Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


If democracy is the answer, then what’s your question?

Ashley Weinberg

If democracy is the story of people gaining a collective voice, then there is a lot more to be told. It is not a tale without its tribulations or turning points, often threatened by those for whom power is the end as well as the means. For most of us, it is justice enough that we may have a voice in our daily lives, yet even this is not guaranteed.

Indeed, as a species, we face unprecedented challenges to our health and ecology that require all of our participation and determination. So, how can democracy and its associated apparatus harness the talents of all people, enabling our representation and engagement in processes of government and helping us shape what we hope is real progress?

Could it be that the very threats to humanity posed by Covid-19 and climate instability have become tragedies through in which we can see both the possibilities and failings of democracy? In other words, have we been witnessing the perverse flipside of ‘something for everyone’ wherein everybody is touched by the harmful outcomes of these disasters? Whilst it may be tempting to suspect there is mitigation of the ill effects for those who shape political systems or the delivery of healthcare, or for those who have the means to buy safety on higher ground or gain access to virus protection, disasters have a potentially devastating democratising effect.

Nevertheless, exposure to harm is not experienced equally. The distribution of work which can be conducted from home is not equal, nor is the access to safer environmental surroundings around the planet. Whilst arguments rage about how much of this emanates by design, negligence, history, geography, exploitation or misfortune, the outcomes are clear and necessitate that many need the help and support of others. Indeed, the benefits of fairer (re)distribution of resources and a say in the systems that oversee the organisation of these, mean we need a better understanding and analysis of how democracy and its principles are manifest.

How are these shaped individually within all of us, within political and organisational structures and culturally across societies? Put simply, do things really need to be the way they are? If change for the better is needed, perhaps it is no surprise that democracy around the world hits one crisis after another, as proponents of change disagree with one another and find – as Machiavelli predicted – considerable opposition among those already reaping the benefits of established ways of doing things. If democracy is indeed a tale about ensuring a voice for all, then surely questions are the lifeblood of progress.

In seeking to shed light on the psychology of democracy, scientists from many disciplines have been asking these in abundance. ‘Psychology of Democracy: Of the people, by the people, for the people’ features their answers and here are just some of the questions they have been addressing:

• How much do those we elect ‘of the people’ resemble us psychologically, or are they somehow different? Would we recognise their values and personality traits within us and just how good are they at processing the information and assessing risks on which political decisions are made? Do we find that, put simply, politicians are indeed human after all, with the vulnerabilities that face us all?!

• How fair or useful are the political processes and structures designed ‘by the people’ to enact democracy? When so much that is psychological determines our (lack of) engagement with democracy or departure from it, how much are trust, emotions, language and gesture, fact and fiction the influencers of our political lives?

• If we cannot find the answers within individual or institutional strata, what are the socio-cultural factors and levers shaping democratic experience ‘for the people’? Do the answers lie in moral imperatives, religiosity, exposure to media, anti-democratic influences or perhaps the perceived fairness (or not) of our transactions with the wider world?

So many questions; so little time…unless of course there is the occasional opportunity to discover so many answers – in accessible form – in one place. Please judge for yourself whether this book is a starting point for developing your own questions as a citizen, a politician, a researcher, a journalist, a student or all of these.

Giving voice to our questions at this crucial juncture in our evolution means only then can we stand to gain the best opportunities to create democracies which truly are ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’!

Psychology of Democracy by Ashley Weinberg
Psychology of Democracy by Ashley Weinberg

About The Author

Ashley Weinberg

Ashley Weinberg is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford, UK. He is the founding Chair of the Political Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society...

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