarchical, brute or paternalistic character. Eventually, nondemocratic regimes violate people’s innate predisposition to pursue and maintain positive self-esteem. Democratic regimes can also fail due to environmental reasons. But the difference is that if democracy fails, it is not because of its character; democracy may fail in spite of its character.

The other part of the explanation pertains to exogenous factors. While the pursuit of recognition gives the overall direction of this historical course toward democracy, environmental factors determine the timing of democratic transitions, the setbacks from democracy, and the various shapes democracy takes. Environmental factors alone, however, are not causes of democratic transition. Only through the interaction of exogenous factors with human nature can transitions to democracy and social change in general be understood.

I also have claimed that the pursuit of recognition does not yield a unidirectional process toward democracy. Environmental factors may cause setbacks from democracy such as an economic crisis, military coup or a strong cultural influence. These exogenous factors can forestall or delay democratic transitions, but they cannot stop them from happening in an evolutionary perspective.

Evolutionary Mechanisms in the Development of Democracy

Shultziner describes two processes by which democracy evolves, viz., (1) Trial and Error and (2) Conscious Intention.

The process of trial and error reveals that some social structures are simply less successful than others. Democracies can reemerge just as nondemocracies do, but the probability of democracies to endure is much higher than nondemocracies because democracy’s building blocks of equality and freedom can pacify people’s pursuit of recognition, whilst nondemocratic logic (if there is such) cannot.

The process of trial and error eliminates nondemocratic forms because of the gradual rejection of what dissatisfies human beings [citation in original].  Those who experienced tyranny fought for the essential things they did not have from their previous regimes, basic freedoms and recognition [citation in original].  As Isaiah Berlin so vividly put it, “What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronised, or despised, or being taken too much for granted — in short […] having my uniqueness insufficiently recognised” [citation and emphasis added in original). Primarily in this way, through trial and error, democracy gradually attained its 20th century character. Social structures and policies that satisfy recognition last; those that do not, gradually disappear….

Democracy can [also] come about in conscious and intended ways as well. Human beings are fast learners and, combined with the advanced communications and the accumulation of knowledge in the 20th century, people do not start a process of trial and error anew each time [citation in original]. Those who protested against the communist regimes in east Europe, for example, could witness and were influenced by an attractive alternative on the west side of the Berlin wall. The grass in the neighbor’s garden is indeed objectively greener for some people. This is an important environmental factor with a twofold [sic, threefold?] dimension. First, it becomes a direct measure for people to evaluate their own regimes. Nondemocratic regimes have a limited capacity to prevent their citizens from knowing about the benefits of living in a proper functioning democratic state. People who do not enjoy basic freedoms and rights may be stimulated to demand these benefits after comparing their regimes with a proper democratic regime. Secondly, the measure can easily, but not necessarily, become a standard by which institutions could be shaped or modified. Strike examples are the influence of the American Revolution on the French Revolution, the Philippines where democratic institutions were profoundly shaped by American standards, Japan after World War II where democracy was first imposed but then accepted by the people, and Eastern European countries in the late 1980’s. In other words, existing democracies can become measures and standards for citizens of other countries. This is a powerful environmental incentive for the fast expansion of democracies and freedoms. Thirdly, in the realm of ideology, no serious ideological alternative to democracy exists any more. Real criticisms of democracy are mostly restricted to ancient political philosophy. Current criticisms of democracy are actually calls for a different type of balance between equality and freedom or modifications inside liberal democracy; they are not truly posed as alternatives to democracy [citation in original]. 

One of the calls “for a different balance between equality and freedom” is represented by the work of Professor James Fiskin at the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.  Fiskin has promoted a process called “Deliberative Polling®” which  has been carried out in venues across the world with intriguing results.

Deliberative Democracy and Deliberative Polling®

In a paper entitled, “Deliberative Polling®: Toward a Better-Informed Democracy,” we read:

Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public’s surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called “rational ignorance,” has little reason to confront trade-offs or invest time and effort in acquiring information or coming to a considered judgment….

Deliberative Polling® is an attempt to use television and public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues….It is a social science experiment and a form of public education in the broadest sense.

Each Deliberative Polling® “experiment” gathers:

…a highly representative sample together at a single place….The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample but it also has the concreteness and immediacy of a focus group or a discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people.

The weekend samples have typically ranged in size from approximately 200 in the utility polls to a high of 466 at the 1996 National Issues Convention. The process provides the data to evaluate both the representativeness of each microcosm and the statistical significance of the changes in opinion.

Each Deliberative Poll has resulted in “dramatic, statistically significant changes in views” as the participants become more informed.

Conclusion

Shultziner, thus, concludes that:

…there is a unifying factor behind previous transitions to democracy and contemporary transitions. Ancient democracies are not “noises” we can ignore; they are forerunners of a much wider and deeper phenomenon. Indeed, earlier forms of democracy do not make much sense in light of current theories of transitions to democracy; they do make perfect sense in light of an evolutionary process in which democracy gradually progressed to its 20th century form.

He goes on to say:

The theory I have outlined in this paper attempts to bridge the gap between the environment and human nature. The casual factor I have proposed, however, is not a simple independent or constant factor. Behavior and other phenotypic traits stem from interplay between genetic and environmental factors. The pursuit of recognition is no exception. The pursuit of recognition can be influenced by environmental factors, including culture, but the pursuit of recognition also pulls in a general direction towards more egalitarian structures that are more congenial to people’s positive self-esteem.

Those who are interested in pursuing Shultziner’s thinking further will find that a new, recently published book is now available.  An abstract of this work entitled:  Struggling for Recognition: The Psychological Impetus for Democratic Change can be found here.

So, knowing from whence we have come, can we now get some inkling of where we are heading?  The movement noted by Shultziner toward “a different balance between equality and freedom” reflects, I think, the natural process of achieving a balance between the “self-assertive tendency” and the “self-transcending tendency,” described by Arthur Koestler, that manifests through throughout our planetary existence, although I would prefer to speak not of “equality” but of, perhaps, “social conscience.”  Nonetheless, this process is, seemingly, a harbinger of the “synergistic democracy” (synocracy) of the future heralded by Barbara Marx Hubbard and mentioned in the first post on this blog.

To conclude, I now return the recent book written by Professor John Keane discussed in Part I of this essay.  In a related paper, he gives the following description of “monitory democracy” as “a new historical  type  of democracy…defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.”  He writes:

There  is  a  need  for  a  fundamental  revision  of  the  way  we  think  about democracy in our times. An epochal transformation has been taking place in the contours and dynamics of representative democracy. From roughly the mid-twentieth  century  representative democracy  began  to morph  into  a new historical form of ‘post-representative’ democracy. The fundamental implications of this  change  for democracy  in  the  coming years need  to  be  explored. The ‘end  of history’ perspectives and maritime metaphors are too limited to grasp the epochal change – too bound to the surface of things, too preoccupied with continuities and aggregate  data  to  notice  that  political  tides  have  begun  to  run in entirely new directions. 

My claim is that our world is now living through an historic sea change, one that is taking us away from the old world of representative democracy towards a form of democracy  with  entirely  different  contours  and  dynamics.  In media- saturated societies which bristle with communicative abundance – questions about the causes and  causers  of  this  new  historical  form  of  democracy,  its  advantages  and disadvantages, have fundamental implications for media and politics, and profound implications for how we think about and practise democracy and journalism in the coming decades.

It is hard to find an elegant name for the emergent form of democracy, let alone to describe and explain in a few words its workings and political implications. The strange-sounding term ‘monitory democracy’ is the most  exact  for describing  the great transformation that is taking hold in regions like Europe and South Asia and in countries otherwise as different as the United States, Japan, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand [citation in original]. 

My opening  conjecture  is  that monitory democracy  is a new historical  type  of democracy, a variety of ‘post- Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms. These monitory  bodies  take  root  within  the  ‘domestic’  fields  of  government  and  civil society, as well as in cross-border settings.  In consequence, the whole architecture of self-government  is  changing.  The  central  grip  of  elections,  political  parties  and parliaments  on  the  lives  of  citizens  is  weakening.  Democracy  is  coming  to mean more than elections, although nothing less. Within and outside states, independent monitors of power begin to have tangible effects. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, they complicate their lives, question their authority and force them to change their agendas….

Thus, to conclude this rather lengthy series of posts on the topic of “Evolution of Democracy,” I shall propose a challenge.  And, that challenge is to think very seriously about the way in which our political process is floundering on the shoals of divisiveness in which the whole affair becomes something more akin to the Super Bowl of politics where we choose sides, sit in our respective bleachers, and scream insults at the other side across the playing field.  While we are, thus, “entertaining ourselves,” or probably more accurately, “being entertained,” those who promoted the contest are raking in the profits and planning more contests in the future to keep the partisan fans distracted from their attempts to undermine the natural progression of humankind toward a balance of self and other, i.e., freedom and social conscience.

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  1. […] its goals may be very much political in nature.  This latter thought resonates with the words of Professor John Keane who has written about “monitory democracy” as “a new historical type of democracy…defined by […]


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