Can we imagine our democracies as ecosystems?
Last week I interviewed Matt Leighninger, Head of Democracy Innovation at the National Conference on Citizenship. During the episode, he explains many different ways of organising in political processes, how to innovate democracy for the 21st century, and gave many examples of different models being used around the world, from participatory budgeting to citizens’ assemblies. He insists that the more citizens are engaged in the process of democracy and governance, the better the outcomes are for everyone.
Near the beginning of the episode, Matt insists that we need to move the conversation from talk of saving democracy to improving democracy.
Talking about saving democracy in our advanced democracies implies a form of arrogant thinking that we have the best system in the world, and that it is the best it will ever be. The message is: if we can save our version of democracy from fascism then we’re providing the world with the best it’s going to get. But really, we must continue to innovate, to improve, to engage with the world we live in now rather than using the institutions of the past and the laws of the past which are no longer applicable to the crises of the 21st century.
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Talk of saving democracy perhaps impedes discussions that citizens actually deserve better than what they have, and are capable of creating better processes now than those we have been relying on for a century. Doesn’t it seem mad that innovation wouldn’t be at the heart of this political process, given democracy is an innovation in and of itself? Human beings have experimented with so many different forms of organisation, from different structures found in neighbouring indigenous tribes, to getting rid of age-old monarchies (congratulations, republics). Why not do more now, especially now that we have access to technologies which can reach and engage people all over cities, nations, the globe, and invite decisions to be deliberated and made at the grassroots level?
It’s fascinating that we use tech for so much of our modern life—banking, travel, work, healthcare—and yet, when it comes to voting and governance, there’s a pervasive tech-phobia; the un-hackable pen and paper solution reins supreme. But pen and paper is hacked all over the world—votes are bought, lives are threatened, voting booths are moved to obstruct minorities from casting their vote. Votes are hacked everywhere, and pretending our analogue democracy is the only way for a nation’s voice to be heard only serves to stifle a populace.
Votes vs Voices
A digital democracy offers the same hacking potential, but also so much more opportunity for participation, collaboration, civic engagement. Why would we refuse to drag governance into the 21st century? Is it that those in power don’t want to encourage a labour force to take up the mantel of citizenry?
Matt gives a very nuanced response to this question during the episode, saying that the relationship between citizens and elected officials does exist, and those officials are often afraid to take risks because they rely on that citizenry for their vote. Constituents can reveal their outrage, an outrage which only grows, Matt says, the less involved they are in the decision-making process. As citizens are not involved in each step of that process, they don’t have the same information as the elected official with which to assess the outcome.
Taking a vote every four or five years does not represent being heard or having a voice, but it is a form of exerting power which, due to the unsatisfactory communication between voter and representative, can impede a daring official to break new ground. How many of them exist? Who’s to know given our current system. One thing is certain, though: We need radical ideas to confront the polycrisis.
Does Collective Power Corrupt?
The age old maxim is that power corrupts. Every day, we see there are plenty of people occupying powerful positions who make bad decisions, sometimes decisions which outright harm their citizens. We definitely need a systemic reform in order to better understand how not to create those kinds of people once they make it into positions of power.
Deliberative democracy offers a manner of mitigating the corruptibility of power by offering nodes of collective power within a wider, connected network. Imagine this network scaling from a local to a national level, a system of local networks interacting and sharing information and decisions from the bottom up, from the local to the federal level. Such a vision would look much like an ecosystem, an ecosystem which is incredibly resilient thanks to its diversity.
What we see around the world today is that our political institutions, our political systems, are fragile and brittle because they play by this zero sum power game—this pervading belief that there is a limited amount of power in the world, and that it must be taken from others and concentrated in as small a group as possible.
However, power can be created collectively, and, if shared collectively, there is no upper limit; the more power given to people, the more there is in the system. In a zero sum game, the upper limit materialises due to the limitations of small groups and individuals. A small group or an individual cannot be everywhere all at once, it is impossible for that person or people to wield the power at their disposal. It simply must be diffused.
The House of Lords in the United Kingdom is an excellent example—the King's army was not powerful enough to manage the whole country, and so he spread some of his power out amongst other people in order to maintain a general power. Fixed institutions experience upper limits, but spreading that power over communities who can recursively create and spread their own relationship to power facilitates a resilient power, a power which is part of a greater system, a power which cannot coalesce and fossilises in one individual node or person.
A top down approach is dangerous and brittle because if the person or institution at the top fails, the whole system collapses. Think of Donald Trump—The Republican Party backed him, and now so many of the governors and elected officials in the Republican party have completely lost any sense of the values or principles that the party was founded. Something broke at the top and it has cascaded down through the party, allowing for monstrous decisions to be made at the Supreme Court.
Deliberative democracies mitigate that very risk; if one part of the system begins malfunctioning, the rest of the network has the power, entitlement and access to react accordingly. This can only happen if there is not one absolute authority. Rather, if some part of the democratic system breaks down it becomes everyone’s responsibility to try and fix it, otherwise there will be a systemic impact; everybody has responsibility for the entire system as a functioning component of that system, but not responsibility in the authoritarian sense of wielding the system or managing the system as a whole.
Does that not sound like a resilient way of organising and engaging people, of creating happier citizens, and allowing for—encouraging—the creativity, innovation, participation, collectivism and community that we need to navigate the next decade?
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