Throughout the world over the past year or two there have been calls for change. From Spain and Greece in Europe to Northern Africa and the Middle East (the Arab Spring), from India to Russia, most of them organised by groups wanting greater democracy. Political leaders in Eastern Europe in the late 80s and early 90s heard the same cries.
Underlying these cries are the same human desires, no matter what language it is shouted in. The desire to be heard; the desire to have a real say in the decisions that affect us; the desire to be fairly represented.
Yet, as the voices are clamouring for change we are turning out to vote in ever decreasing numbers. Since the mid-80s voter turn-out in New Zealand elections has been steadily decreasing throughout the Western World. In 1984 the turn-out of voters in the national election was 89%. Since then it has progressively declined, with less than 74% of voters turning out in the 2011 elections. The last time it had been that low was over 100 years ago.
In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the 2010 elections yielded a turnout of 93.2%, the lowest since the 1950s. Voter disenchantment in Australia is further evidenced by a high percentage of invalid votes cast; 5.6% (the highest percentage since 1984).
Even that champion of democracy, the USA, has shown a steady decline from a low turnout to an extremely low turnout. In the US Federal elections held in a non-Presidential election year the turnout has declined from 48% in 1966 to just 38% in 2010. In Presidential election years a similar trend exists – down from 63% in 1960 (when John F Kennedy was elected) to 57% in 2008.
Many will dismiss this as voter apathy and hence the solution is more advertising, better education, greater promotion. But what if apathy is not the problem? What if the reasons are found in increasing distrust and disappointment in elected members and a growing desire for genuine participation in the decisions that affect us? Politicians worldwide are distrusted. Even in New Zealand (rated one of the least corrupt in the World) politicians came in at 39th of 40 professions in the Readers Digest survey on trustworthiness in 2008 and 2010. They didn’t even make the list in 2011. In the UK a recent (March 2012) Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement found that 3 in 4 people said that they distrusted politicians.
Concurrent with this growing disenchantment with our democracy the 20th Century saw a number of crises emerge and come to a head: climate change, the glaring gap between rich and poor, warfare and terrorism, rampant consumerism, peak oil, reduced gene diversity. Can electoral democracy cope with these complex issues in the 21st Century?
At the very time that we need greater diversity in our thinking and decision-making processes we have less and less interest in voting and less diversity of representation in our public decision-making bodies.
Can our electoral democracy cope with these 21st Century pressures? Are our elected leaders able to provide answers to the issues that face us? Are they able to adequately represent us? Look at our elected members. Can you recall your local hairdresser being elected? What about the plumber? But we can all be reminded of the numbers of business and union heads, lawyers and media/sports personalities who grace Capital Hill or the Beehive and local Council Chambers. Hardly representative. Yet, wasn’t that the promise of MMP in New Zealand. Certainly we now have a greater range of political parties represented, but the names on the Party Lists are still selected by the Party machinery - not by Joe and Josephine Voter.
When we stop to seriously consider how much we participate in our democracy we are faced with the disturbing answer: almost none. Is the opportunity to tick a couple of boxes ten or twenty times in our lifetime the extent of our participation? Is that our lot? Or can we put our name forward to be chosen by lot?
A new democratic model is being mapped out in various settings around the World. Actually, it’s not so new; it has its roots in Athenian democracy. Yes, the same Athenian democracy that our present representative and electoral democracy is said to be based on. The Athenians used a variety of methods to choose their leaders and decision-makers; one of the most common was that of drawing lots, otherwise known as sortition. Much like the selection of juries, sortition has recently (in the past 30-40 years) been experimented with, successfully, in Canada, the US, Germany, Italy and right here in Australia. In fact, one of the seminal books on this subject was written by John Burnheim, former Professor of General Philosophy at Sydney University. Burnheim used the term “demarchy” to describe a political system based on randomly selected groups of decision-makers.
All systems have their inherent flaws and it would be dishonest to present demarchy as the saviour of humanity or even as a political utopia. However, it does have several enticing elements that make it worth considering as the next step in our democratic journey. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that it has the potential to ensure that decision-makers are much more representative than at present. Selected decision-makers are also less likely to be subject to political pressure or expediency as no-one is able to predict who will be selected. It makes it possible for someone to become a decision-maker without having to be rich or famous enough to afford or gain the self-promotion. A further great benefit is that civic skills and knowledge become learnt by more and more people within a wider number of communities than is presently the case.
Sortition brings with it a greater diversity of backgrounds, thinking, experience and skills. It brings with it the “common sense” of all of us, rather than the (largely illusory) expertise of bureaucratic and political elites. As Einstein remarked “the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” The problems facing us today have mostly been created during a time of increasing concentration of the mechanisms of public decision-making in bureaucracies and political elites.
Can it work? Experience around the world suggests that it can. One of the best examples is that of the “People’s Verdict”, sponsored by Maclean’s (the national weekly current affairs magazine in Canada) in 1991. Maclean’s brought together 12 randomly selected Canadians for three days of dialogue and decision-making. Knowing nothing of each other and coming from a diverse background with differing views they were given the task of coming up with a vision for the future of Canada. Maclean’s was so impressed with the exercise that it devoted its entire 1 July 1991 edition to an explanation of the process, the participants and the outcome. The final document covered a raft of issues from education to the economy, from individual rights to government and the Constitution. Notwithstanding their prior differences and backgrounds all 12 participants enthusiastically signed the document.
At a time when we are facing complex and diverse issues as well as a demand for better representation, demarchy is deserving of attention. Certainly our present form of representative democracy is an improvement on the feudal, aristocratic and monarchic systems of previous centuries. It is also preferable to many of the tyrannies and oligarchic systems that exist in the world. However, it can and should be improved. Demarchy offers a greater opportunity for citizens to participate in the decisions that affect them. Indeed, there are suggestions that better decisions may be made.
© Bruce Meder 2012