19 April, 2024


“People’s Power” A Myth: Is Deliberative Democracy The Way Forward?

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

“Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa!” ~ Allen Ginsberg

Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, published in 1922, is considered the most persuasive critique of democracy. Shortly after it was published, John Dewey, the great defender of democracy and the most important American philosopher of the era, called Lippmann’s book “the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived.”Lippmann poses a straightforward question: can citizens achieve a basic knowledge of public affairs and then make reasonable choices about what to do? His answer is no, and the whole point of the book is to expose the gap between what we say democracy is and what we know about how human beings actually behave.

An end to the blind faith in Western style  democracy is long overdue and felt even in the West. For those obsessed with preaching Western democracy across the world, a diminishing  democracy in the US and UK for example, has taught them a lesson: There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all political system. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2021 showed rising disillusionment with the state of U.S. democracy, with 72 percent of Americans and 57 percent of interviewees worldwide viewing it as a poor example of a political system. The results have once again shown that the United States as the so-called “beacon of democracy” is collapsing not only among Americans, but also those around the world. 

A core idea of democracy is that the government rules on behalf of all the people, according to their “will”. Properly understood, democracy should not be “rule of the majority,” if that means that minorities’ interests are ignored completely. Thus, theoretically, in a democracy, all people should feel treated justly and should perceive themselves as a valuable member of the society. However, people often develop the feeling that politicians do not care about them and that the society is not just to them. Nowadays, we are observing an erosion of democracy with aversive consequences for everyone, including reduced subjective well-being, increasing deviant behaviour, and growing fascism. 

American democracy has already been kidnapped by business elites and all kinds of organized interests. America’s super rich — the top one percent of American earners, held 27 percent of national wealth as of June, for the first time higher than what the U.S. middle class earns as a whole, Bloomberg cited Federal Reserve data as showing. While social inequality is widening and racial discrimination intensifying, American democracy has been falling apart. 

People’s will appear to be not represented in the decisions taken by the White House or the Congress. For example, the pro-Israel lobby in the body politic is the most powerful political lobby. There’s nothing to touch them. Their lobbying is done very discreetly, in very high places, which may be why it is so effective. “Middle East policy in the US is determined by the highest bidder,” said MJ Rosenberg, a former senior AIPAC staffer, at a recent conference in Washington called The Israel Lobby: Is it good for the US? Is it good for Israel?” The highest bidder is AIPAC. What that means is that democracy in  the US is itself a myth.” This US’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby group has been  pouring millions of dollars into influencing Democratic congressional primary races to counter growing support for the Palestinian cause within the party,for example. The lobby group’s move into financial support for political campaigns for the first time in its 70-year history was prompted by alarm in Washington and Israel at the erosion of longstanding bipartisan support for the Jewish state in the US. 

Beyond US, across the globe, Washington’s attempts to export its own democratic system and values has also run into the ground. The atrocities and bloodshed brought about by the United States in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere stand as irrefutable proof of the ridiculous democratic experiment launched by America and its Western allies. “Here ends the west’s grotesque delusion that it could use its military might to turn Afghanistan into a stable democracy,” said British journalist Polly Toynbee on the U.S. army’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan in an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper.

So is the state of democracy in the UK too. It is often heard proud Brits extol the virtue of our democracy. Some will even go as far as championing its unwritten constitution – a mishmash of conventions, common law, and Acts of Parliament ─ as a marvel of democratic resilience and flexibility. The UK’s present PM is not elected and has no public mandate but he continues to act as if. Foreign Secretary David Cameron was appointed in an undemocratic way by bringing him through the House of Lords. Political cronies and funders are being brought into the House of Lords at will. It is a joke on democracy when a PM without a public mandate says for example that UK stands by Israel’s right of self defence, when it wages an unjust war on the people of Gaza and collective punishment, when millions march on London streets demanding to stop the genocide and punish the aggressor. People in the UK are suffering due to social injustice and the MPs are least concerned as they are being financed by lobby groups. The fact is that the majority of citizens don’t have a Scooby-Doo about how the mechanics of political structures work. In the UK too, pro Israel lobby groups such as BCOM, CFI, LFI work on the same lines too like AIPAC, in regard to British politics. The present obscurity surrounding the UK politics related funding arrangements and activities of organisations such as BICOM , CFI and CFL smacks of anti democratic corruption. 

The government can hardly serve the welfare of the general public. In these so-called working democracies, increasingly polarized partisan politics has been preventing ruling party and opposition parties from reaching a viable consensus even on key issues concerning the country’s long-term interests. Moreover, it is comical to see some projects heavily invested in by one administration can be tossed aside by a successor from the other political party. An effective political system is only possible when it answers the needs of its people. It  would be wise to remember that merely holding elections while failing to serve the wider public do not make a democracy.

There is a tension between parliamentary and popular sovereignty. A lively, meaningful democracy would achieve a balance between the two. It would combine parliamentary (representative) democracy with participatory democracy. But no such balance is sought. Representative democracy is a remarkably blunt instrument. Hundreds of issues are bundled together at every election, yet the vote tends to swing on just one or two of them. The government then presumes consent for its entire programme and, if it commands a parliamentary majority, for anything else it wants to introduce in its term of office. We don’t accept presumed consent in many areas in our personal lives. Why should we accept it in politics? Politics has grown stultified in the hands of the political classes. 

It may surprise most of us to learn that we do not live in a democracy. We are governed by a parliamentary democracy. According to Swedish historian and philosopher Tage Lindbom, there is a widening gap between democratist rhetoric and concrete reality. Democratism is surging in the midst of deepening social and political problems, including falling standards of moral conduct, declining education, political corruption, the destruction of the family, and crime. At first sight this may seem a subtle meander away from the primary term, but it is, in fact, a seismic shift away from what the ordinary folk on the street bus would probably cite. In a nutshell, our system of governance – the process that interferes with every conceivable facet of your life: relies on each of us giving up a tad of individual freedom and assigning that most precious commodity into the care of a small bunch of people  who collectively form parliament. Look at those who presently sit on the benches of the Parliament, Congress or the House of Commons, and, in particular, those on the side of Government. Would we honestly let the majority of them anywhere near our houses or even our recycling bin, or have faith that they can tie their own shoelaces without assistance? If in doubt, reflect on the MPs we have elected through our ballot. 

This old-style top-down approach to campaigning, repackaging ideas and presenting them as radical plans at every election and then act and plunder our mandate at will, seems to be the only way our current politicians know how to do politics. We need to stop the tub thumping and make them listen to how ordinary people want their democracy to function. As citizens, we must ask ourselves, what would we prefer? To be told week after week by party leaders what will be good for the country and by implication good for us? Or to sit down with other members of the public, argue, debate, then finally agree what the issues are, and then together work out the best way to solve them? We have to find new ways of engaging people in politics; an invitation to vote every four or five years is not enough. Leaving it to the political class to decide the rules of the game, the shape and workings of our political system is not good enough. Free and fair elections alone are not sufficient to achieving democracy. In a political system where sovereignty resides in the people, the people’s voices must be heard and their interests respected through democratic processes and institutions on a consistent basis, beyond election day.

This is not to say we abandon representative democracy ,but we want to see it balanced by popular sovereignty, especially the variety known as deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy is a form of democracy that places people at the centre of decision making and provides them with a more direct route to participate in decisions that affect them, their communities and broader society. Deliberative democracy is based on the principles that everyone has an equal contribution to make; openness to differing ideas and views; knowledge exchange and sharing of unbiased information; and most importantly, collective deliberation and dialogue forms the basis for decision making – not voting alone. Deliberative democracy is distinct from a representative democracy as it does not rely on elected representatives to act as a proxy in the decision-making process; citizens can represent their own views and influence the decisions made.

By contrast to the adversarial nature of representative democracy, in which politicians try to dominate and vanquish their opponents, deliberative democracy means drawing citizens together to solve problems. It means creating forums in which we listen respectfully to each other, seek to understand each other’s views, change our minds when necessary, and create the rich, informed democratic culture currently missing from national life. Instead of being captured by corrupt politicians and local mafias, the people’s decisions ensure that the money went where it was needed most, greatly improving sanitation, clean water, green space, health and education, transforming the lives of the poor as well as our representatives speak for us rather than speak for the lobbies who finance them. The more people engaged, the wider and deeper their political understanding became. Short-termism will be replaced by long-term thinking.

Many citizen participation initiatives struggle with the question of who should be involved. In deliberative democracy, this question is solved by selecting a representative group of citizens. A group that broadly matches the demographic characteristics of the wider population, achieved through techniques such as random selection. In representative deliberative processes, such as Citizens’ Juries and Citizens’ Assemblies, a representative cohort of people spend significant time learning and collaborating through facilitated deliberation and fruitful conversations, to form collective recommendations to policymakers.

There are plenty of other ways in which deliberative democracy can change our lives. In Ireland, a citizens’ assembly on abortion law turned an angry debate into a considered one. It tested competing claims and ideas, and led eventually to a referendum. The Better Reykjavík programme allows the citizens of Iceland’s capital to put forward ideas for the city’s improvement, which other people vote on. The 15 most popular ideas every month are passed to the city council to consider. The programme has remodelled Reykjavík in fascinating ways. Constitutional conventions can be used to draw up principles of government, on which the rest of the population can then vote. Some of the best models are those developed by the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Members of the convention are drawn by lot and informed by experts, field trips and submissions from other citizens. There is public outcry in the UK for deliberative democracy; Sri Lanka is in urgent need too.

The current wave of pessimism is a reminder that there’s a recurring tendency on the part of intellectuals and people to abandon democracy when it veers off course. Democracy is in peril and at risk of further erosion by the forces of elitism and populism. Robust forms of deliberative democracy present a dynamic opportunity for change which can strengthen representative democracy. It raises the political legitimacy. It is imperative to build movements big enough to force our governments to let the people speak. Participation in politics is a not a gift. It is our right.

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    “There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all political system. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2021 showed rising disillusionment with the state of U.S. democracy, with 72 percent of Americans and 57 percent of interviewees worldwide viewing it as a poor example of a political system”
    A very insightful article. It carries lessons for those who think Sri Lanka has some sort of “democracy”, which is currently under threat due to delayed elections.
    “It may surprise most of us to learn that we do not live in a democracy. We are governed by a parliamentary democracy. According to Swedish historian and philosopher Tage Lindbom, there is a widening gap between democratist rhetoric and concrete reality”
    The author is speaking about the UK, I believe, but that would apply as well to Sri Lanka. When it comes to the crunch, those who have political or economic power can over-ride any law. A comedian can be locked up as a terrorist, but rabid monks are protected by the colour of their robe. A Minister may maim another road user, but not you or me. Some ladies can pass counterfeit banknotes, but not you or me.

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