The crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, far-right militia storming the US Capitol, French generals talking openly of civil war: the vital signs of democracy around the world do not look good. In many countries, public faith in democracy is waning. Dissatisfaction with democracy has been rising globally since the early 1990s, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.1 Whether it is about attacks on its integrity or simply about navigating the distortions of electoral systems, democracy and its organising principles require constant protection, maintenance, and repair.
The global trend towards populism in recent years prompted many debates about a “crisis of democracy”. That it closely followed the financial crisis suggests that inequality and economic downturn are essential parts of the story. But the roots go back further and economics does not explain everything. Societies are changing with culture an increasingly central battleground, and technology is rewiring how we live, work, and communicate. With the pandemic, the steady shift online of everything from the media ecosystem to community meetings has accelerated. All together, these factors play into how democracies function and malfunction.
The upsurge in calls for better representation and democratic rights in established democracies forces a reflection on how our political systems are far from perfect. The gilets jaunes protests were about forcing a distant metropolitan politics to consider the realities of rural towns and suburbs when setting climate policy. The Black Lives Matter movement is about basic rights such as equal treatment under the law as well as overturning persistent injustices. Who, what, and how politics represents is up for discussion – and rightly so. It was a non-voter (then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg) sitting outside the Swedish Parliament demanding that her generation’s interests be taken seriously that sparked the 2019 descent of the global climate movement into the streets. But the experiences of Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and many other countries offer clear warnings. If democracy is perceived not to be working, there are more and less democratic ways of fixing it.
from representing future generations to recovering the commons, green politics pushes democracy further
Democrats therefore face the dual challenge of preserving what we have got while also deepening democracy and representation to include all people meaningfully and equally. In some countries, the first is more urgent but the two are invariably linked. This dual task has always been at the heart of the green political project. With democratic principles at their core, Greens unambiguously defend human rights everywhere and the fresh, often-female face of green politics is on the front line of opposition to right-wing authoritarianism. But more than that, from representing future generations to recovering the commons, green politics pushes democracy further and provides a new axis about which to ground our institutions.
What can Greens bring to the struggle over democracy’s future? First, creativity and willingness to challenge established ways of doing politics through driving equal representation, active citizenship, and participation. The success of representative democracy depends on its representativeness. Guaranteeing real diversity and inclusion in politics is therefore central to bridging the gulf that exists between political institutions and society at large. The experiments in citizens’ assemblies and other innovations mushrooming across the world are only part of the answer. Long supported by Greens, they promise ways to revitalise politics and include sidelined perspectives and interests. But, as critics point out, these are imperfect exercises. Increasingly influential Green parties cannot afford to throw the baby of representative democracy (and their role as parties) out with the bathwater. Innovations alone will not suffice to fend off an alternative, exclusionary version of democracy that is on the rise.
Second, Greens have a crucial role to play in defining a new common good that all society can rally around. More than anything, democracy is the story of a community determining its future. In Europe, universal suffrage has been the shared (though not always joint) achievement of the labour, women’s, and democratic movements. But the achievements of 20th-century social democracy were bound up with a fossil economy that is necessarily in retreat. As ecological crisis redefines the conditions for prosperity in the 21st century, it is up to the green movement to protect democracy by leading the progressive vision of a sustainable, socially just future. Distinct from its social democratic and neoliberal predecessors, it promises to both restore the social fabric on which any political community depends while allowing people to flourish as individuals.
it is up to the green movement to protect democracy by leading the progressive vision of a sustainable, socially just future.
Third, the need for greater democracy in the European Union itself cannot be ignored. The EU’s actions are often democratically and constitutionally fraught – as popular votes and court rulings regularly demonstrate. The result is that its achievements are fragile and deadlock is never far away. European democracy will only be built slowly but increased transparency in decision-making, a more representative EU-level politics, and greater support for European media and civil society can all contribute. With federalist visions in retreat, the most promising avenues for building genuinely transnational forms of democratic politics may be found in strengthening connections between different levels of political power across Europe.
The stakes are high, but there are grounds for hope. Democracy is not an endpoint; it is resilient and flexible. How it evolves matters and will depend on the forces that steer it. For Greens and progressives, there is no better time to put forward a broad, positive vision of democracy and representation built on freedom, equality, and inclusion. As the movement that politicised the relationship between society and nature in the West, green politics is at the forefront of not just democracy’s defence, but its reinvention.
1 Roberto Stefan Foa et al. (2020). The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy.