Fixing Democracy - Does anyone else get that sinking feeling?

COMMENT

There’s something wrong with the democratic process, especially the strange rituals of voting and politics. Plenty of people complain about it, but democracy’s problems aren’t easy to spot.

On the macro scale, we have the impossibly complex nation-states always 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 despite the incompetence in higher levels of government. Both miniscule and giant societal leaps happen all the time in democracies probably not because of the process of voting, but mostly in spite of it.

That’s because our societies have become almost autonomous and their day-to-day functions mostly disconnected from politics. The old justifications for having national leaders or political ideologies seem to subside with each election.

More and more voters notice the redundancy of partisan democracy and yearn for a more rational system which can both advance our society and listen to our needs.

Democracy has been a wonderful system for a long time, and it still mostly works well today. Perhaps 400 years ago, a group of people mostly from the Western world, developed a process for governance without the need for ultimate rulers, monarchs, despots, or tyrants.

No one’s going to deny democracy’s marvellous gifts to humanity.

The plan was novel for its time - although it was an upgrade modelled on an idea seeded thousands of years earlier in ancient Greece - and it was incredibly disconcerting for monarchs, despots, and tyrants.

Democracy placed power back into the hands of everyone else, giving them a chance to find a consensus on where their society needed to go. Fine-tuning democracy’s details ushered in a new fantastic era of invention and unprecedented social health.

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

Politics and Voting
Two properties of democracy need revisiting. Voting seems redundant, and the divisive repercussions of politics. Neither of these offer democratic societies good unbiased or reasoned methodological avenues in which to move.

The paths society eventually takes are so regularly perpendicular from the predicted political expectations. Sorting out 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 for our modern complex society. 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 how to evolve it.

It’s just that so many people have already sneered at the idea of inventing democracy’s alternative.

They say 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 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 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 appreciably over the intervening period.

That particular form 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.

But it changes things?
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.

If you were to query me at a ridiculously fancy dinner party about why I don’t vote, I’d probably tell you the reasons behind my abstinence. But I don’t usually 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, they say, 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 is trying to forge a plan.

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.

I don’t vote because if our world really is complex with layered chaos, why should one particular part of society at a time dictate how the rest of us should live? Decisions by governments informed strictly by what their voters “believe” out of “common sense” is asking for trouble.

We are each of us just as guilty if we vote on what we think would be best from our perspective, when most of us cannot point to the data or methodology which will prove ours is the perfect societal model. They can’t all be the perfect model.

Why should my ideals trump others’? I could be wrong, and I may end up changing my mind, but suppose the damage is done if I acted politically on those beliefs before the data was in?

The politics game
I understand the dilemma binding any forward progress when trying to please everyone inevitably pleases no one. There must be a balance, and to find it we need to start recognising the importance of science and methodology.

There will always be someone who comes off worse if one model is preferred over another, but refusing to do nothing out of fear of hurting even one person is not the recipe for a healthy society.

Most people vote, I believe, because they’re happy to let others do the hard work of governance for them. I suspect they also truly think their votes will make a difference by carving chips off the block of world marble 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.

We can’t keep playing the politics game where everyone thinks their governance model is the best for society, but no one can rigorously show with verifiable data which one actually is.

Falling back on an ideology or a pre-packaged political belief is the laziness and natural human reaction most voters choose when faced with the humbling mound of complexity in a modern society.

Getting involved in government is honourable, and interest should be applauded. But running an intricate system like a country or city is hard. It takes guts, time, and brains to figure it all out.

That’s why treating the questions of society like they have simple answers by ticking a few boxes based on what your “common sense” or ideology tells you every few years I suspect does more harm than good.

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.

We should only need officials to sign the papers we put in front of them. That should be their job, nothing more.

A nation’s leader should be like bowing to a judge as they enter the courtroom, acknowledging the gravity of the position that this one “special” person holds. The power to judge and condemn other people is the trait worth bowing to, not acknowledging anything special about the judge as a person.

So 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 democracy’s been abandoned and spin a few knobs to bring it back 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.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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1 Comment & Question

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Democracy in NZ gives me a choice between the incompetent and the incoherent.

And it doesn't really matter what their policies are as the bureaucrats in the government departments will do their best to sabotage anything that goes against what they desire anyway...

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