Monday, 4 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 1: Does anyone else get that sinking feeling?

There’s something wrong with the democratic process. Plenty of people complain, but democracy’s problems aren’t easy to spot. On the macro scale, we have impossibly complex nation-states at loggerheads constricting the free-flow of critical agreements and cooperation, while down at the micro scale our cities and cultures all seem to function perfectly fine in spite of the incompetence in higher levels of government.

As our societies have become almost autonomous, the justifications necessary for national leaders and political ideologies subside with each election year as more voters realise the redundancy of the political-spectrum form of democracy and yearn for a more rational system which can both advance our society and listen to their needs.

Democracy has been a wonderful system for a long time, and it still mostly works well today. No one’s going to deny its marvellous gifts to humanity. About 400 years ago, homo sapiens, mostly from the Western world, developed a process for governance without the need for ultimate rulers, monarchs, despots, or tyrants.

The plan was novel for its time - although it was a modern upgrade modelled on an idea seeded thousands of years earlier in ancient Greece - and of course incredibly disconcerting for those monarchs, despots, and tyrants. The idea placed power back into the hands of everyone else so they could find a consensus on where their society needed to go. Creating democracy and fine-tuning its ideals ushered in a new fantastic era of invention and unprecedented social health.

It was good for a long time, and still works, but perhaps the model we’ve used up to now is meeting its historical expiry date? Or perhaps, considering the troubles and corruption observed throughout the democratic world, it already has expired – we just didn’t notice?

My plan with this series is to outline the issues I have with the way we do democracy today. My criticism falls mainly on the platform of voting and the divisive repercussions of politics, neither of which offer democratic societies good unbiased or reasoned methodological avenues in which to move.

The paths society eventually takes are so regularly perpendicular from the prevailing political expectations that the reality seems to question the usefulness of politics itself and question the existence of politicians as a public role. The efficacy and utility of both politics and politicians is a most prudent and, indeed, urgent issue to solve if we are to grow as a species and survive as an interconnected global society.

I do want to get one thing clear at the outset: I don’t vote. And I’m not a politics expert. My forte is international relations and intelligence matters. On the other hand, I’m not apathetic or ignorant about the electoral process or politics: I truly would participate if I thought the system actually worked. But it doesn’t work, and instead of sitting around twiddling my thumbs or hurling adolescent insults at the establishment, I intend to roll up my sleeves and figure out an alternative.

And this scares me a little bit. Not because I might be swept up by a modern-day version of the Stasi or invasively snooped by the United States’ NSA eavesdroppers. It’s just that so many people have already sneered at the idea of inventing democracy’s alternative, saying the governing process we have is already a crowning culmination of human cultural thought - an “end of history” if you will - so there’ll be no more political structures invented, ever. That’s it, over, call the taxi. It’s time to go home folks.

That might actually be the case, and I’d be happy to concede premature defeat if my mission was aiming at inventing a new government system. But perhaps our democratic structure doesn’t need changing all that much. The details might just require evolving or upgrading for the 21st century.

After all, many in the Western world live in cultures entirely alien to any of democracy’s great founders yet we insist on using a governance model invented hundreds of years ago. A model which hasn’t changed much over the intervening period. That particular model doesn’t seem to fit anymore. I don’t know why it refuses to fit, but do I know it isn’t just me who thinks there’s a sparking disconnection between our modern culture and democracy.

Nevertheless, it’s a bit strange talking about this, especially when I keenly watch elections around the world all the time. They remind me of sporting events mostly: not too interesting, but if you follow the trends close enough they’re entirely predictable. Some I enjoy more than others and some are simply unimportant in the big scheme. But whatever happens, the process is always fascinating.

I’m intrigued because no matter where I look, people are adamant that their vote will change things; either for the better, or for the worse. They’re so sure voting is powerful, so aware and involved for that one 24 hour period rolling around every few years. And I know democracy is the best-worst idea humans have invented for governing each other. It’s more of a community event giving the public a chance to feel like they're included in governance, to direct which way their society is heading and not just take a permanent back-seat.

So to be fair, it’s a bit ironic that I don’t participate in the theatre of elections in my own country but want to explore some ways to conduct it better. If you were to query me at a ridiculously fancy dinner party for my reasoning, I’d probably tell you the reasons behind my abstinence. But I don’t go shouting it from the rooftops or drag people over to my way of thinking, that’s just nasty and dinner parties just aren’t suitable for that kind of raucous behaviour.

Most people, to be honest, react to my non-participation with an ironically religious passion. As if I’d uttered blasphemous words before some holy idol. If I don’t vote, how can I respect the very foundations of a free society which tolerates fancy dinners? It always seems like a kick right in the teeth of everything they know. An unreasoned, belligerent, middle-finger to society from a naïve, recovering juvenile. Or a poorly thought-out adolescent personal rebellion, sticking it to the man - full of revolutionary tones lacking substance or foresight. A thought made only possible because it slips from the mouth of a privileged white person with obviously zero knowledge of the pain other societies endure just to feel the hint of a semblance of democracy. How dare I say such things?!

But, after the predictable scoffing and harrumphing, if they haven’t spat or laughed in my face or walked away, they generally get around to asking something like, “Well, what do you propose to replace it with?” And that’s a fair question. Because it’s alright to defer, so long as one has a plan.

I usually carry the conversation on, not because I want to convince the other person, but because I want to refine my own ideas. And there’s no better way to sharpen ideas than on the grindstone of other people’s minds. Even though, at the end of all things, I may be justified in taking my contrarian stance against voting, niggling doubts about its positive efficacy gnaw at the back of my mind and I want to find out why I feel like that.

I want to discover if I’m just being anarchist for the hell of it or whether it’s because I see the charade for what it really is. I never know, this person might actually offer a useful critique, getting me closer to the truth (with a lower-case ‘t’) by a measly step or two. I don’t know why I’m explaining myself in this way…

Anyway, I decline to vote not because there’s no candidate representing my exact set of political beliefs. It’s also not because I believe things can’t get better under the current system. It’s not because voting “doesn’t change anything”. And I certainly don’t vote from of an unhealthy dose of apathy (I care deeply about my society), or from an anarchist sense of realising a utopia lies just around the corner if only we all refused to participate in the current system. Viva la revolution.

My reasons will follow, and I have a few of them.

Most people vote, I believe, because they’re happy to let others do the hard work of governance for them. I believe they also truly think their votes will make a difference by carving chips off the world just that little bit more in their desired shape. Everyone has their own ways of looking at the world, but they’d rather nurture a family or work at a cool job than waste time governing their society for all the other ungrateful slobs.

So the leaders elected into power are apparently the best representation of the public’s own values and ideals. They are entrusted with completing the important tasks - the hard tasks – with wisdom and methodology, while avoiding the things done out of selfishness, poor guidance, power intoxication, or other drivers of very-human fallibility. And sure, some of these supposedly “necessary” governance tasks are accomplished by our dear leaders, but many aren’t. I suspect that’s down to the nature of a fluctuating human society and the limits of our knowledge. But silly partisan politics has a great deal of dysfunction to answer for in the stagnation of some parts of society.

Unfortunately, my fellow citizens keep the electoral system ticking over presumably because, in the aggregate, things eventually do get better. Just keep voting every couple of years, and let the big folk do their jobs. Sounds good in theory, but this sentiment is probably only half correct.

Perhaps the answer lies in refining democracy, not overturning it. Maybe we can use democracy and all its benefits to forge a far grander version ready to tackle the unique issues we know we’ll face in the future. We’ll just have to recognise where it’s been forsaken and spin a few knobs to bring it in line with our contemporary, knowledge-based society. I’m of the opinion we’re smart enough to do this, and the time is well ripe for action. So I’ve compiled a few thoughts on what those actions might look like.

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