How to Build and Sustain Democracy

John Keane

Engaged citizens and active, vigilant, and vocal civil society are crucial for the sustainability of new and old democracies across the globe.

March 22, 2023

Democracy is a tricky word. Considered as a way of people governing themselves through their chosen and appointed representatives, democracy is both a special method of defining and handling power and a whole way of life. Historians teach us that it can be destroyed in quick time. We also know from recent worldwide experiences that building a resilient democracy is hard work. It can take years, or even longer, for people and their representatives to appreciate its benefits and learn to live together democratically.

The New Civil Society: Democracy ‘Down Below’

In our times, democracy is what I have called monitory democracy. It is nothing less than the free and fair periodic election of representatives to parliaments. But it’s something much more. It requires a plethora of watchdog bodies – independent courts, uncorrupted electoral commissions, a robust plurality of media platforms – whose job is publicly to scrutinise governments and big businesses and to put a stop to abuses and injustices wherever power is exercised.

When understood in this unorthodox and thoroughly 21st-century way, democracy at the ‘upper levels’ of government can durably function only when citizens ‘down below’ in everyday life live to the full its norms of equality, freedom, solidarity, and respect for social differences. This is to say that democracy is a whole way of life. It’s a special form of social interaction and self-expression in which people from different walks of life rub shoulders, see eye to eye, cooperate and compromise, and generally think of themselves as the equals of each other. Democracy in this sense is only possible when there is a civil society acutely conscious of its ecological foundations: in other words, when citizens live together non-violently in various social associations and communities, treat each other as equals worthy of respect and dignity, as well as understand the need to honour and respect the eco-environments in which they dwell on our planet.

Protecting Freedom and Dignity

Monitory democracy as a whole way of life has the great advantage of enabling humans to stand courageously against abuses of power, to be on the lookout for corrupt rulers and fools who bring misery to peoples’ lives and heap damage upon their ecosystems. But how is democracy in this sense to be protected against its enemies? The important thing to understand is that democracy is much more than pressing a button or ticking a box on a ballot paper. It goes well beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule and lists of minority rights. It’s not reducible to lawful rule through independent courts, or attending local public meetings, participating in street demonstrations, and keeping up with breaking news. A well-functioning democracy requires freedom from violence, hunger, and personal humiliation. Democracy is saying no to the brazen arrogance of callous employers who maltreat workers as mere commodities and deny them the right to form independent