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Thought Piece | In Defence of Dialogue: the Existential Threat to Democracy We’ve Swept Under the Rug?

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group

I had the pleasure the other week of being invited to the Delphi Economic Forum to share some of my thoughts on the state of democracy, among other topics.

The question posed to me by our moderator was one of those existential, big-picture questions that are difficult to do justice to in 90 seconds.

I gave it my best shot and spent days listening to other speakers at the forum, refining my thinking, questioning my commitment to my answer—only to circle back, emboldened in my profound attachment to an excruciatingly simple, yet, in my view, fundamental argument.

I realised my response wouldn’t be the most gripping or innovative, especially in a super election year, where the bulk of our concern revolves around the potential outcomes (desirable vs. disastrous, depending on whom you ask) of a series of key elections.

I realised my point of view wouldn’t make for a 'sexy' argument, as it doesn’t appease our desire to feel validated in being an active part of the 'good fight' (again, whatever that ultimately means is still tbd). But precisely because it’s not a satisfying argument, we forget that it rests, quietly overlooked, at the very core of what it means to exist in a democracy.

So here it is. If you are still reading, thank you for indulging me, and without further ado, here’s the question I was posed in Delphi, and the answer I decided to stick with.

'What concerns you the most today about the state of democracy?'

What concerns me the most today — even more than a specific political outcome or policy outcome, or often the lack thereof — is the quality of our political discourse and what it's telling us about the way we understand the activity that is democracy.

The fact that we seem to have gotten used to political debates that are closer to shouting matches than they are to any form of intellectual inquiry says a lot about the general state of health of our dialogue and dialectic tools and our political culture.

It reflects an erosion of our ability as individuals and as a society to engage constructively in dialogue with people and views with which we strongly disagree.Without this ability, I think we are abdicating the very nature of what it means to practice the art of democracy.

Especially in an era of ‘great transitions,’ as highlighted by the Delphi Economic Forum this year, where we lack simple solutions to problems, where reality is not black and white, and where political outcomes are deemed unsatisfactory by voters — it is only thanks to dialogue and dialectic instruments that we can both ensure better outcomes for our democracy, by which I mean more intelligent, sophisticated, and nuanced policies, as well as safeguard the very legitimacy of the democratic process as an instrument for civil disagreement, in and of itself — even when the outcomes aren’t what we’d hoped they would be.

If democracy, as Yuval Noah Harari recently put it in an interview, is a conversation—then the quality of that conversation matters, just as much as the outcomes.

In my opinion, our apparent inability to engage constructively and in a civil way in difficult political conversations that need to be had is striking and has become an existential threat to the resilience of our democracy.

Safeguarding, upholding, and advocating in favour of the very idea of democracy as an institutionalised process for societal dialogue, an instrument for the mediation of different perspectives, values, and priorities, where political compromise is not seen as a necessary evil but as the very litmus test of a functioning democracy, is, to me, paramount.

If we can imagine a society (and I believe we can!) in which we no longer feel a natural commitment to the value of democratic dialogue as the only legitimate substitute for violence or aggression tactics whose sole purpose is to ensure an electoral win — then regardless of who wins at the next polls, we’ve all lost, and we’ve all been complicit in undermining the democratic system in the process.

An example that serves to illustrate my point and which further raised my level of concern, was when on my way to Delphi I was made aware by a fellow speaker of the debate in France regarding changing the electoral laws to inhibit an electoral victory by Marine Le Pen. Now, regardless of the potentially very real need to reform French electoral laws, the debate seems to me indicative of a frightening willingness to play it fast and loose with the rules of democracy — when convenient. I believe that is a very dangerous game, it makes me wonder what the message we are sending to citizens is. That the processes that regulate democracy are only worthy when they deliver the outcomes we prefer?

In the long term, undermining the process of democracy could be more dangerous to the resilience of the democratic system than any particular political outcome.

Of course, I may be wrong. But, I believe that culture requires maintenance and foresight. Once a critical mass of us abandon a certain custom or accepted norm, it can’t be restored overnight. I would be cautious about what we are doing (and not doing) to uphold the value of constructive, civil dialogue as the cornerstone of democracy, and be weary of what the future holds should we lose any more attachment to this fundamental principle of democracy than we already have.

My personal takeaway, albeit I admit it may be a classic case of professional deformation, is that we need to work to upgrade and defend the democratic process itself, work towards being clear in our messaging about what it stands for, and urgently invest to develop new societal technologies for productive dialogue and collaboration for politicians to be effective in an increasingly splintered and radicalised society.

______________ My heartfelt thanks to Yiannis Thomatos and the team at Delphi Economic Forum for the chance to join in this year's discussions, and to my fellow panelists for an engaging discussion. Thank you again, Vasilis Karydas, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Vassilis Koutsoumpas, Georgetown University, Fanis Spanos, Governor of the Region of Central Greece, Jerry Zagoritis, Campaign Lab and our moderator Catherine Eleanor Karavioti of Tsomokos Communications.


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