Playlist TEDx

5 talks on the state of democracy

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Rory Stewart opens this talk from TEDxHousesofParliament with a joke:

“Little Billy goes to school and his teacher asks, ‘What does your father do?’ Billy replies, ‘My father plays piano in an opium den.’”

But when the teacher confronts the father about his occupation, she gets a different answer. As Stewart finishes the joke, “The father says, ‘I’m very sorry, yes, I lied. But how can I tell an 8-year-old boy that his father is a politician?’”

Stewart admits that people often look at him askew when he tells them that he is a Member of the British Parliament. And he believes that this is a very bad sign – that there appears to be a deep sense of disappointment with politicians across the globe. One of the issues, Stewart explains, is that in selling democracy to the rest of the world, several “side benefits” were promised – mainly, that democracy would bring peace, prosperity, security and non-violence. However, none of those things have proved true in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. In fact, these examples show that democracy can be compatible with deep instability.

“The point about democracy is not instrumental. It’s not about the things that it brings,” says Stewart. “The point about democracy is not that it delivers legitimate, effective, prosperous rule of law. It’s not that it guarantees peace with itself or its neighbors. The point about democracy is intrinsic. Democracy matters because it reflects an idea of equality and an idea of liberty. It reflects an idea of dignity of the individual — the idea that each individual should have an equal vote and equal say in the formation of their government.”

He adds, “Democracy isn’t a question of structures — it is a state of mind. ”

Stewart believes that it is possible to rebuild democracy from here. But to do so will take honesty. Politicians will have to admit when they don’t know answer and not pretend to be “omniscient beings.” They will have to be honest with their constituencies when they feel that something voters want is not something they can — or should — deliver. Meanwhile the public and media need to allow the space for this honesty.

To hear more about Stewart’s ideas for what can bring trust back to democracy, watch his talk. Below, four more talks about the current state of democracy.

Ivan Krastev: Can democracy exist without trust?
Political theorist Ivan Krastev says that we are witnessing a “crisis of democracy.” Over the past 30 years, trust in democracy has begun to erode, with people feeling less and less like their vote matters – and that while they may be able to change who is in power, they are not able to affect what actions their government takes. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Krastev sounds a warning bell about what this erosion of trust could mean for the future.

Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?
Under China’s authoritarian rule, the economy has flourished. Meanwhile, under democracy, India’s economy has stalled. But Huang does not believe that it’s the system of government that is to blame for the discrepancy –  he believes that it is simply an issue of comparing apples to oranges. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2011, Huang shares why democracy should go hand-in-hand with growth.

Jarreth Merz: Filming democracy in Ghana
Filmmaker Jarreth Merz filmed Ghana’s 2008 elections – which required two re-votes because the final tallies were so close — for the documentary “An African Election.” At TEDGlobal 2011, he shared what he learned in the process, both about himself and about the “other side of democracy.”

Clay Shirky: How the internet will (one day) transform government
Open-source enthusiast Clay Shirky believes that democracy has a lot to learn from computer programmers. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, he describes how GitHub could be used to make lawmaking a fully participatory affair.

Comments (4)

  • Clair McCleary commented on Jun 4 2013

    Globalisation is the enemy of democracy. The aim of globalisation is to create a world wide cheap labour market. For further on this read “The Global Class War” by Faux.

    • Albert Reingewirtz commented on Jun 4 2013

      OK, tell this to a kid in Bangladesh that he will non-longer eat because globalization is for world wide cheap labor market. So we are going to take away the cheap labor of your parents enabling them to feed you. This is the other side of the coin no one considers. Personally I have no idea what the solution should be. Maybe we should return to the old ways, half the world starving and dying of diseases and the other half living in hogs heaven from not only cheap labor but from all their resources as in colonial times that made Britain, Spain, Portugal and France big powers for example.

  • Miriam Leia Bekkouche commented on Oct 29 2012

    This is a great series of talks! Had just included 2 of them (Clay Shirky & Ivan Krastev) on a blog I recently started to collect ideas on “how to design democracy for the 21st century”. The intent had been to explore how to better leverage technology in doing so…. but , as videos point out, there is a much more profound shift taking place globally. It seems that the way people collectively communicate & organize themselves to take (and implement) decisions needs to evolve to tackle the challenges we are facing in today’s world. Technology is only part of the solution.

  • Albert Reingewirtz commented on Oct 29 2012

    Of course he is right with his examples that Democracy is a bust in many places and it will be in many more as we push stupidly for Democracy where it doesn’t belong. No Arab country for example is prepared and ready before hand to have democracy because it doesn’t fit their religion, their society, their history. In fact the opposite is true. The whole region has a history of strong men reigning everywhere and supported by the Mosque. Succession is always a bloody affair unless it is from father to son. I know this incomprehensible to western people with zero understanding or knowledge of where they want to implant this fragile orchid where it doesn’t belong. How many more good Americans will have to die before they learn the abject truth?