Representative democracy and its likely (and perhaps unlikely) rivals to power

Whilst Citizen’s Assemblies are not the panacea that some of their advocates suggest, what they can do is reveal otherwise unregarded characteristics of the electorate to elected representatives.

As Jamie Pow notes in Fortnight Magazine, the New Decade, New Approach Deal document pledges to hold regular citizens’ assemblies that might bring democratic institutions and the people closer.

But he says, they must be meaningful. Well, quite. As The Economist noted last week…

…because citizens’ assemblies reflect the population, their conclusions seem to appeal to it, too. Same-sex marriage and abortion were both legalised in Ireland when whopping majorities in referendums demonstrated that the country had reached a new consensus after years of fighting.

And assemblies are not just for engaged middle-class types. One European study found that people with less education, as well as those who are most mistrustful of politicians, are keenest on the idea.

But there’s a rub for parties who use them. The government got zero thanks in the following elections. Indeed, the Irish Labour party (multigenerational champions of abortion) has almost been wiped out.

What’s that all about? Well, for one, the Citizen’s Assembly is a break from a grifter media that’s often more intent on gaming readers for the outcome its owners want than one in the public’s interest.

Individuals brought into the lee of the fire storming of Twitter and Facebook whose business model involves offering the modification of user behaviour to the needs of the highest bidder.

These BUMMER (“Behaviour of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent” platforms according to the tech philosopher Jaron Lanier) now dominate the democratic discourse the world over.

According to Lanier they promote weirdness and nastiness, let their commercial interests dictate what content individuals access, use social data to manipulate users, and allow fake mobs to control debate.

Another correlated trend within politics the drift away from collective to individual interests within politics and wider public discourse. This has led many elected reps to resile from difficult decisions.

I say ‘difficult’, not ‘tough’ because tough can be a cypher for the act of ‘cutting’ public expenditure. Cuts, of course, may be part of the remedy, but rediscovering the “public will” requires expenditure.

Citizens Assembly’s aren’t cheap, but in terms of an intervention, they have proven useful to get public representatives in the Republic off the hook of what was otherwise an impossible dilemma.

In any case, talk to anyone in public finance who knows their trade, and they will tell you that the statutory minimum is the least effective and most expensive solution to any problem.

But getting to a solution that is effective and further upstream has been crazily difficult as politicians of different stripes have pushed responsibilities away from the government onto external agencies.

A good example of a wicked problem ignored is the Comptroller and Auditor General’s recent critical report on special needs provision seems to bear that out:

85% of statements are issued outside the 26-week statutory limit. Statements are legally binding documents issued by the Education Authority (EA) detailing a child’s needs and setting out what specialist provision they require within the education system.

This a serious issue and one that I know from talking to parents at the school gate in deepest Tory England twenty years ago and from what has happened since nothing has been done to address.

In the hands of Twitter response to such insights becomes deadly, because Twitter (for journos) and Facebook (for citizens) peels away context and invites every individual to append their own.

The result is a deadening not just of debate but of democratic scope. Is this why the UK has not built any new airports since the end of WWII (its last great seeding and flowering of collective action).

Not of course that I am saying that it needs them, but this inaction applies to almost every form of infrastructure that can’t be achieved by the lythe action of the markets. But social thrust dissipates.

Those ‘little platoons’ beloved by Burke and heroised by communitarian Tories as, “the first link in the series by which we proceed to love our country, and to mankind” are unravelling.

On Facebook and Twitter our little platoons, as you will soon find out if we ask those whom we still believe think most closely to are no longer ‘Us‘, but a tumultuous, ever competing for its own turn, ‘I‘.

The paradox is that this increased frequency of ‘social’ interaction is also making us more lonely, whilst at the same time the chatter is crowding out the time we have to think by ourselves.

Cal Newport calls this ‘solitude deprivation’ which he further defines as “a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from inputs from, other minds”.

We see the effects of this not simply in politics but in shifting patterns of mental health amongst the younger generations for whom this always on and always connected paradigm is a natural environment.

At its extreme, social media creates a world that turns marketing into a technocratic decision tree, so that everything we do is mediated by a matrix in which none of us as individuals have any control.

Citizens Assemblies provide a respite from this techno-driven world by rehumanising the decision tree and vesting some power in a group which at least tries to represent the rest of the population.

But it comes at a cost. In the eyes of the electorate, political parties who bring in CAs may also be relinquishing their own political responsibility for building wider coalitions of interest.

What may follow is a hollowing out of representative democracy that leaves a political class stranded within a technocracy it can no longer explain to a polis that no longer understands what it is for.

It provides low hanging fruit for single-issue mobs but leaves those we elect to the government to make the decisions needed in a timely fashion (like right now during Covid) lacking in agency and authority.

There are no easy tricks to fill the gap between elected officials embedded within the technocratic class of the permanent government, and an electorate increasingly trapped by the tools of a technocratic age.

Learning to value the insight of living breathing individuals might be a start, followed by developing the ability to ask better questions and then finally learning to listen and respond to insightful answers.

None of which is likely to be found from endlessly trawling (or indeed trolling with questions you already know the answers to) the vast white noise of Twitter and Facebook.

Does that, as Carnegie argues in this Scottish case study, require a reframing of the relationship between government and communities. I am absolutely certain that it does.

But not, as Richard Wilson has argued, at the cost of swapping the role of the representative (with its mechanisms for recall and accountability) for a dangerously amorphous idea of the community itself.

“Will social computing make it easier or harder for human beings to know who we really are, to identify our real problems, to respond more fully to beauty, to place adequate value on life, and to make our world safer than it now is?”

John Kellden

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