Is democracy failing?

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The world’s democracies are failing to live up to their ideals - especially in the US and UK - according to Oxford University’s Stein Ringen. “Democracy’s friends should now sound loud and clear a warning about democracy’s quality,” he concludes in his new book, What Democracy is For.

The core value of democracy, he argues, is the freedom to live a good life according to one’s own choosing. Yet this is on the decline. Citizens are increasingly distrustful of political systems swayed by money, he says, and participation in political affairs is declining.

Freedom, Professor Ringen reasons, requires the resources to be free - to be free to choose a thing but lack the means to choose, is not to be free at all.

Is this analysis accurate? And what about Professor Ringen’s proposed solutions: a key role for the state in supporting pensions, attacking poverty, backing families – with, for example, subsidies for weddings. How should democracy be strengthened?

Professor Ringen will answer your questions live from 2pm BST on Thursday, October 25. Post a question now to or use the online submissions form below.

My experience is that representative democracy only works if the elected representatives are free to represent without key decision makers, in our case to include UK government ministers, being driven by unelected civil servants some of whom have agendas that were not debated in any public manifesto. Do you think that civil servants should be more accountable in public in order that democracy can be seen to be truly representative?
Barry Fleming, Berkshire, UK

Stein Ringen: No I don’t. I think civil servants should be accountable to political bosses who come and go and I am not in favour of a political civil service. One of the big changes in British constitutional practice in the last two or three decades is in the working relations of the civil service and politicians.

Civil servants are now much less autonomous political actors than they were only twenty years ago. Some bemoan the passing of a proud independent civil service, but I am not so sure.

With South Africa in its democratic infancy, how do you suggest a national identity is created that will represent all of South Africa’s subsets in what is still a highly fragmented and polarised society?
Kopano Makhu, South Africa

Stein Ringen: Many of us admire the very serious and original work that is done in South Africa to create national unity from a terribly difficult starting point, from its pioneering constitution to the idea of reconciliation. From the outside I can say no more than that this will necessarily take time. Regrettably, patience is not a great democratic virtue.

How do statist-centered policies as you are advocating create freedom for individuals? Exactly who will pay for the institution of these policies, if not taxed-to-death individuals?
Daniel Heiden, Austin, US

Stein Ringen: Public policies are obviously always paid for by taxes. If democracy works, taxes are what people/voters have decided they should be. Taxes are generally not very heavy. You may have seen in the last few days that in the US, where taxes are lower than in most comparable countries, many economists are now worried that taxes are on too low a level for the government to be able provide business and families with reasonable infrastructure, security and services.

Are international institutions and organisations helping or hurting the return to more social democratic principles? More specifically, do you see the European Union as a set of institutions that can help the development of the democracy you are advocating?
Mark A. Wolfgram, Stillwater OK

Stein Ringen: The European Union is a more or less democratic network of democratic nations. Personally I think there is a democratic problem in that government is increasingly distant from citizens, and seen to be distant, and I wish the EU would deal seriously with this. I favour a system of indirect elections to the European Parliament, but I seem to be rather lonely in that opinion.

Is it possible that this is not the decline of democracy, but simply the progression of government. As Plato suggested, governments can naturally evolve from democracy to autocracy to monarchy to tyranny. Is it possible that the best democracy is also the youngest? That history inevitably leads a people away from freedom and towards greater degrees of tyranny?
Colin, Washington, DC

Stein Ringen: If there has been any direction in recent history, it seems to me to have been very clearly from tyranny to freedom. Most countries of the world are now democracies, at least of some sort, and even those that are not, with one or two exceptions, feel the need to portray themselves in the language of freedom and democracy. That is true even of the Chinese regime.

China is the big remaining non-democracy, but even there the direction of history is towards freedom. In this sense, there is no decline of democracy. But at the same time, in particular in the established democracies, there is a crisis of trust in politics and government that is weakening the democratic culture.

Democracy may mean different things for different countries at various stages of their economic, social and political development. However, there must be a set of crucial elements that distinguish a democratic system from the non-democratic system. In your opinion, what are these factors that are absolutely essential for a regime to be considered democratic?
Hana Modes, Japan

Stein Ringen: First of all and basically that the people have enough power to be able to throw out a bad government. Throwing out governments is even more important that electing them in. In fact, I think voters should see to it that governments change pretty often. Governments will then always know that if they do not do reasonably well for their people they will be out of power.

There is more to it of course: that human and civil rights are ensured and respected, that there is a democratic culture in which politicians and parties accept the rules of the game, including to give up power when that is the verdict of the voters, and that the system enjoys reasonable (but not too much) confidence and trust. But effective people power is crucial.

Is there a better form of government than a representative democracy? If so, what is it, and why is it better?
James J. Stewart, Arizona, US

Stein Ringen: Democracy will not necessarily always and everywhere be representative democracy, nor has it always been. But the really smart thing about representative democracy is that it makes democracy possible while asking each of us for only a little bit of participation, essentially to vote now and then.

That way we can all participate pretty equally. An alternative is direct democracy but that asks for a lot of participation. The danger then is that a little group of zealots take control because most of us don’t have much time for politics. Representative democracy works astonishingly well in the world because it is a smart and simple form of democracy.

Definitions of democracy are as diverse as the cultures and religions of the world and mean all things to all people - George Bush and Vladimir Putin to name just two. Could you therefore please provide a definition of democracy that would be acceptable to all members of the UN security council - even if you personally think that not all of the members fit your own definition of democracy.
Graham Maughan, Henley-on-Thames

Stein Ringen: Let me try this one for now: A democracy is a system in which the people have the power to throw out a government they do not like and where politicians and parties respect the verdict of the people in elections.

Should we not unpick all the EU directives and like Iceland Norway and Switzerland, let the people decide where our country goes from now on? Against the wishes of a large majority of people in Britain its huge commons majority is currently enabling New Labour to pull up the ladder to power behind it, while simultaneously handing the levers of power to the EU autocrats through the back door.
Ian Miller, Glasgow

Stein Ringen: I think I’ll not be drawn on this except to say that the British constitutional tradition is that the people vote and their representatives decide. That is a perfectly valid democratic principle. It is not a principle everyone likes, but it is not undemocratic.

Don’t you think that people do not participate in political affairs not because they “are increasingly distrustful of political systems swayed by money” but exactly for the opposite reason, i.e. they trust their political systems? To me, “citizens” in your version of ideal democracy sounds very much like “comrades”, or am I wrong?
Pavel Ovseiko, Oxford

Stein Ringen: It is not democratically good that citizens trust their governments too much. But the experience is not that a high level of trust leads to a low level of participation. Where there is a sound balance of criticism of and trust in government, citizens then to be more involved.

Do you believe democracy’s role is A and B forcing C, to pay for X? The US government is extremely inefficient and wasteful at spending the money that is taxed from its people’s income. In my case about 50 per cent. This is eroding freedom at the deepest level. Promising other people’s money in the form of farm subsidies and social pay-outs in return for a vote, while blocking free market policies is certainly an unintended outcome of the one man, one vote system. More government intervention? Please allow me to spend my earnings.
Mike Ward, Milwaukee, US

Stein Ringen: You might want to look at this comparatively. Americans spend more of their earning themselves than almost any other people but are still among the most distrustful of their government. At the opposite extreme, in Scandinavian people have over much more of their earnings to their government and are still more trustful of government and feel more free.

Do you consider the state controlled democracy in North America, where the freedom of opinion is no longer possible, citizens are under total surveillance by security intelligence agencies and exposed to the strong propaganda from state controlled media as a kind of totalitarian regime, which violates the human rights on the large scale and explains most of the current problems in economics and politics as a result of foreign powers actions rather than because of execution of unwise domestic and foreign policies. What can American people do to restore the democratic values during the coming election process in the US? How can other nations assist the US government with the process of adaptation of true democratic values as in Europe?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

Stein Ringen: I think that writing from the Ukraine, or if it were from Europe, you might be a bit more tempered in your description of the US and freedom. But the idea that say the Ukraine should help the Americans to get their democracy is order is intriguing. The sad thing, in my opinion, about democracy in America and many other countries, is that people do not make more use of their voting power. There is great power in the vote and we the people should use that power by voting.

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