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The Death and Life of Great Global Democracies?!

I recently had the privilege to represent Zencity at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, convened in Mexico City. By invitation of the Solonian Democracy Institute, and alongside delegates from 60 countries, I was asked to speak to the value and contribution of Zencity to practices of direct democracy in the local governments we work with. 

I arrived knowing that for me, and for millions worldwide, democracy is not a theoretical concept about which to philosophically wax. Instead, it is a tangible thing that we are fighting to create, preserve, and defend. As democratic institutions in both my home country of Israel and host country of Mexico are put to the test, it was certainly an intrepid moment in time to dive deeper into the state of democracies worldwide.

The bottom line is – we’re not in a good place.

The Future of Democracy

The forum began by referencing the 2022 Global State of Democracy Report. The report highlights the current challenges facing democracy, including the undermining of democratic institutions and norms, the rise of authoritarianism, and the lasting negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report notes that democracy has been in decline globally for the past 15 years. This is due to the erosion of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the rule of law, in more than half of democratic countries worldwide.

The tragic irony is that in many countries in which democracy is under threat, it is being undermined using the very methods that make up a functioning democracy. Democratically elected governments utilize their power and authority to legislate away or weaken democratic norms, institutions, protections, and rights. Making democracy its own biggest enemy. 

When democracy is emptied of substance and is reduced to an election every few years, and little else, it is at risk. To survive and thrive, democracy cannot be regarded as merely a political system. It needs to become a set of cultural norms, values, and mechanisms embedded into every aspect of daily life. This was the most recurring and passionately uttered sentiment in the forum.

Building a Stronger Civic Society Through Citizen Engagement

This dramatic global battle was referred to as one between autocratic violence and democratic co-habilitation. 

When national governments fail us on the democratic front, cities often emerge as our protectors, as guardians of democratic norms and values. In fact, many cities, specifically in the US, are direct democracies in their own rights. They have municipal elections, voting on bonds, laws, and referendums. But this is not enough in order to preserve democracy. We must be armed with data, knowledge, and science if we are to defend it against misinformation and policies that actively weaken its values.

Jane Jacobs famously said, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” This quote, known to every beginning urbanist, and proudly spread across Zencity’s executive meeting room wall, paints a utopic vision. A vision of direct democracy that is nourished by diversity and plurality of voices coming together. Such direct democracy is dependent on the establishment of good citizenship, which is built in part through engagement and participation in civic life. To ensure residents continuously engage, their participation must be simplified, but equally meaningful. That is at the core of what we believe in and strive to do at Zencity.

As the battle to undermine or protect democracies around the world escalates, we must remember that democracy evolved and adapted over hundreds of years and must continue to do so if it is to stand the test of time. It is only sacred with respect to its ability to promote stability, safety, lawfulness, equality and social responsibility.

Because we’re optimistic, this is why we fight” – Eduard Punset

Image credit: Democracy International

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