Democracy Without Elections

“We can’t rely on anything anymore. Our economic and political systems seem hopelessly corrupt and broken, beyond repair. We can’t trust what the media are telling us anymore. And now AI is creating articles and pictures and videos that look totally real and authentic but are totally fake. Capitalism doesn’t work except for the ultra-rich. Democracy doesn’t work at all. But we have nothing to replace them with.”

That was the state of the world a friend was relating to me during a recent walk. At the time I just nodded. It does seem to me as if the current systems that are falling apart are the only ones we know, and we’re utterly lost when they fail.

But that’s not entirely true. At least on a small scale, there are lots of alternative economic and political systems that work rather well. There’s a tendency, I think, to look at our local systems as inherently dysfunctional, and perhaps even worse than ‘higher’-level political systems — cities that no longer work because no one can afford to live in them with the salaries employers can afford to pay, and local politics that is often corrupted (frequently by developers), and too often borders on incompetence.

But there are other local groups that are employing gift economy, wealth-sharing, consensus, citizens’ assemblies and other effective, responsive and functional economic and political systems to get things done that our larger, now-almost-totally-dysfunctional systems have never done well.

How far might we be able to go with a truly democratic (ie balancing the collective interests of all citizens) system that does not have elected officials, or even elections, at all?

Let’s start at the local, municipal level. Decisions need to be made on local zoning and land use, infrastructure maintenance, parks and recreation, new developments and redevelopments, community health care, housing, environmental protection, arts and cultural amenities, and lots of other issues.

At present, those decisions are actually made by an uneasy coalition of municipal elected officials, local government workers, private corporations that own the land and supply most of the labour and expertise for new development and redevelopment projects, and ‘higher’ levels of government that have legal and vested interests in local projects (and often provide much of the funding for them).

Most of these decisions are reactive rather than proactive; local municipalities have very little control over the major social, political and economic forces at work in their communities, so they mostly respond, yes or no, to proposals that come to them. Local politicians are often novices, often overwhelmed, out of their depth, exhausted and risk-averse, and so they are strongly inclined to say ‘yes’ to traditional ‘safe’ proposals and ‘no’ to unorthodox ones.

They may of course have some sort of community development plan, crafted by local idealists to depict how they’d like to see the community shift and grow, but such plans are generally honoured more in their breach than in their observance. Not much point having a plan when you lack the power to do much of anything to see it implemented.

Right-wing ‘libertarian’ ideologues point out the deficiencies in such systems, and their answer is to deregulate everything and allow “the market” (ie the ultra-rich top caste who own almost all of the land, assets and corporations) to do whatever they want (the euphemism is “self-regulate”).

The idea that such a system will operate in the interests of the majority of citizens is utterly ludicrous. Louisiana, where this ideology is pretty much a state religion, is a desolated, depleted, giant toxic waste dump of a state, where most of the citizens are dying of neglect, or diseases caused by staggering levels of pollution, poverty and malnutrition, or incarceration, or despair.

So what do we do when our massively-complex utterly-interdependent societies only grow worse when unregulated, but now seem effectively un-regulatable?

We might start with very focused citizens’ assemblies, selected randomly by lot from lists of community members, and empowered to make the most crucial decisions affecting the community. They would need to be properly funded, trained and facilitated, which would require taxing the upper caste to pay for decisions the upper caste may not like. That could pose a challenge right out of the gate.

These assemblies would likely be single-issue focused — eg on local homelessness, on the absence of affordable housing for all, on ecological conservation, protection and preservation, or on quotas on various types of development needed to ensure a healthy, self-reliant community.

Most municipalities today are dealing with a quandary: Developers want expensive ‘prestige’ residential development (large sprawling single-family homes and massive condo towers) because that’s where the profit is. Homeowners go along with this because it keeps their own property values high. But what is really needed is mostly rental housing, mostly modest low-income housing, and enough industrial and other high-end (eg tech) development to employ all the people in the community. And many of the people who appreciate and really want this are people who’d like to live in the community but currently can’t and don’t.

This leaves the local politicians and staff in an impossible situation. They’re beholden to the voters, and to the developers who fund their election campaigns. A citizens’ assembly empowered to balance these conflicting interests may not be beholden, but their sensible recommendations are likely to outrage the current citizens of the community — who may be inclined to distrust ‘tenants’, fear the poor and homeless, and not want industry that actually produces anything of value even when it brings decent-wage jobs (along with pollution, higher density development, and heavy transportation infrastructure), to the area. NIMBY, thank you.

They’ll be outraged no matter how unanimous the citizens’ assembly recommendations are, and no matter how carefully they’re explained. Most citizens have their entire net worth tied up in their homes, and are understandably horrified at the risk of that net worth diminishing. Everyone wants affordable housing (elsewhere please), except those who’ve benefited from it becoming unaffordable. Even those who have embraced citizens’ assemblies (“for fact-finding”) often don’t consider them truly “democratic” and insist that their recommendations be subject to ratification by voters who have not studied and can’t fully appreciate the rationale for the assemblies’ proposals.

So because we live in such a suspicious, low-trust (perhaps with good reason) world, I suspect citizens’ assemblies will only be listened to and acted upon when the issue is sufficiently uncontroversial that the majority will shrug indifferently and ratify it. That’s true for most local issues. If we try to have them make recommendations on subjects currently under the purview of ‘higher’ governments (eg war spending, tax rates, rights of minorities) they’re likely to face even stronger opposition. “Who elected these ‘assemblies’ to make decisions for me?”

Where might they work? Perhaps in lieu of referenda, substituting informed, deliberative consensus for the power and influence of pro- and anti- lobby groups. But again, if the assembly’s recommendations are subject to voter ratification, it will not remove the power of money, lobbying and propaganda from the decision process.

They might also replace what we now call “advisory groups”, which are usually voluntary groups of citizens with an active interest (and often a bias) in a particular subject, that are frequently used as hostages and for cover by politicians in passing or rejecting laws and regulations on that subject, and which are ignored when the group’s biases do not align with the politicians’.

In time, we might at least learn to put more weight on the recommendations of citizens’ assemblies and similar unbiased deliberative bodies, and ask hard questions of politicians who repeatedly ignore their recommendations.

So my sense is that, perhaps ironically, democracy without elections (using citizens’ assemblies and other unbiased group deliberative processes) is unlikely to succeed until we have completely given up on democracy with elections. That will only happen when enough of us cease to be conned by the parties who pretend to listen to us, and cease to think the current political system just needs to be ‘reformed’.

It will only happen when we’re ready to acknowledge that decisions on many issues cannot be entrusted to voters’ binary gut instincts, uninformed politicians, and lobbyists’ adversarial scare-mongering pitches, and when we’re ready to appoint and listen to citizen groups who can explore and have honest dialogues on these issues until they are largely of one mind.

It is actually quite rare for such groups to be unable to arrive at a consensus. It’s fascinating, when humans talk with each other honestly and with an open mind, with skilful facilitators, how quickly and sincerely they can come to agree, even when they were initially disinclined to do so. And it’s dismaying how few of us ever have the opportunity to see how well such a system can work.

I think, at least in some places and on some issues, we will start to appreciate that binary decision-making and current systems of voting are highly undemocratic and no longer serve our interest. Only then are we likely to look seriously for better ways of making the critical decisions that affect our communities, and our world.

Especially once we’ve been a member of an effectively-facilitated citizen deliberative group ourselves, so that can appreciate their truly democratic nature, we just might discover that democracy can work after all.

PS I can’t stress enough how important it is to have good facilitators guiding groups through such difficult processes, and for each of us to learn to be good ‘guerrilla facilitators‘ ourselves. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ can only emerge when our propensity for groupthink, for rushing to judgement, and other cognitive biases, is seen and called out, and as we learn the protocols for effective dialogue — including honing our inquiry and listening skills.

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1 Response to Democracy Without Elections

  1. Ray says:

    We are too far down the rabbit hole.
    Everything has become just too complex. No good solutions, no matter what system we come up with to find solutions to (mostly intractable) problems.
    Tainter was right. That’s how problems get solved.

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