Irish Elections: Chasing the Democracy Dream

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Dublin. She is standing as an Independent candidate in the next general election in the Dublin Fingal constituency. Following extensive research into the origins and failings of democracy, she will be launching her new book “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose” on the 17th of November at 6:30 pm at Hodges & Figgis in Dublin.

With government no longer able to put off the inevitable, election time has finally arrived in the Republic, and with it all the sloganeering, overpromising, and tantalizing infighting that one has come to expect. Nearly all of the above will be channeled through the prism of the old blunt-edged left-right divide on ‘the issues’ du jour, with any leftover column inches devoted to the obligatory mud-slinging. But, swept away as one can get by this predictable entertainment, almost no one will question just why our method of choosing a government never fails to serve up this unpalatable broth.

The reason for this avoidance is that we believe that these few brief weeks of intense competition are the best – nay, the only – way to govern a country. We have faith in the electoral process. And someday, so this fairy tale goes, the ‘right’ people will finally be elected and humanity will metaphorically gallop off into the sunset to live happily ever after. What exactly constitutes the ‘right’ people may depend on one’s personal convictions, but all are in agreement that this Holy Grail exists.

I’ve spent ten years researching democracy and I’d beg to differ. Good government doesn’t depend on the right people, but rather on the right system. The corruption, the broken promises, the bias to the rich and powerful that characterize much of our politics today are not so much down to the failings of individual politicians as they are the inevitable by-products of the very system of electoral-representation that commands so much of our devotion. And the essential reason why this system produces all those things is that it’s not democracy.

It may seem shocking at first, but in the two hundred and thirty-nine years since electoral politics made its comeback, we’ve only been whole-heartedly calling it ‘democracy’ for the last eighty or so. That’s mainly because the kind of government we use was – contrary to popular myth – not invented in ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, but in another society: Rome.

The Athenians and the Romans shared many things, including a tendency to drapery-focused fashion and a predilection for marble statuary, but they had some radically different ideas on government. In Rome, it was all about elections with most State power reserved to the winners of those elections. By contrast, the Athenian system, then known as ‘demokratia’ or ‘people power’, minimized the importance of elections and focused instead on intensive citizen debate, frequent direct votes, and an army of lottery-appointed officials to handle the bureaucracy.

When the Founding Fathers of the USA revived the idea of non-hereditary government in the 18th century, they were explicit that it was the Roman system they were copying and the Athenian democracy that they rejected. What they didn’t know was that the Roman system had some serious flaws and that these would snowball over time. But we now have access to one or two facts that the Founding Fathers didn’t, and we know that the two main issues with elections are that they aren’t very accurate and that winning them tends to be a matter of spending money.

The British election earlier this year presents the quintessential example. The Conservative Party, raising spending limits to take advantage of its deeper coffers, won over 50% of seats in the House of Commons with less than 37% of the vote. By contrast Labour received just over 30% of the vote, but only 36% of the seats, meaning that a 6% difference in votes translated into a 14% difference in seat allocation. These kind of discrepancies between the popular vote and the actual government outcome are by no means unusual, and they were even more pronounced among the smaller parties: the Scottish National Party received 56 times as many seats as either UKIP or the Greens, although the Greens had a comparable vote count and UKIP garnered twice as many votes.

While Ireland’s single transferable vote isn’t as crass as the UK’s first-past-the post, electoral skewing occurs here, too. According to analysis of the latest polls, Independents and others are projected to win precisely the 29% of seats they deserve, but Fine Gael will likely win 29% of all seats with only 24% of the vote, with Fianna Fail taking 20% of all seats with 19% of the vote. That 6% bonus puts FF and FG only 2 seats off a majority (1 of the FG seats is tied up with the non-voting Ceann Comhairle), whereas SF/Independents would be 9 seats off, despite having a combined greater vote share.

These bumps in favour of the larger, richer parties are typical of so-called ‘proportional’ systems and it means that changes in election results tend to lag behind electorate views. That may not have been such a big deal when the fastest way to get a message from A to B was via the Pony Express, but in today’s era of instant communication, the fact that we’re still only holding elections at 4-5 year intervals makes them a great way to lock-in the status quo well past its sell-by date.

Among the many things wrong with that is that locking in the status quo disproportionately benefits the very rich – after all, they are per definition the very people and corporations that have gained the most from whatever the current set of rules is. And they are by no means passive spectators, because when it comes to winning elections, money talks. Study after study confirms that heavy spending substantially increases the chances of a candidate being elected.

In the 2011 Irish general election, for example, candidates spent 10,000 EUR on average; successful candidates spent nearly 19,000 EUR on average. And that’s only the kind of spending that surfaces in the paperwork; resources can also be deployed through favourable editorial coverage and preferential media access – areas impossible to regulate for given protections for press freedom. Even under the new, allegedly strict campaign donation rules, individuals will still be able to donate tens of thousands to parties each year, and they have a vested interest in preserving any establishment that maximizes their own wealth.

So, in short, elections don’t necessarily deliver the governments people voted for and he who has the most money wins. And when it comes to the problems with so-called ‘democracy’ this is just the tip of the iceberg. Add in the international treaties negotiated behind closed-doors, as well as the increasingly militaristic treatment of protestors and other alleged ne’er do wells, and you end up with a system where the vast majority of people are simply surplus to requirements and extremely easy to ignore.

But when one door closes, another opens. We’ve arrived at a crucial turning point in history, in that just when elections seem to be reaching their natural limits, technology has opened up other avenues of participation that make a turn to the real democracy the Founding Fathers rejected finally possible. Participatory budgeting; online accountability for elected representatives; and electronic initiative platforms are just part of a future that’s fast becoming a reality, a reality we’d do well not to ignore.

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  • Reader

    Another way of looking at the data – the linked Irish Times article (TD spend table) shows that the smaller parties seemed to be willing and able to spend a lot of money on first preference votes, whereas down at the bottom of the table FG got a load of cheap first preferences. Larger parties get their national coverage cheap – they don’t need to be rich.
    And isn’t SF one of the richer parties? In which case, your phrase “larger, richer parties” isn’t a tautology (yet), though SF will want to make it so this time around.
    Also, there’s a bit of confusion in the argument – is it that some parties get too many seats in proportion to their vote, or that they get too many votes?
    And if the wrong parties attract votes, won’t the same factors spill over into direct democracy and participatory budgeting? Unless you shut down the press.

  • Greenflag 2

    Thoughtful post and ought to have attracted more comments . Some points .

    “so this fairy tale goes, the ‘right’ people will finally be elected and humanity will metaphorically gallop off into the sunset to live happily ever after. What exactly constitutes the ‘right’ people may depend on one’s personal convictions, but all are in agreement that this Holy Grail exists.”

    Not a believer in any Holy Grail -never have been and never will and I suspect I’m not alone . At election times there is a brief increase in visibility of the number of believers of whatever political ideology . In the UK and Ireland that period is mercifully brief . In the USA it never stops . Perhaps this is why (among many other reasons ) that the US Congress gets a confidence rating of less than 20% of Americans . As the power of ‘money ‘ and corporate lobbyists continues to grow and influence is wielded behind closed doors by the financial elite then it should come as no surprise that many Americans have ‘given up’ on the myth that their Congressman /Senator actually represents their interest . The same is true although to a lesser extent in the UK and Ireland . What this means longer term for what people like to think of as their democracy or democratic values is not clear but it has enabled the ideologues of neo conservatism to impose their agenda even when governments are elected to oppose that agenda .

    “we now have access to one or two facts that the Founding Fathers didn’t, and we know that the two main issues with elections are that they aren’t very accurate and that winning them tends to be a matter of spending money.’

    Indeed but it should be noted that elections for all their inaccuracies are still preferable to not having elections . The planet is littered with failed states and ideologies where elections were non existent or a farce where the result was a foregone conclusion . The old Northern Ireland pre 1974 was a good example of how gerrymandering and electoral system can be ‘arranged ‘ to minimise or ignore any opposition . In the USA today gerrymandering by both main parties has resulted in a situation not unlike NI pre 1974 where the result is so certain that in may cases the seat is not even contested . Not exactly the rotten boroughs of 18th /19th century Britain but close .

    No argument re the ‘spending of money ‘ and it’s impact on elections . This can range anywhere from negative campaigning against opponents to actually selecting the Presidential candidate who will run . Mr Rubio’s billionaire backer is just one example -Mrs Clinton’s Goldman Sachs connections are not unknown . They all depend on OPM ( other people’s money ) bar Trump who has so much that he can contemplate removing 11 million people from the USA without batting an eyelid .

    “Add in the international treaties negotiated behind closed-doors, as well as the increasingly militaristic treatment of protestors and other alleged ne’er do wells, and you end up with a system where the vast majority of people are simply surplus to requirements and extremely easy to ignore.’

    That system used to be called communism but now it’s neo conservatism backed by international financial oligopolies and multi national corporations . As for the majority of people being surplus to requirements and easy to ignore – indeed -but the system still needs consumers to function. Ignoring the consumer can have a price not just for corporations but for ‘systems ‘ and the politicians they support .

    ‘But when one door closes, another opens.’

    Really ? Too optimistic . Have you not heard that the Lord never closes one door without slamming another in your face 😉 This might be more accurate in an NI context rather than American . For the majority of Russians when one Babuschka doll is opened there’s another inside and so it goes . There are those who hold the belief that if you take a bunch of politician from all parties -right left and elsewhere and tie them in a large opaque bag and then proceed to use a bat to beat them from the outside -that you will never hit the wrong one 😉

    ‘We’ve arrived at a crucial turning point in history’

    What another one ? On top of Magna Carta -the American Revolution , the Great Reform Bill -French Revolution , and our local turning points 1690 , 1798, 1848, 1912 , 1916 , 1918 etc there are so many turning points that somehow once the fuss has died down – another turning point appears and the great chase begins again .

    As for faith in technology ? I remain skeptical . No doubt it would seem to offer hope for increased participatory democracy but technology has also been used to greatest effect in the past decade by those who have the most access and power to ‘loot ‘ the planet to an extent that would not have been possible in the 1950’s or 60’s or even later . The new God of Algorithmic trading has applications beyond those of finance .

    As I said above interesting take on where democracy may be heading with the help and hindrance of technology . But as always full participatory democracy will remain an ideal -and thats ok . Whats not okay is when the power of financial corporations decide election outcomes to an extent that political opposition becomes impossible without recourse to violence .

    Finally I hope you make it to the Dail . With no disrespect to the book title ‘Beasts and Gods ‘ I’m reminded of my old man’s sardonic comment on politicians and indeed people everywhere

    Wherever you go son they are much the same – “Cows , Bulls and Calves but Cattle one and all and don’t forget it !!