Democracy Between Representation and Social Media Likes

, by Damiano Canale - ordinario di Filosofia del diritto
Thanks to its flexibility, it's the form of government that can adapt to change while ensuring the protection of fundamental rights. However, democracy's promise is hard to keep

Today, for each one of us, the word democracy has the familiar ring of being equivalent to the promise of freedom and equality. Freedom to be actors in collective decisions, to be active participants in political life in all its forms, and break the chains of power inequality. And all this while acknowledging that every citizen has the same prerogatives and abilities to decide over the future of the political community in which he or she lives. However, it is a promise that is increasingly difficult to maintain.

This is so for at least two reasons. In the first place, in modern democracies, the prerogative accorded to each citizen to participate in collective decision-making finds realization through the mechanism of political representation. The people, to whom the Italian Constitution accords political sovereignty, is a fictitious entity. The people acts politically through elected representatives, chosen by the citizens, who are responsible for embodying the general will. This generates a latent split between the represented and their representatives, which tends to become a yawning gap in times of crisis.

➜ Technology as a way to unite ruled and rulers
The crux of political representation has now become crucial after the crisis of traditional parties, which are increasingly unable to aggregate collective choices starting from the needs and aspirations of citizens. Hence the attempt, now widespread on a planetary scale, to recover forms of direct democracy through the help of digital technologies, apparently capable of establishing a direct connection between those who rule and those who are ruled. However, the knot of representation doesn't get untied this way but is simply moved outside traditional institutional circuits.

As Kant wrote in reproach to Rousseau, direct democracy is "formless": it needs to be oriented by defining the political agenda and the mechanisms for attaining political consensus; decisions that the people left to their own devices are not capable of making. Whether "giving form" to direct democracy requires either an enlightened legislator, a charismatic leader, or an online platform does not really matter. The hiatus between representatives and represented fatally risks to re-emerge every time, thus frustrating democratic aspirations.

➜ From the majority principle to the tyranny of the majority
A second order of reasons that make the promise of democracy hard to maintain is linked to the mechanism by which collective choices are made, that is to say the majority principle. It is well-known that every democracy, although based on universal suffrage, is exposed to the risk of plebiscitarian dictatorship. At a time when a political movement or coalition gets the majority of seats in parliament, regardless of the actual consensus it enjoys among the population, the government of the majority may decide to neglect minorities, and even try reduce them to political silence, by clamoring that "Ours is the voice of all the people!"
When this happens, democracy can turn into the most insidious of authoritarian regimes.

To avert this danger, contemporary constitutional democracies provide that popular sovereignty must be exercised "within the forms and limits of the Constitution", as the Italian Constitution states. The will of the majority is therefore bound to the full respect of constitutional principles, and in particular to the protection of the fundamental rights of all individuals, since respecting these rights is a prerequisite of democracy itself. This causes a latent tension between the democratic claim to see a political project implemented and the limits that every constitution places on such claim. This tension is managed through institutional checks and balances and constitutional courts, which have the difficult task of reconciling democratic prerogatives with the protection of fundamental rights, whatever their political color. However, in exceptional times such as ours, when institutional brakes are too weak and popular pressure too strong, this can create a tsunami that overwhelms the entire political community.

➜ An open-ended, constantly-evolving endeavor
Now, although the promise of democracy is difficult to maintain because of the inherent instability that Aristotle pointed out, democracy remains the best form of political organization in complex societies. And this is due, as Nadia Urbinati recently emphasized, to its very flexibility, namely its ability to adapt to different political situations, by reinventing the dynamics of representation and rearranging political choices in the light of fundamental rights.

In other words, democracy has always been a political laboratory in the making, capable of keeping its promise of freedom and equality to the extent that each of us is willing to participate in its continuous reconfiguration and realization.

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