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Is it possible to have too much democracy?

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Within minutes of Britain’s vote to exit the EU, hostile comments popped up over every social media feed. Much of the discourse centred around whether such serious questions should be put to a vote in the first place. Were Britain’s citizens informed enough to make such a decision? Was this a case of too much democracy?

The speed with which democracy was targeted for blame should give us all pause. Democracy is an easy target: it seems to provide a simple fix. Don’t go to the people to decide complex issues, why risk getting it ‘wrong’? And, of course, the last part of that question, seldom spoken, is “especially when we know what’s right.”

But who exactly is the “we” in “we know what’s right”? Is it those whom democracy has already placed in positions of power? Pundits? Experts? And what exactly is their track record of success? Instead of trying to elevate experts over people, or vice versa, let’s call it a draw and move on to what really matters.

The challenge for democracy is not– despite whatever misgivings you may have about the Brexit vote– when to apply it, but rather how to develop citizens ready to participate in it. Democracy is, above all, a participatory activity. When a vote doesn’t meet one’s approval, our real choice isn’t to dismiss the activity, it is to renew our obligation to create capable participants.

It is an obligation that is increasingly important. Digital natives, our new generation of youth who grew up with social media, expect and demand pathways for meaningful input. Citizen engagement isn’t a passing fad, it is the future. If we want that future to engage more than merely “the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” to use Mencken’s cynical phrase, the challenge of creating an informed citizenry must become a priority.

The question then that needs answering is who is responsible for creating this collective of informed citizens – is it our school systems, media, politicians, governments, non-profits organizations?

It is easy to take that cynicism that Mencken directed at the masses and direct it at the government. You might think politicians are too focused on persuasion and advocacy to play a role in public education, but democratic governments are appropriate stakeholders in the creation of citizens. And in today’s new world, it is even more critical for governments to prepare themselves for engagement. Governments at all levels–Federal, Provincial, Municipal–need to step up, and so do we.

Ultimately, this is not only about our governments, but about each of us, because the best people to create informed citizens are other citizens. It is why—in the creation of our curriculums for citizens—Synapcity has been committed to working with volunteers who bridge communities and perspectives. It’s why we’ve refused to be partisan advocates— we  serve everyone’s interests as a nonpartisan organization committed to citizen learning and engagement. And it’s why we’re committed to working with our city government, community associations, and other NGOs to help shift the relationship between citizens and governments towards partnership and collaboration.

If we want to get the practice of democracy right, if we want to build citizens ready to engage in that practice, what better place for developing citizens and creating engagement than in those places where we live and work. For those of us who call Ottawa home, the gift of Brexit is to remind us to create pathways for developing an informed citizenry together.

So don’t condemn democracy. Now is the time to prepare citizens to take on  democracy’s obligations and aspirations. In a future blog, we’ll talk about what governments and education can do to step up.