Remodeling democracy, 800 years on

Global surveys show rising distrust of traditional democracy, and many institutions. Yet other indicators suggest young people want different types of civic engagement. The media must probe beyond the politics of conflict.

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Sarah Morgan, 14, loads grapefruit as she and other volunteers spend a Saturday morning, Jan. 24, gleaning fruit from citrus trees in Jacksonville, Fla. as a part of Feeding Northeast Florida's Citrus Harvest for the Hungry. The volunteers fanned out to harvest fruit from an estimated 265 trees from 165 homes.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter.” The document, sealed by King John in 1215, helped launch the long struggle for democracy and civic rights around the world. Yet by many measures, traditional democracy – at least the kind spread widely in the 20th century – appears to be in trouble, leading some experts to ask if democracy itself is changing. 

Consider these recent surveys: 

For the ninth straight year, political rights and civil liberties across the globe have declined, according to Freedom House’s annual report. In 2014, democracy was under its greatest threat in the last quarter century in places such as Egypt, Thailand, and Russia. Another survey, called AmericasBarometer Study, found a precipitous drop of trust in elections in 26 countries in the Americas, from Chile to Canada.

Globally, public trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations “evaporated” last year, according to a survey of 33,000 people by the Edelman public relations firm. For the first time, nearly two-thirds of the 27 nations surveyed fell on the “distrustful” side of the Edelman Trust Barometer. Surprisingly, trust in NGOs fell for the first time.

In the United States, a federal survey shows a steady decline in 16 of 20 indicators of “civic health.” Fewer Americans, for example, say it is important to report a crime. In the last elections, only slightly more than one-third of eligible voters cast ballots.

Support for democracy remains high around the world. But, says political scientist Hendrik Wagenaar of the University of Sheffield, “Satisfaction with the performance of their own democratic system does not tally with citizens’ political aspirations.”

Professor Wagenaar, like many scholars, wonders if people are searching for new forms of civic association based on shared values and beliefs, often local in nature or through digital communities. 

“They feel that ‘official democracy,’ the democracy that the media report on, does not do well in addressing these concerns, let alone solving them,” he writes. “People haven’t abandoned politics, but politics, they feel, has abandoned them.” He cites cases in Europe of citizens coming together to organize “social goods” in voluntary attachments, such as in sustainable energy, rural transport, or access to the Internet. They create ties of mutual dependency outside of government. 

“Most people want to engage with democracy,” he states. “But not the democracy of political parties, powerful lobbying organizations, and the spectacle of politicians arguing about a political agenda that is not theirs. Citizens care for responsibility, respect and a measure of control. It is astonishing to see how ordinary people are then able to master complexity, resolve conflict and arrive at creative solutions.”

In the US, one measure of this shift is seen among those under age 30 (Millennials). Unlike other Americans, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll, they have a much lower commitment to traditional civic duties such as voting, jury duty, or following the news media. Yet this age group does cite one civic activity, volunteering, as a “very important obligation.”  

One in 5 adults under 30 volunteered in 2013, up from 14 percent in 1989, according to census data. But where are they volunteering? Other data show a decline in activity for traditional institutions that rely on volunteers.

All this hints at the need to rethink “civic health” and ways of measuring it. After eight centuries of gains in democracy, the forms may be changing, yet the spirit probably remains – individuals gathering together as equals around a common affection for the public good. A new great charter may need to be sealed.

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