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.