Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Debugging the System

A review of Manuel Arriaga’s Rebooting Democracy

[A] long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT. Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Rebooting Democracy is an exceptional pamphlet that aspires to be the “Common Sense” of citizen deliberation. I do not say “participatory democracy” because that term is often misunderstood as a plea for higher election turnouts or better-informed voters. Rather, the reforms in “Rebooting” envision the participation of amateur citizens (not career politicians) in governance and decision making—the important stuff that happens between elections. This includes evaluating referenda/initiatives, authorizing candidates for office, and the drafting, debating, and authorization of legislation.

Arriaga echoes a call many have been making over the last two decades, e.g., Atlee (a rich variety of minipublics and citizen panels could together change the nature of government), Burnheim (a demarchy consistently of ad-hoc “functional” citizen juries would truly democratize power), Dowlen (traces the history and uses of lotteries), Elstub (incorporating civic society organizations into political process could create generate deliberation), Fishkin & Ackerman (Deliberation Day would bring together hundreds of citizen assemblies run as “deliberative polls”), Gastil (citizen panels could be a part of candidate selection and public deliberation), Landemore (randomly selected assemblies would create better policy through their inclusion of more perspectives), Leib (a Fourth Branch made of citizen juries to be part of law and policy making), McCormick (an allotted People’s Tribunate could balance the influence of economic elites). But he speaks not to academics or sophisticated activists but to those on the streets of New York, Cairo, Athens, Madrid, London, Lisbon, or nearby. The book explains why representative government does not do what it purports to do—represent the interests, knowledge, values of constituents. He then suggests how participatory government could.

Our politicians…simply do not represent us. Manuel Arriaga

Arriaga’s pamphlet, like Paine’s, addresses would-be revolutionaries and a public feeling abused by politicians. Like Common Sense, it calls on them to reconsider a preconceived notion—elections are democracy—ingrained by time, tradition or miseducation. This is where it succeeds best and is most original. The chapter “Ten reasons politicians fail to represent” enumerates the ways in which elections themselves are the problem, for example the in-group psychological identification of politicians with donors and lobbyists, no matter how right-minded and idealistic they may have come to office. That chapter by itself makes it a valuable book.

Rebooting Democracy argues that elections themselves have undemocratic effects! Whether it succeeds at making that idea more accessible, or galvanizing would-be revolutionaries, only time will tell. But Arriaga’s call to “reboot,” makes an original contribution to the “neo-Athenian” renewed interest in participatory democracy on the streets and in some political science circles. The movement evinces a “Second French Revolution” not based on enumerated human rights (such as freedom of expression) but on something truly progressive: the right to participate in the process of governing.

To that end, Arriaga suggests five ideas reflecting recent reforms and experiments in Ireland, British Columbia, Australia, and Oregon. One idea would mimic and expand Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review jury process into a “citizens’ chamber” that can review and block (with a sufficient majority) any bill being contemplated by elected legislatures. Here the book is less specific, because it does not aim to give a blueprint for government but to suggest types of reforms to improve it.

Other ideas are not all that new. For example, Arriaga advocates “rank voting,” or IRV, to make elections better match citizens’ actual preferences. Another is to tighten campaign finance laws. For some, he does not go far enough to correct the ills of elections; for others, he goes just far enough for the time being. But what he undeniably does is put elections under the microscope and open up the conversation about citizen-led politics.

If Tom Paine said, “How ridiculous, that a tiny island should govern an entire continent,” then Manuel Arriaga is saying, “How ridiculous, that the vast majority should delegate their power to a small clique every four years then sit idly by another four!”

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