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Do we need elections? The case for direct democracy

‘Pericles’ Funeral Oration’ (1852) by Philip Foltz, a famous scene from Athenian politics.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Are elections really a means to democratic polity? Do elections actually facilitate democracy? What if I were to deny that they do?

The basic premise of democracy is the equal right of all adult citizens to decide the laws and rules of collective public life. This political equality of all citizens is the bedrock of democracy: the right not only to be governed but also the right to govern. Democracy comes from two Greek words, demos (people) and kratia (rule), meaning people ruling over themselves.

Democracy then actually stands for self-rule or self-governance. However, that is precisely what elections have become an obstacle to. Elections are not only undemocratic, I believe they are anti-democratic by their very character. This might sound absurd on first reading, for the institution of elections has come to be so universally accepted as an indispensable part of democracy that it is treated as synonymous with it. Samuel Huntington, for instance, writes. “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.”

I believe this is a mistaken view of democracy and needs to be challenged. The idea, however, has burrowed deep into modern consciousness and it is not easy to argue against it. Yet, I attempt to do so here.

Athens — the mythical birthplace of democracy — was acutely conscious of the danger of elections undermining the democratic practice, and that is why it developed two robust institutions to keep democracy safe. One, Athenians drew lots for choosing public officials. This gave all citizens an equal random chance to assume charge of public offices, the logical corollary to the fundamental right of all adult Athenians to stand for public office (it did not include women and slaves). Elections, Athens seems to have recognised, would sabotage this because they allow only a few people with the art of sophistry and means to assume power.

Demagogue alert

Second, Athens banned anyone from the city who could become too powerful or influential in the public sphere. Athenians knew the potential of such people to manipulate the masses by their influence, thereby eviscerating democracy from within. So, whenever such a person surfaced, he was voted out of the city for at least 10 years. This kept out potential demagogues who people might blindly follow and surrender their democratic rights and responsibilities to.

From this model, democracy has slowly morphed into the opposite — the rule of a few. Modern election is a charade that mostly facilitates the election of a few wealthy or prominent people, replacing democracy with plutocracy. Theoretically, of course, everyone is still free to join the fray, but in practice the system lets through only a miniscule number with means and material resources.

The counter argument is that modern states are incredibly large, in size and population, and elections are the only efficient solution. But is it really beyond human imagination to conjure up a system where it’s not just a few prominent people or ambitious careerists who are able to assume public office? Are there no other ways to organise our collective political lives and keep the substance of democracy intact?

Of course there are. It is just that they have not been tried or given a fair chance. To begin with, we can structure our units of political organisation at manageably smaller levels — maybe the size of a small town or even smaller — thus ensuring real devolution of powers. These small units could be non-hierarchically connected with other units in a territorial arrangement, with fair distribution of powers and resources at each level for people to deliberate on questions of common good. This would also establish democracy as ‘the exercise of public reason’. Democracy, after all, is fundamentally a government by discussion and participation.

The difference would be substantial. In smaller units, ‘people’ would no longer remain an abstract concept but something real and identifiable. Laws could be passed after people have listened to and participated in discussions, where expert opinions and professional advice are also sought and given. Implementation could be carried out by what we can call ‘public trustees’ under the supervision of citizen committees or task forces, getting rid of the menace of bureaucracy.

A mechanism of consensus could be adopted to decide on policies and programmes. On other issues, a specific percentage of people would be involved, depending on the nature of the issue. Indeed, consensus wouldn’t be easy to come by, but nothing is. Democracy, they say, is a messy affair. Let it be messy in the right way.

Outsourced citizenship

In the current system, people rarely experience democracy in their everyday lives. If democracy is a constant engagement with public affairs at the ‘public square’, it can’t end with casting votes on a particular day every five years. In fact, with the casting of a vote we outsource our democratic responsibilities, burdens and benefits to a few representatives.

With this alternative — a sort of community-management model — democracy could make a comeback. It could mean that instead of the short-sighted focus on parochial issues encouraged by the electoral system, people begin looking at long-term interests and questions through collective reasoning and arguments. This might be an idealised view, but with supportive institutions and procedures, it could become a ‘realistic utopia’.

Some mechanisms of a deliberative democracy are already in use, such as participatory budgeting in New York City; or rural Minnesota where three counties are using a Citizens Jury Method to discuss climate change. In Charlotte, North Carolina, city officials talk to community members to learn first-hand about people’s preferences. These methods could be replicated with necessary modifications for the alternative model of governance that I am advocating here.

This isn’t romantic nostalgia for some ancient polities but a real, meaningful and possible alternative we can seriously consider. The reduction of democracy to the mere procedure of balloting has impeded the broader understanding of democracy as ‘government by discussion’ — this has made democracy itself grossly inadequate and immoral.

A kleroterion, the device used in Athens to select citizens randomly for positions.

A kleroterion, the device used in Athens to select citizens randomly for positions.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Viable change

Those who think this is a fatuous exercise need only to remember that until a few months ago, defunding the police was unimaginable in the U.S. Now, it has almost become a mainstream idea in American political discourse. We never know when crises might occur, and when they do, ideas lying dormant get a chance to be pushed through.

We have been conditioned to believe that the present organisation of our body politic into massive nation-states is the only way to order our political systems. It isn’t. There is a need to replace gigantic structures with small units controlled and understood by people.

Ernst Schumacher has shown us how in his influential work Small Is Beautiful. To paraphrase Schumacher, gigantic organisational structures pave the way for dehumanisation, loss of control, and lack of comprehension.

Who is better placed to understand and address people’s issues — a few representatives who are at a remove from them? Or the people themselves who breathe and live these daily problems and would be constantly engaged (through this alternative model) in deliberations about ways to fix them?

Perfect democracy may well be an illusion. It isn’t something fixed once and for all time. Democracy is always, as Derrida said, something that remains to come — never fully present, always deferred. In that spirit, let’s not allow it to rot by being identified forever with its present form.

This “to come” underscores the transformative and disruptive potential at the heart of democracy. It is a signal towards the potential for change from within. To suffocate democracy within the current electoral form is to asphyxiate its very spirit, along with ours as well. Our future is inextricably entwined with the possibility of a ‘democracy to come’.

The Kashmir-based author has a doctorate in Political Science.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 9:24:34 PM |

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