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Can democracy evolve, or does it need a revolution?

Can democracy evolve, or does it need a revolution?

 If you wanted to reform democracy, where would you start? Do we need an alternative, or can representative democracy evolve?  

In Australia, we have a representative democracy. We elect people to represent us, giving them the authority to govern. They govern for a term, three or four years, and we expect them to represent us during that time. If we feel that our elected officials have not effectively represented us while governing, we vote for someone else. But is the vote, once every three or four years, sufficient for representation? And is this model of representation getting us the social, economic, environmental, and cultural outcomes we want for our children, communities, countries, and planet.

What are the options?

There are five main models of democracy:

  1. Direct – everyone votes / decides on everything.
  2. Liquid – like direct, but you can pass on your vote to someone else.
  3. Representative – people vote to elect officials who represent them and make decisions on their behalf.  
  4. Deliberative – a demographically representative group of people discuss an issue and decide on everyone’s behalf. These mini-publics are randomly selected.  
  5. Participatory – people actively and openly discuss matters of state and decide together. Everyone has equal authority, and the majority rules.

Representative democracy is the only model with elected representatives and a parliament.

You may have also heard the terms classical democracy, Athenian democracy, constitutional democracy. There is also liberal, neo-liberal, popular, pluralist, elite, social, economic, industrial, ecological, protective, productive, developmental democracies. These terms describe social, economic, and political ideologies and versions of direct or representative democratic models. I have briefly defined each of them in this glossary for democracy.

Are they viable alternatives?

There are now sufficient methods and tools to make all five democratic models described above viable, alternative governance models. For example, with technology, direct and liquid democracy makes it possible to vote on every piece of legislation. Juries and citizen assemblies have also proven that everyday people will consider information and work together to come to a collective agreement and decisions with a good process that gives them sufficient time and information.

Some groups are experimenting with alternative models in discrete environments, like non-government organisations, cooperative housing, and ecovillages. Recently, a collection of private investors tried to set up a seavilisation based on direct democracy and blockchain. This is one of many experiments in alternate democracies happening around the world, some are even being permitted by governments who are allowing groups to make their own laws and regulation, design their own court systems and operate their own police forces. So far, none of these models has proven to be a viable alternative for a fundamental system change.

Would you like an alternative?

Do you think we need an alternative? It is a big question and one that raises more questions, but let’s not let that stop us. It is a question worthy of analysis and honest dialogue about values, interests, and capacity.

The five models require different depths of participation. Would you like to participate more? Would you like to vote on every single issue? Do you think you could and should reduce topics down to a single vote? Who would do this? How much of your life would you be willing to dedicate to understanding and participating in public policy matters? Should we pay people to participate? When would you involve subject matter experts in the process, and how?

Which model do you prefer, and why?

The model of democracy you prefer reveals your values. For example, you might also choose representation over direct and participatory democracy because you don’t want to participate in every public decision and prefer to do other things with your time. Or you might value liquid over direct if you value expertise or representation. 

As someone who values deliberation, I do not like how direct and liquid democracy reduces issues, participation, and decisions down to a single vote. Most matters of state are complex, have impacts and involve trade-offs and presenting them as binary options requires interpretation. But I have found voting useful within participatory processes when narrowing down and prioritising options after crowdsourcing, ideation and discussion. 

I also value expertise and appreciate the intent of liquid democracy, but the power dynamics concern me. I wonder if people may be coerced or choose to divulge their power to people who lobby or pressure them or give their vote to popular and high-profile groups that can get their attention.

Deliberative methods like citizens juries and assemblies are fantastic democratic methods, and their success is heartening. Still, I am not sure if they would be an effective way to govern and make decisions on all matters. for three reasons: 

  • The invitation, selection, and participation processes required to coordinate and facilitate juries and assemblies are resource-intensive, making them expensive and time-consuming. 
  • ‘Mini publics’ are formed through random selection, but only a nominated sample of people can participate, and the ballot may not select experts and others keen to participate. 
  • Some people who receive an invitation will not have the capacity to participate, narrowing down the type of people who go into the ballot. Of course, you could pay jurors, but that raises other issues. 

The second and third points are the most significant for me; I value participation. Participation builds understanding. A good process can help participants understand complexity, trade-offs, alternate perspectives, and impacts. It can also build empathy, including among and for governments trying to balance interests and elected representatives making decisions.

In saying that, I don’t believe that participatory democracy as a model is workable. Getting to a consensus takes a lot of work and is near impossible. You only have to look at vaccine rates, and the divisive nature of the discussions around them, to see how hard it is to develop and agree on solutions that work for everyone.

I think we all have a lot to learn about deliberation and how to practise it in participatory and democratic processes more generally. Juries and assemblies are a great place to start, and I appreciate how the people and organisations involved in these processes are sharing these experiences and learnings.     

How much change do you think we need?

Replacing representative democracy with one of the other four models would require fundamental systems change. 

I’m not a revolutionary, but I believe that representative democracy needs to evolve. It is being disrupted and will continue to be. The tools and methods supporting each of the alternative models discussed in this blog can either replace representative democracy or complement it. I am interested in and practising the latter.

The good news is that representative governments are innovating, experimenting with ways to increase participation, deliberation, and representation between elections. The smart ones are not just innovating but systematically institutionalising tools and procedures to enable democratic practice within and across their organisations.

This blog is part of Engage2’s 2021 evolve democracy series. Over the next few weeks, I will share more about how representative democracy is being disrupted and evolving. Reasons for optimism, and examples. I will also share why I think participation beyond your vote is essential, and how you can participate in evolving our democracy now.

What can you do now?

Participate! Think about your democratic values and practice them. For example, if you value deliberation, practise listening, consider information, and understand different perspectives. 

Share your thoughts. I would also love to know your answers to the questions posed in this blog. Has it affected your viewpoint? 

Stay in touch. Subscribe for updates here. 

Amelia

1 Comment
  • Pete Dupen

    October 14, 2021 at 1:15 pm Reply

    This is fantastic Amelia, really clear, concise and helpful.

    I also have been researching and experimenting in this space and agree with all of your reflections. We know we don’t really know how to move from current representational democracy to more deliberative and citizen-empowered alternatives, even if the “powers that be” were to permit or encourage it, but we must experiment, learn and adapt quickly to work it out.

    Thanks for that great summary, I look forward to the next instalment!

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