Democracy here and elsewhere is in constant need of repair. Although the mechanism of democracy can differ according to time and place, it’s good to keep in mind the general aims and principles that democracy itself seeks to serve, so that improvements can be made against a larger vision.
Consider how the development of democracy over hundreds of years has inched forward, mostly in fits and starts, towards greater inclusivity and egalitarianism. We’ve moved away from systems that excluded women, non-landowners, non-whites, the illiterate, and various once-excluded groups such as Catholics, Jews and Quakers. These improvements took place over a large span of time; some were ongoing until quite recently. Women were excluded from the democratic process in several Western countries, including Canada, until well into the 20th century. In fact, not all women could vote in our federal elections until 1960, when Indigenous peoples were finally given that right.
Much progress remains to be accomplished in the quality of our democratic systems. A glance at The Democracy Index reveals that many countries are listed as “flawed democracies”, often due to problems in their functioning, levels of participation and civil liberties. The top ten democracy scorers are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland and Canada (tied for 6th place), Australia, Finland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Democracy is ultimately at the service of human happiness, individually and collectively. In fact, the ranking of countries in the World Happiness Report bears an uncanny resemblance to the Democracy Index ranking. On page 20 of the report you’ll find the leading happiness contenders. They’re virtually the same: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada (in 7th place), New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia.
There is, however, always room for improvement, even when you’re in the top ten. It pays to look at best practices and either adopt or adapt them.
The Bahá’í Faith has something to offer here. Its system of democracy has always had happiness at its heart, which makes sense given that its general aim is the building of a unified, peaceful world and the spiritualization of civilization. It’s worth weighing in that light, to see what might be useful now or in the future.
The Bahá’í ideal includes good will, consensus-seeking, frankness balanced with kindness, the impartial seeking of best solutions and service for the common good, among other qualities. Partisanship, lobbying, and adversarial practices are not conducive to any of the above and are not permitted.
This “kinder, gentler” set of standards has the advantage of drawing forward people who prefer to avoid contentiousness and wrangling, but who nevertheless are interested in service to their communities.
In the words of Abdu’l-Bahá, who travelled throughout Europe and North America in the early 20th century,
“Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth.”
A consultative form of democracy is used worldwide by the Bahá’í community to elect its administrators at the local, regional, national and international levels. Individuals are elected and expected to work together following a set of principles that seeks to maintain peace and unity, diversity of opinion, creativity and orderliness.
Human beings being what they are, the process of consultation can sometimes be challenging. But it’s obviously completely within the realm of human capacity, having been used for over a hundred years. It’s currently practiced by several million Bahá’ís, in administration and in everyday life, in almost every country of the world.
The process is straightforward and worth the occasionally steep learning curve. This passage also dates from the early 20th century, but is inspired and timeless:
“He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views, he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own.” – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace
Once a course of action is decided by consensus or by the majority, it is supported by all, and succeeds or fails on its own merits.
That spirit of solidarity and integrity exemplifies the type of democracy lauded in the Bahá’í sacred writings. Bahá’u’lláh (1817 – 1892) encouraged the kings and rulers of His time to forego tyranny and listen to the will of the people. Two years before His passing, He remarked to a visiting scholar, “We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations…”
In this country and elsewhere, the forms and structures of democracy will no doubt continue to evolve to reflect our changing needs and values. There will always be a need to examine our guiding principles and goals, and to be bold in our pursuit of happiness.
Sheila Flood is a member of the Bahá’í Faith (www.bahai.org), a chaplain with UVic Multifaith Services and the Secretary of the Victoria Multifaith Society.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE