Democracy on Autopilot

Democracy on Autopilot
The autopilot flight control unit of an Airbus A340. Photo by Kiko Alario Salom.

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Democracy on Autopilot

Lately my mind regularly drifts to a quote from the new book from Dan Slater and Joseph Wong. They write, “Democracy doesn’t ‘just happen’ as a matter of course with a society’s modernization; rather, real people need to make risky decisions that have vital implications for democracy’s fate.” It raises many questions for me about the state of democracy in the world. For starters it emphasizes the role of individuals in the process of democratization. Meanwhile, it deemphasizes the centrality of social forces. In ways it even humanizes the way we think about democratization.

Still when I think about this quote, I think about places where democracy is already established or consolidated. Until recently the developed and established democracies did not worry about the state of their democracy. Instead they left democracy on autopilot so they could focus on public policy. Democracy became like a canvas for a painter. It is indispensable. Yet nobody comments on the canvas when they reflect on a masterpiece from Van Gogh or Monet. But democracy is more than a background for politics to happen. Democracy brings virtue into politics. It transforms politics into something more meaningful than just power. Of course, virtue requires constant vigilance, focus, and practice.

At first glance democracy in hard places implies a disadvantage. Democracy faces undeniable challenges under these circumstances. However, it does provide an overlooked advantage that more established democracies lack. Democracy never goes on autopilot in hard places. It might erode or breakdown, but it’s due to difficult circumstances rather than effort. Established democracies must overcome their lethargy to defend their democracies. It’s too easy to just forget about democracy when it’s taken for granted. Of course, many people do now realize democracy is never guaranteed. So, let’s hope democracy does not go on autopilot again.

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