The Battle for Democracy: Empowering Citizens and Cities

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David Koranyi

Jul-Dec, 2023
-Updated in May 2024-

MUSIC:

As the 21st century unfolds, the battle to preserve and strengthen democratic governance has become a defining struggle of our time. Authoritarian forces are gaining ground, eroding democratic norms, and consolidating power across the world. This pervasive threat to democracy demands a comprehensive and unified global response. By empowering citizen-to-citizen collaboration, leveraging powerful digital toolkits to support citizen engagement, and supporting cities as crucibles for democratic innovation, we can untap immense potential to transform institutions that shape our everyday lives and cultivate a society that is engaged, responsible, and committed to constructing a sustainable future.

At the heart of this endeavour lies the urgent need to empower individuals as active participants in the democratic process. Traditional models of governance, which often relegate citizens to passive observers, must give way to more inclusive and participatory frameworks.


The Imperative for Global Solidarity: Empowering Citizen-to-Citizen Collaboration

In his seminal work The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that human history has been characterized by an ever-expanding circle of empathy. From the early tribal affiliations to the rise of nation-states, our capacity for empathy and cooperation has been steadily growing. In the 21st century, as we face unprecedented global challenges, it is imperative that we take this expansion of empathy to the next level: a global solidarity movement that transcends borders and enables individuals to support each other in their fight for democratic rights and freedoms.

Photo_ Marco Giumelli_ CC BY 2.0

The power of citizen-to-citizen collaboration lies in its ability to bypass traditional barriers and create direct channels of support and solidarity. In an increasingly interconnected world, the struggles for democracy and human rights in one country are no longer isolated events; they are part of a global narrative that affects us all. By fostering direct connections between individuals and civil society organisations across the globe, we can create a powerful network of mutual support and advocacy.

Imagine, for instance, a scenario where a civil society organisation in Poland, fighting against the erosion of democratic institutions, is able to receive direct support from individuals in Brazil who have themselves experienced the challenges of safeguarding democracy. This support could take many forms: sharing knowledge and strategies, providing financial resources, or even engaging in joint advocacy campaigns. Such collaborations not only strengthen individual efforts but also send a powerful message of global solidarity.

There are already inspiring examples of this kind of transnational cooperation. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, which fought for democratic reforms in 2014, received significant support from individuals and organisations around the world. Through social media campaigns, fundraising efforts, and public demonstrations, people from diverse countries showed their solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters, amplifying their message and putting pressure on the relevant authorities.

The battle to preserve and strengthen democratic governance has become a defining struggle of our time.

Similarly, the recent protests in Belarus against the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko have been bolstered by the support of individuals and civil society groups from other countries. Activists from Poland, Lithuania, and other neighbouring states have provided practical assistance to their Belarusian counterparts, such as helping them secure safe communication channels and providing refuge to those fleeing persecution. These acts of solidarity have been crucial in sustaining the momentum of the democratic opposition in Belarus.

To fully harness the potential of global citizen-to-citizen collaboration, we need to create more platforms and mechanisms that facilitate these connections. This could include online forums where individuals can share their experiences and strategies, peer-to-peer funding platforms that allow direct financial support to democratic movements, and global advocacy networks that coordinate international pressure on governments that violate democratic principles.

Furthermore, we need to foster a culture of global empathy and solidarity, where individuals see themselves not just as citizens of their own countries but as part of a global community committed to defending democracy and human rights. This requires educational initiatives that highlight our common humanity and the interconnectedness of our struggles, as well as media narratives that focus on the positive potential of global cooperation.

In this context, the rise of digital activism offers a powerful tool for mobilising global solidarity. Social media platforms, encrypted messaging apps, and other digital technologies enable individuals to connect across borders, share information, and coordinate action in real time. By leveraging these tools, we can create a global network of citizen diplomats, working together to support democratic movements and counter authoritarian influences.

However, it is also crucial to recognise the challenges and potential pitfalls of this approach. Transnational solidarity efforts must be sensitive to local contexts and avoid imposing external agendas. They should aim to empower local actors and movements rather than overshadowing them. Moreover, we must be vigilant against the misuse of digital platforms by anti-democratic forces, who may seek to manipulate or disrupt these networks of solidarity.

Photo_ J Stimp_ CC BY 2.0

Despite these challenges, the imperative for global citizen-to-citizen collaboration has never been clearer. As authoritarianism rises and democratic institutions come under pressure in many parts of the world, we need a global movement of individuals committed to defending the values of freedom, justice, and human dignity. By building bridges of empathy and solidarity across borders, we can create a powerful force for democratic resilience and renewal.

Photo_ J Stimp_ CC BY 2.0

This is not just a matter of altruism or idealism; it is a recognition of our shared fate as inhabitants of an increasingly interconnected world. The struggles for democracy in Warsaw, Hong Kong, or Minsk are not distant events; they are part of a global battle that affects us all. By standing in solidarity with those on the frontlines of this battle, we not only support their efforts but also contribute to the building of a more just and democratic world for ourselves and future generations.

The power of citizen-to-citizen collaboration lies in its ability to bypass traditional barriers and create direct channels of support and solidarity.

As Rifkin reminds us, the expansion of empathy has been the driving force of human progress throughout history. In the 21st century, we have the opportunity to take this expansion to a new level, creating a global circle of empathy that encompasses all of humanity.


Transforming Institutions for Active Participation

The modern world presents numerous challenges to the traditional frameworks of democracy, necessitating a reevaluation of the citizen’s role within these structures. Jon Alexander’s pivotal work Citizens (2022) argues for a fundamental shift in perspective: from viewing people as passive consumers of democracy to recognising them as active participants. Alexander posits that this shift is not merely beneficial but essential for addressing contemporary challenges such as political polarisation, economic insecurity, and ecological crises. By transforming our institutions to treat individuals as active participants, we encourage a society that is engaged, responsible, and capable of envisioning and constructing a sustainable future. [1][1] Alexander, J. (2022). Citizens. London, Canbury Press.

Alexander’s advocacy for transforming institutions to engage citizens directly is a call to fundamentally rethink how democracy operates in the modern era. His vision involves moving beyond a model where citizens are merely subjects of governance to one where they are active participants in the democratic process, something that will require a significant transformation in both structure and function.

Firstly, there needs to be a shift towards greater transparency in governmental operations. This could be facilitated through the implementation of open-data policies, where government data is made available to the public in a comprehensible and usable format. This openness not only allows citizens to be more informed about the workings of their government but also holds public officials accountable.

Secondly, increasing the participatory nature of governmental processes is essential. This can be achieved through the use of participatory budgeting, where citizens are given a direct say in how a portion of the public budget is spent. Cities like Porto Alegre in Brazil, Budapest in Hungary, and New York City in the United States have implemented such systems, leading to more equitable public spending and increased citizen satisfaction with governmental processes.

Furthermore, the redesign should include mechanisms for regular and meaningful public consultations on new laws, policies, and regulations. Governments can employ digital platforms to facilitate these consultations, making it easier for citizens to contribute their views and expertise. Such platforms can bridge the gap between the government and various stakeholders, ensuring a broader range of inputs and fostering a sense of ownership among citizens over governmental decisions.

Photo_ Leon Fishman_ CC BY 2.0

Ultimately, these changes aim to create a more dynamic relationship between citizens and their government, characterised by continuous dialogue and mutual accountability. By empowering individuals to take ownership of public issues, these transformed institutions can cultivate a more engaged and informed citizenry, thereby strengthening the foundation of democracy.

The effectiveness of citizens’ assemblies in fostering participatory democracy is demonstrated through various global examples. These assemblies engage citizens directly in the decision-making process, often resulting in significant policy impacts and increased public trust in governmental processes. The Citizens’ Convention on Climate in France is a prominent example where 150 citizens were selected through a random but demographically representative process. Over several months, they deliberated on climate issues and proposed legislation that influenced France’s national policy on carbon emission reduction. Their recommendations included measures such as reducing the speed limit on highways to decrease emissions and promoting less energy-intensive lifestyles. Similarly, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on abortion played a pivotal role in one of Ireland’s most significant social changes in recent years. [2][2] Democracy Matters Project. (2015). Democracy Matters: Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution. The assembly’s recommendations led to a referendum that eventually overturned the country’s strict abortion laws. This process demonstrated how citizen participation could lead to profound legislative and social transformations, reflecting evolving societal values and ethics. In Canada, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform proposed changes to the provincial electoral system. Although the immediate changes suggested by the assembly were not implemented following a public referendum, the process itself was praised for its inclusiveness and fairness. It engaged ordinary citizens in a complex issue like electoral reform and demonstrated the potential of such assemblies to educate the public and generate informed discussions on policy matters.

These case studies illustrate the potential of participatory democracy to empower citizens and impact policy. They show that when ordinary citizens are given resources and opportunities, they can contribute effectively to addressing complex and contentious issues. Such initiatives not only enrich the democratic process but also enhance the legitimacy and responsiveness of political systems.


Enhancing Democratic Resilience through Digital Tools

As noted by Stephen Coleman, the internet facilitates a more engaged citizenry and broader participation in democratic processes by promoting direct and deliberative forms of representation. [3][3] Coleman, S. (2004). Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy? Polity Press. Technology empowers civic activism by providing new platforms for organisation, expression, and action. Digital forms of communication allow for a more horizontal mode of interaction, contrasting sharply with traditional top-down governance models. Social media platforms, online forums, and e-participation tools enable citizens to voice their opinions, mobilise for collective action, and interact with their representatives more effectively than ever before. Together with encryption technologies and mobile connectivity, they too have enabled activists to coordinate large-scale movements, even in repressive environments, with the rapid dissemination of information now a key factor in public protests and international advocacy campaigns.

However, the digital landscape is not without its challenges. While technology offers tremendous potential for enhancing democratic engagement, it also poses significant risks. Issues of misinformation, digital divides, and online censorship can undermine the internet’s potential to support democracy. In fact, authoritarian regimes have increasingly turned to digital tools to surveil, suppress, and manipulate public opinion. The pervasive nature of digital technology can lead to greater control over the public sphere, where state actors deploy advanced surveillance systems to monitor and quash dissent. [4][4] Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2020). Concerns about democracy in the digital age. Pew Research Center. Addressing these challenges requires concerted efforts from both governmental and non-governmental entities to promote digital literacy, ensure access to reliable information, and protect freedom of expression online.

Transnational solidarity efforts must be sensitive to local contexts and avoid imposing external agendas. Empower local actors and movements rather than overshadowing them.

Action Civics exemplifies this theory by actively involving students in real-world problem-solving related to civic issues. By engaging in Action Civics, students learn not only about their government and its functions but also how to influence it through advocacy and informed participation. This hands-on approach equips them with the skills necessary to become effective civic actors, thus fulfilling the theory’s prediction that practical, engaging education fosters active citizenship. [5][5] Mainsah, H., Brandtzaeg, P. B., & Følstad, A. (2016). Bridging the Generational Culture Gap in Youth Civic Engagement through Social Media: Lessons Learnt from Young Designers in Three Civic Organisations. The Journal of Media Innovations. By utilising digital and gamified learning environments, educators can capture the attention of young people and educate them on civic matters in an interactive and engaging manner.

The integration of digital tools into democratic innovations like citizens’ assemblies not only extends their reach but also enhances their efficacy. Digital platforms, for example, played a crucial role in facilitating broader engagement during the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate. They enabled the collection and dissemination of diverse opinions and increased transparency in the deliberative process. Such technological integration helps in scaling up the impact of democratic practices, making them more accessible and resonant with the general public.

Incorporating insights from The Playful Citizen: Civic Engagement in a Mediatized Culture, [6][6] Glas, R., Lammes, S., de Lange, M., Raessens, J., & de Vries, I. (Eds.). (2019). The Playful Citizen: Civic Engagement in a Mediatized Culture. Amsterdam: University Press. we see how these mediatised and gamified approaches can transform passive learning into an active discovery process. These methods not only make learning about civic responsibility more attractive but also more effective, fostering a generation that is better prepared to engage in democratic governance.

Digital platforms are redefining engagement through innovative formats like Newsgames. Bogost et al. (2010) and Gómez-García and De la Hera (2023) [7][7] Gómez-García, H., & De la Hera, T. (2023). Games as Political Actors in Digital Journalism. Media and Communication, 11(2), 278-290. explore how digital journalism and interactive games have become significant platforms for political engagement, enabling new forms of interaction with such content. Newsgames, a hybrid of news and video games, offers a unique medium through which complex political and social issues can be explored in an accessible, engaging manner. These games place players in scenarios that simulate real-world processes or dilemmas, providing a deeper understanding of the issues at hand and promoting a more nuanced engagement with news.

Photo_ aNdrzej-cH._ CC BY 2.0

For example, a newsgame might allow players to navigate the challenges of policy-making in climate change, requiring players to balance various interests and explore policy outcomes that could lead to different environmental scenarios. This form of engagement not only educates players on the complexities and nuances of policy-making and crisis management, but also empowers them by illustrating the impact of individual and collective decisions.


Cities as Crucibles for Democratic Innovation

As urban centers grow, their role in the global economy and politics becomes increasingly critical, necessitating adaptive and innovative governance frameworks. Cities are often at the forefront of democratic resilience, serving as testing grounds for new forms of governance and civic engagement. The concept of “Human Rights Cities” within the European Union showcases how urban areas can lead in upholding international human rights standards, fostering environments where rights are not only protected but actively promoted. [8][8] European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2021). Human Rights cities in the EU: a framework for reinforcing rights locally: report.

Cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona have set benchmarks in governance through the establishment of transparency portals and robust anti-corruption frameworks. These tools are essential to maintaining legal integrity and ensuring open governance, making governmental processes more accessible to the public and thereby enhancing accountability. Amsterdam’s digital transparency initiatives, for example, provide citizens with unprecedented access to municipal decision-making processes, allowing for greater public oversight and participation.

Photo_ Cluster Munition Coalition_ CC BY 2.0

In Barcelona, the use of technology to facilitate public engagement in urban planning and development processes has enabled a more inclusive approach to city governance. These efforts are complemented by policies aimed at protecting the rights of marginalised communities, ensuring that urban development does not come at the cost of social equity.

Cities do not operate in isolation; they are part of extensive networks that have the power to transform traditional approaches to diplomacy and global cooperation. The Pact of Free Cities, initiated by Budapest along with Prague, Bratislava, and Warsaw and now encompassing more than 40 cities worldwide, exemplifies how urban centers can unite on a platform of shared democratic values. The Pact is a direct response to the nationalist-populist pressures that have threatened democratic institutions in their respective countries. The Pact of Free Cities goes beyond symbolic resistance to authoritarianism; it facilitates tangible collaborations that reinforce democratic governance. These cities engage in knowledge sharing, support civil society initiatives, and advocate for policies that strengthen the rule of law and protect human rights.

When ordinary citizens are given resources and opportunities, they can contribute effectively to addressing complex and contentious issues.
This alliance highlights the potential for urban networks to influence global policy. By banding together, cities can amplify their voices in international forums, advocating for policies that address global challenges like climate change, migration, and inequality.


Conclusions

At the core of fortifying democracy is the imperative to transform citizens from passive observers to active participants. This can be achieved by implementing transparent governance practices and creating more opportunities for direct involvement in decision-making processes, such as participatory budgeting and digital town halls. Policymakers should prioritise the development of educational programs that focus on civic education and the importance of active participation. These programs should aim to foster a culture of engagement where every citizen feels as responsible as capable of influencing their political environment.

In an era where digital platforms can drastically amplify voices, it is essential to leverage these tools to strengthen democracy. Governments should support the creation and maintenance of secure digital spaces that facilitate constructive dialogue and enable grassroots movements to flourish. Additionally, global policy frameworks must be developed to protect these spaces from becoming tools of misinformation or suppression. Investing in digital literacy programs can empower citizens to navigate digital media responsibly and engage with issues critically and effectively.

Democratic institutions must be fortified to resist the pressures of authoritarian governance that threaten democratic norms worldwide. This involves not only strengthening the rule of law and judicial independence but also ensuring that all democratic processes—from elections to legislative procedures—are transparent, fair, and accountable. International bodies and democratic countries should provide support and solidarity to nations facing democratic backsliding, offering both diplomatic and material aid to bolster their institutions.

Cities are often at the forefront of democratic innovations and human rights protections. As such, they should work to deepen their networks, facilitating the exchange of ideas and democratic governance practices. International collaborations such as the Pact of Free Cities, can be instrumental in upholding democratic values and responding collectively to global challenges. More robust support from international institutions to local initiatives to share resources and knowledge could significantly enhance their ability to implement effective and inclusive governance practices.

Finally, the battle for democracy should be recognised as a global struggle that requires a unified response. Establishing global movements for democracy where citizens and civil society organisations can come together to share strategies, support each other, and mobilise international resources could provide the momentum needed to advance democratic ideals and counter rising authoritarian tides.

Addressing these challenges effectively requires a nuanced understanding of local contexts, tailored strategies that respect cultural and political complexities, and the commitment to long-term engagement and support from all stakeholders involved.

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