People-powered democracy?

Author:Runswick, Alexandra

Tony Wright and Andrew Gamble (eds), Rethinking democracy, Wiley-Blackwell, London 2018

Rethinking Democracy is a collection of essays that reflects the anxiety and uncertainty of our times. In her chapter, Helen Margetts draws on the responses associated with the five stages of grief to assess attitudes to social media and democracy, and these varying responses in some ways encapsulate the book as a whole. While denial and anger can be interesting and powerful, it is the chapters dealing with acceptance, and an exploration of where we go from here--or in Margetts's case the research needed in order to know where to go from here --that are the most compelling.

A missing theme in the book is the role that we, the people, have in building our democracy. The significance of any democratic reform proposal must be judged by the extent to which it empowers people and gives us agency in our democracy. Process matters. In campaigning to change our political system I don't just want a written constitution drafted by eminent lawyers. I want a citizen-led constitutional convention which enables a national conversation about the kind of country that we want to be and the values we aspire to realise. An opportunty to decide what democracy means to us.

This is also the approach I took in reviewing this book. Where are the people in the different conceptualisations of democracy it puts forward? Is there scope for power, participation and agency? Inevitably the answers vary, and some are more challenging than others. For Tony Wright, the people are all too often failing to hold up their end of the democratic bargain--by not participating, not educating themselves enough, and not being civil in political discourse. For Joni Lovenduski, women have been designed out of democracy and are struggling with institutions which will never really allow them to succeed. In Martin Moore's chapter, they are being duped by highly effective data-driven campaigns that know people better than they know themselves, and which use this knowledge to undermine democracy. Helen Margetts explores a world where small-scale actions taken by individuals have the potential to start revolutions, but more frequently disappear without a trace. Colin Crouch outlines a model where the concept of the will of the people is being used to undermine the checks and balances of liberal democracy. Vernon Bogdanor sets out the conditions necessary for change and encourages deeper engagement in...

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