Until now we have
had such a low level of democracy, that it is about time we try something
— Jón Trausti Reynisson, editor-in-chief of the Icelandic daily Dagbladid & Visir, interviewed in 2011
In 2008, Iceland found itself in a dire situation. Its banking sector, which had been too eager to participate in the global debt folly and other forms of “financial innovation,” collapsed and threatened to force Iceland into national bankruptcy. Financial chaos ensued, and the country is, to this day, still recovering from the resulting economic crisis.
Over this period, Icelanders took to the streets and, eventually, the government fell. Along the way, however, something more curious happened. The protests did not culminate merely in the resignation of Prime Minister Geir Haarde and the scheduling of a new election (two achievements that, alone, would have constituted a surprising feat of political accountability in most “democratic” nations).
Instead, Icelanders started a process of deep political renewal. By taking a random sample representative of the whole population, a “national forum” was appointed in 2010. Its approximately 1000 members—all of them “ordinary Icelanders”—were tasked with identifying the values and principles that should guide a revision of the country's constitution. A council of 25 directly-elected citizens then took these ideas as a basis and put together a first draft for a new constitution. In late 2012, in what might have been a momentous step towards Icelanders regaining control of their country, these constitutional changes were approved by a large margin in a referendum.
In parallel, Icelandic civil society launched a number of initiatives. Well aware of the key role that watchful media organizations can play in avoiding the kind of systemic institutional failure that ultimately destroyed the country's economy, a group of citizens started the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). Interested in fostering fearless watchdog journalism, the IMMI campaigned for a strong legal framework protecting press freedoms. Other parts of Icelandic society joined efforts in projects such as the “Ministry of Ideas,” the goal of which was to provide an open platform for citizens to propose and discuss innovative ideas that could help the country climb its way back up.
However, this story serves as both a motivational and a cautionary tale. Since these developments, the Icelandic political class has succeeded in effectively killing the effort to change the constitution. Furthermore, and in yet another powerful testament to the hopelessness of electoral politics, a general election in 2013 brought back into power the same two parties whose policies had set the stage for the meltdown of the country's economy. Thus, any progress made in curbing the power of the political and economic elites looks likely to unravel.
Nevertheless, it remains true that Icelanders succeeded in doing something amazing: they launched an ambitious, wide-ranging national renewal project of some sort. And—as the often-rosy international media coverage of the Icelandic “revolution” has evidenced over these last few years—this is something many have long been thirsting for. Rather than demanding a simpler narrative, I would propose that we instead embrace the notion of an “Icelandic moment” in all its bittersweet richness. It conveniently encapsulates the hopes and perils inherent in any project of this nature.
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And this points the way to the most important battle ahead of us. The success of any effort to reform our democracies ultimately hinges on this delicate balance between dreams and (perceived) obstacles. Given the levels of public exasperation at—and hostility towards—politicians, unlike most campaigners, we do not need to concern ourselves with “raising public awareness” of these issues. The public already thinks that politicians don't truly represent its interests. Instead, what we need to focus on is managing the fears triggered by the thought of substantial political reform. More concretely, we need to combat the two different obstacles that pessimism puts in the way of democratic change.
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The first of these obstacles is the view that today's world, with all its “complexities” and “interconnectedness,” makes it impossible to implement ambitious reforms that would go against the interests of the political-economic elite that rules us. Stressing the complex web of “international obligations” and the ominous threat of markets “punishing” political measures they “disapprove” of, those defending the status quo will be sure to point out just how immutable reality is.
The misleading logic supporting this argument is easy to dispense with. A useful first step is to calibrate our sense of what is possible. History is filled with examples of ambitious political reform efforts succeeding in the face of opposition much harsher than the “international obligations” and wrathful markets mentioned above. Even in light of the increasingly militarized way in which the police have been responding to protests, in most of the West, the prospect of systematic state repression against nonviolent reformers remains distant—and we should not discount the significance of this fact. A short refresher course on European 20th-century history (or a glance at the world news) is enough to establish that as a reasonable gauge for measuring just how “impossible” political change might be.
So, if violence is not the means, how does the political establishment defend itself in mature democracies such as those in the West? By having its official and unofficial spokespersons (the latter often appearing in the media as political commentators or economic experts) cultivate this idea of the international economic and political system being “too complex” to allow change to successfully take place.
The first key thing to understand is that this (at least in its undeveloped and, by far, most common form) does not even amount to a proper argument. It is an example of circular reasoning: essentially, we are being told that “changing the system is impossible because the system is unchangeable.” It is more accurately described as an unsubstantiated expression of pessimism than as an argument for the difficulty of achieving change.
Second, we have to ask ourselves what it means to say that the world is “complex.” A complex system is made up of many different, highly interdependent components. This means that the operation of most individual components depends on the correct functioning of a number of other components. We see this every day in many small and big ways: for example, the arrival on our dinner table of even the most common food items is the outcome of a long process involving hundreds of individuals and organizations. In this sense, our world is, indeed, complex. 
But let us look a little more closely at this notion. A corollary of the complexity of a system is that the complicated feedback mechanisms tying together its multiple components make the overall behavior of the system very hard to predict. This is clearly at odds with the message of the “complexity pessimists,” who want us to believe that if established interests are challenged, our complex world will definitely react in a severe, punishing way. If anything, complexity implies the opposite—that we cannot reasonably expect to know how the system will react. Obviously, this is even truer in the case of social systems made up of humans and organizations.
Thus, complexity cannot be used to argue that a system is “unchangeable”—but it can be used to argue that we cannot know for sure how a change to one part of the system will affect the functioning of some of its other components. This is a valid concern that we will return to later.
We should also consider other ways in which our world and, in particular, our interconnected economies are commonly said to be “complex.” One of them is that markets “magically” succeed in coordinating and matching the production and consumption of an almost infinite number of products and services. It is certainly an awe-inspiring process, but its most important characteristic is not its “complexity”: instead, it is its robustness.
Network engineers will tell you that the Internet “routes around damage”—meaning that, if an important router goes down, Internet traffic that would have passed through it is automatically redirected to use a different path to reach its destination. In a similar way, our market economies exhibit a remarkable degree of adaptability in their behavior.  Take an extreme example. If—because of either general political uncertainty or the adoption of particularly strict regulations—some companies decide to stop operating in a given country, the relative scarcity of the products or services those companies used to provide will lead to an increase in their price until other companies that are well-positioned to provide those products or services enter that market because of the increased opportunity for profit. Because managers and entrepreneurs differ both in their judgment of situations and their appetite for risk-taking, what some regard as a less attractive business climate, others will invariably see as offering unexplored business opportunities. This is the very essence of how a market economy operates, and it makes the economy robust to any sort of political change.
This is not, of course, to say that an economy will be unaffected by an increase in the perceived cost of (or uncertainty associated with) conducting business there. Adjustments are likely to occur and, depending on the situation, the result might well be lower output or higher prices. However, this is a far cry from the apocalyptic scenarios described by complexity pessimists. In reality, the actual “mechanics” of a market economy—which these pessimists often claim to have an expert understanding of—ensure that the economy will adjust to the new political and regulatory environment. Those adjustments might, on occasion, entail losses of some sort: for example, as a result of more-stringent environmental regulation, a company might decide to close down its most polluting factory, thus leading to the loss of a number of jobs. What is important is for us to understand that, in a properly functioning democracy, any foreseeable economic adjustment of this sort is just one of the myriad of factors to be taken into account when balancing the pros and cons of a policy measure. It is not, as the complexity pessimists would have us believe, some sort of divine punishment for having dared to go against the “complex,” “unchangeable” status quo.
No one is claiming that there will be no difficult choices to be made once our political systems become more democratic. If anything, the opposite will be true. Empowering the citizenry will pierce the veil of deception that our political class has so often thrown over important issues. We will be forced to confront reality—which may come as a shock—and make decisions, fully aware of their true economic, social and environmental costs. While that will undoubtedly be hard, the good news is that the economy will always adapt to the choices we make. That is simply the way market economies work.
In sum, there is no “tension” between the exercise of political freedom and the (vitality of our) economy. Such a tension only appears to exist to a very small, but highly influential, group: those who believe that maximum economic output should be a nation's primary objective. For them, politics is a relatively simple affair: governing well is an issue of avoiding any decisions that would harm GDP growth. Unsurprisingly, one who embraces this view easily arrives at the conclusion that a tame, oligarchic “managed democracy” is preferable to a political system in which the popular will could conceivably get in the way of single-mindedly maximizing GDP growth. 
However, for anyone who does not subscribe to this radical vision, no such tension between democracy and the economy exists at all. The economy is not the enemy of—nor is it threatened by—our exercise of political freedom. Rather than magically floating in the apolitical vacuum contrived by the authors of economics textbooks, the economy exists and operates within the bounds that the laws of physics, social norms (customs) and state regulation impose on it. And it adapts accordingly.
However, there is one way in which the global economy can get in the way of democratic reform within a nation or seriously impede the functioning of a more democratic government. That is through dependence on international capital markets. As of 2014, it should be evident to anyone who is aware of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the US congressional gridlock over the federal debt ceiling just how constraining the dependence on capital markets can be. National governments that rely on international creditors to finance their day-to-day operations are in an extremely fragile position. When, by joining a monetary union like the Euro or through self-imposed legal or constitutional constraints on their central banks, these countries tie their own hands and make debt monetization totally off-limits, they are effectively at the mercy of private creditors.
This is a constraint that cannot be “reasoned away,” for it is real. In most countries, our irresponsible ruling class has created this situation, which, if left unchecked, will have our countries servicing huge public debts into perpetuity, to the benefit of bankers and their friends. The result is that we are all shackled to the international financial markets. There are various routes to a more democratic future, but they all involve eventually ending—or at least vastly reducing—this dependence. Different countries will take different paths: some will use budget surpluses to pay back their debts, while others will renege on at least some of their debt.  Whichever path we choose, it is important that, once we have achieved independence from international credit markets, we preserve that independence through (cyclically) balanced public budgets, “safe” use of public debt (for example, issuing debt primarily to domestic creditors and to finance specific public projects, as opposed to using it to finance the day-to-day operations of the state), and retaining the option of having the central bank monetize deficits under clear, well-defined circumstances. 
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When talking to those who view the chances of reform as virtually nil, it is worth pointing out how mutually reinforcing the different forms of democratic empowerment suggested in this book would be.
If, for example, we succeed in adopting a better electoral system, then this would make it easier to elect politicians who would support citizen deliberation as a way to further democratize governance. Using a ranked voting system would ensure that a minority party campaigning purely on issues of political reform would have a chance of receiving substantial support since voters would not need to engage in tactical voting, for fear that the “wrong” mainstream party might get elected should they cast a vote for that minority party.
Similarly, a successful campaign to raise awareness that our “international commitments” are not set in stone but, rather, are something that a nation's citizens can collectively decide to review would make clear that social, economic and political reality is fundamentally in our hands and that we stand to benefit greatly from regaining control of our own domestic political systems. The resulting feeling of being in control would foster further citizen empowerment through greater use of citizen deliberation and/or improvements in political representation.
Finally, the adoption of citizen deliberation would obviously open the door for us to further regain control of the political system. Citizen panels could directly address the question of how to reform our electoral system and allow for serious reflection on the extent to which our participation in supranational institutions might be costing us our sovereignty.
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A different form of pessimism—let's call it “people pessimism”—lies behind the second, and probably more dangerous, enemy to the ideas presented in this book. It does not involve the “complex world” thinking described above. Rather, it is the far more insidious view that democratic change is undesirable because people are stupid and/or untrustworthy. Fighting this kind of thinking will be more difficult, for it hinges not on a negative view of how the world works (which can, to a reasonable extent, be meaningfully debated and disproved) but, instead, on life-long, deeply held and somewhat murky beliefs about “human nature” and whether or not “people are just stupid.” Indeed, defenders of the status quo will view proposals for change as dangerous because, in their eyes, anyone crazy enough to advocate more-participatory forms of democracy is necessarily overestimating the abilities and/or intrinsic goodness of people.
We should start by noting that any project to effectively return power to citizens will face this kind of criticism, but it will be especially felt when advocating citizen deliberation. Many will feel scared by the idea that “ordinary people” will be empowered and actively involved in making political decisions. Are they smart and educated enough? And, perhaps more importantly, are they to be trusted? Unfortunately, many people, upon first hearing of these ideas, will answer at least one of these two questions in the negative. So, how can we best deal with these concerns?
A good first step is to acknowledge that such skepticism is totally understandable. In fact, it would be surprising if even a single proponent of more-participatory forms of democracy had never, in a moment of doubt, asked whether “the populace” should really be trusted with political power. Many elements in our culture invite negative views of “the average person on the street.” Both our economic and biological models assume that humans are guided by the pursuit of a narrowly defined self-interest.  Given the prominence—in our societies, in our academic institutions and in our media—of economic thought and biological accounts of behavior, these end up playing an important role in disseminating and promoting this view of human beings. This dire image is compounded by the media's love affair with crime and other forms of abusive or gruesome behavior, which succeeds in terrifying and inspiring distrust in a significant number of us. It is a “dog-eat-dog” world out there, we are constantly reminded.
That is why we should always be careful not to judge those who have let themselves be swayed by this mosaic of gloomy views about humanity. Doing so will only further alienate them. Instead, we should focus on exploring two general, closely related questions. First, what, exactly, leads so many people to believe that elected politicians are better champions of the public interest than ordinary citizens? Second, what can help explain the prevalence of this dismal view of humankind, which makes us think so poorly of the strangers with whom we cross paths every day? By noticing and understanding the biases that lie at the root of these views, we stand a chance of realizing just how skewed these perceptions are.
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Perhaps the most frequent argument justifying our reliance on an elected political class is that, compared to the average person on the street, professional politicians supposedly have superior decision-making skills. In short, they are smarter and more educated than most of us.
This might seem true at first glance, but we should take a moment to reflect on the factors that get in the way of us forming an accurate judgment of our elected leaders' “true” abilities. On what kinds of occasions (or in what settings) does the general public get to see them? Are we ever witness to their decision-making process? And what might color our perceptions of how competent, smart and knowledgeable they really are?
The defining characteristic of the modern politician is her (and her advisors') expertise in managing her public persona. This is not surprising. After all, why do politicians get elected in the first place? It is precisely by virtue of their ability to leave a positive impression on the general public. They are skilled public speakers, trained in the art of projecting an air of confidence and expertise during their public appearances. Many of the more-senior politicians also benefit from small armies of PR consultants and other “spin doctors” when meeting the media. So, when watching them on TV, we should remember that we are witnessing seasoned performers delivering a carefully staged performance that has a single goal: to convince us of their unquestionable competence for political duty.
In other words, the very system we use to select politicians is designed to hand the power to those who most successfully give the impression of being competent. For that reason, we should not be surprised when they deliver convincing performances. And, just as importantly, neither should we mistake those performances for evidence of actual competence.
Even when a politician displays true expertise about a topic, we still should be skeptical. Suppose that you are watching a politician being interviewed about an important current event. She evidently knows what she is talking about, and that prompts us to unconsciously make two unwarranted inferences.
First, we will tend to take that display of competence as indicative of her background expertise on that topic. We forget that, on most occasions, politicians are—just like the rest of us—quite ignorant about the substantive issues involved in any policy topic until they have (i) studied them and (ii) been extensively briefed by their assistants (and probably a few corporate lobbyists) about it. The fact that they discuss matters publicly only after that sort of preparation creates the illusion that they are astoundingly well-rounded, knowledgeable individuals.
Second, the positive impression caused by a politician's public display of expertise on a particular topic leads us to—often unconsciously—assume that she would have proved equally knowledgeable about other major policy topics if only the journalist had decided to quiz her on them instead. (This would be an instance of what psychologists call the “halo effect”: making a positive judgment about someone predisposes us towards making other positive judgments about that person.)
The result is that we end up vastly overestimating how knowledgeable politicians are. And, perhaps even more perversely, we mistakenly learn to think of expertise in general policy matters as an almost “intrinsic” trait of politicians—that is, as something that they already possessed and brought to the job, rather than as something they acquired on the job. We take all of this as yet more evidence that they are somehow fundamentally better equipped for political duty than the rest of us.
It is also worth reflecting on just how “safe” most public appearances are for politicians. One of the central myths of our democracies is that a free press and competition among political parties ensure vigorous, adversarial oversight of those in power. The reality is that, in this day and age, politicians enjoy a remarkable level of control over their public appearances, including events such as press conferences at which they appear to be fielding questions “off the cuff.” In fact, many such question and answer sessions are scripted, allowing politicians and their staff ample time to carefully rehearse them. Even when they are not scripted, the questions or challenges presented by opposition politicians or journalists are easy to predict, so adequate replies can be prepared beforehand, thus minimizing the chances of being caught off guard. If things become uncomfortable, non-answers—from the vanilla “I am not going to comment on that” to more sophisticated displays of logical/semantic play—are widely accepted and rarely challenged. With rare exceptions, neither opposition politicians nor journalists wish to be seen as “obnoxious” and, thus, choose to abide by the gentlemanly rules of the game. (After all, if they don't comply, their invitation to the next such event may be in jeopardy.) The result is mostly tame, ritualistic exchanges in which the public is served a mere illusion of democratic scrutiny, but which, in reality, present no threat to the public image of those in power.
And, although we like to think ourselves immune to such primitive forms of manipulation, our political institutions and the social norms surrounding the world of politics are rife with status cues that promote the view that our politicians are somehow above the rest of the citizenry. After all, these are people who work in the regal buildings that house our political institutions. They can be seen wearing expensive suits and riding in chauffeured cars. Some of them are so important that police or security guards are assigned to shield them from any unwanted interaction with members of the general public. Journalists—who many of us think of as “stand-ins” for us in the halls of power—are often seen addressing elected officials deferentially. Even their mere titles evoke an almost medieval sense of respect: prime minister, president, secretary of state, chancellor. All of this reinforces the common notion that the political class somehow levitates above our humble heads.
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Taken together, these different factors make it likely that the public perception of the political class will have a strong positive bias: we will tend to think of politicians more positively than they deserve.  An additional factor reinforcing this effect is a well-established finding in the field of cognitive psychology: people have an unconscious tendency to believe that the hierarchy in our society is ultimately justified. When people do well, most of us are inclined to look at them in a positive light and see them as deserving of what they got.  Psychologists have studied this bias for over 40 years and call it the “just-world phenomenon.” Given the high status that the political class has traditionally enjoyed in our society, this idea suggests that the judgments we make of our leaders' abilities and competence levels will be more positive than is warranted by the information generally available to the public—which, as argued above, is already heavily skewed in their favor.
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But if, even in light of all this, we still believe that relying exclusively on professional politicians allows for better public decision-making due to their supposed above-average intelligence and education, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question.
Assume for a moment that professional politicians were indeed vastly smarter and more knowledgeable than the average citizen. Does that necessarily make them the right people to govern us?
History provides us with countless examples of highly skilled individuals in positions of power who, in spite of their intelligence and political experience, made terrible decisions. Strangely, we seem to have some difficulty absorbing this lesson. Most of us still place intelligence and expertise high on the list of essential traits when choosing whom to entrust with political power.
Perhaps the time has come for us to reconsider our notion of political competence, so that rather than basing our judgments strictly on notions such as intellectual finesse, leadership skills, etc., we also begin to recognize reasonableness and public-spiritedness as essential political virtues. If we reframe our picture of the true requirements for successful policy-making in this way, then any preconceived notion regarding the obvious superiority of professional politicians should begin to melt away.
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Now, let's examine the exceedingly negative view so many of us have of our fellow citizens. Where does it come from and what might explain it? Understanding this is helpful because it will make it easier to assuage concerns about the participation of ordinary citizens in politics.
Consider the origin of our mental image of “the person on the street.” For the vast majority of us, our view of what is on the minds of people outside our immediate social circle is based largely on how the media portrays them. In particular, the expression “the average person” will often conjure unpleasant memories of ten-second clips of street interviews shown on prime-time TV news shows, often featuring irate—and, just as frequently, utterly inarticulate—“average” people.
Watching these, we should remember the purpose underlying the selection and editing of the particular clips that get aired. TV news—like much of the media in general—thrives on conflict, colorful displays of emotion and extreme views. Perhaps more crucially, consider the hothead who is assailed on the street by a TV crew and promised a brief appearance on that evening's newscast. Under these unusual and tense circumstances, he is much more likely to spew some unconsidered opinions than if he were participating in a citizen panel deliberating on the same issue over the course of multiple days. It is the same distinction that VS Naipaul made in an interview when asked to reflect on the nature of a writer's work:
There are two ways of talking. One is the easy way, where you talk lightly, and the other one is the considered way. The considered way is what I have put my name to. I wouldn't put my name to the easy thoughts, because you can often have outrageous views, passionate views, and that's the source of your thoughts, eventually. But when they occur, they are very rough and brutal. And so a lot of writers' time is spent in working out or refining coarse thought.
We can also formulate this using the terminology popularized in Daniel Kahneman's recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. According to this framework, we essentially have two different decision-making systems. The first (“system 1”) is fast and intuitive, while the second (“system 2”) is slower and more logical. Nearly all of our exposure to the political thoughts and preferences of other ordinary citizens is based exclusively on the output of their “system 1.” Citizen deliberation, on the other hand, is all about capturing the output of their “system 2” through collaborative analysis and reflection.
Perhaps more intuitively, we all know from our own experience that context plays a huge role in shaping our behavior. Different settings provide us with different behavioral cues and we might, as a result, act in almost unrecognizable ways. I am not the same person at the pub Friday night than I am at a work meeting early Monday morning. Similarly, everything about interacting with the media prompts attitudes and behaviors that are at the opposite extreme of those elicited by a well-structured citizen deliberation process. This means that whatever we learn by watching ordinary citizens in the first setting (appearing on the media and making unconsidered remarks) is a poor indication of how the same people would behave in the second (engaging in actual political decision-making in a deliberative setting).
The same thought applies to any concern one might feel regarding the casual, off-the-cuff comments made by friends or acquaintances as they scan the headlines of a tabloid or after having watched the news on TV. Like other potent psychoactive substances, most of the media is meant to arouse strong immediate emotions in its consumers. Therefore, we should not be surprised when people react to news coverage by adopting rather extreme attitudes, and we should not mistake these attitudes for the contributions those same individuals could make in a deliberative setting. Both in the case of those appearing in the media and of those consuming it, less-than-thoughtful attitudes are better understood as a consequence of our current political regime—in which citizens' political expression is generally reduced to such powerless rants, on- or off-screen—than as indication of the true political potential of ordinary citizens. 
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Another common concern is whether ordinary citizens can be trusted with power. Obviously, we will always need constitutional checks on political institutions. But any specific concerns on this front can usually be dealt with by confronting doubters with a simple question: who do you think is more honest—the average career politician or the average citizen?
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The fact that panels of randomly chosen citizens already play a crucial role in a vast number of countries should also ease our concerns. Trial by jury is commonly used for the most serious criminal offenses, most notably in countries such as the US and the UK. People in these countries do not generally find it problematic that, should they be charged with a serious crime, a randomly chosen sample of their fellow citizens will determine their guilt or innocence. So, if groups of ordinary citizens are deemed competent and trustworthy enough for decisions that can affect human lives in such a drastic way, why should we not trust them with similarly important functions in the legislative and executive branches?
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Let's step back for a moment and try to understand what these two main obstacles to democratic reform have in common. One way to think about them is to observe that they are both expressions of the same sentiment: fear in face of uncertainty. In the first case, we are dealing with the fear of not knowing how the world would react if we embraced a more democratic form of doing politics. In the second, it is the fear of not knowing what would happen if we had ordinary citizens involved in policy-making.
These are understandable concerns. Fear of the unknown is something that plagues all of us. One way to assuage these concerns is to think about how much—and what kind of—certainty our current regime ensures us. There is plenty of certainty, but it is the wrong kind: it is the near-certainty of continuing down our current path. It is the certainty that politicians will continue to make decisions that fly in the face of the public interest and place all of us at risk through a combination of economic instability (under a false promise of continued growth), environmental irresponsibility, and the looming populist threat (already manifested in the most recent Greek, Italian and British elections) attributable to the growing alienation of large parts of the citizenry.
Faced with this choice, it is blindly following our current course that seems foolhardy. Remember that all advocates of the establishment who belittle the prospect of meaningful democratic reform must answer for the economic, environmental and political situation we find ourselves in. In other words, the onus is on the apologists of mainstream politics.
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I want to emphasize that none of the central ideas in this book is novel. Citizen deliberation, electoral reform and abrogative referendums have all been put into practice in several parts of the world. So we know that, as individual building blocks for democratic reform, they constitute sane and safe choices.
In fact, a few might even fault these proposals precisely for not having a track record of, just by themselves, immediately bringing about radical change. But, in most people's eyes, practical and safe reforms are to be lauded since caution is obviously warranted, and their demonstrated “safety” is sure to help when campaigning for their adoption. This does not mean, however, that these reforms would fail to bring about a radically more democratic future.
Why? Because, so far, they have been tried only in isolation and always in the context of traditional representative democracies, where an established political class remained safely at the helm. It is only through the combination of several of these measures—through a concerted attempt at meaningful reform—that we truly stand a chance of gaining control over politicians and the interests they represent.
Perhaps even more importantly, citizens will also need time to adapt and learn how to use these new democratic tools. Improving our democratic institutions certainly is a step in the right direction, but it is only through what Nobel laureate Amartya Sen called the “effective practice” of democracy that real change will occur. Therefore, we shouldn't expect to feel the full effect of these reforms overnight.
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Still on the topic of change, it is also worth reflecting on how different our political and business cultures are. We live in what is essentially a global political monoculture. Deviations from the mainstream way of doing things are nearly impossible by virtue of our governance mechanisms. We are taught that this sameness equates “political stability” and that it is even something positive.
When it comes to the business world, though, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation is commonly hailed as the cornerstone of economic growth. It is from that diversity of approaches that great solutions eventually emerge. This plurality is the path to prosperity, we are told.
Given the failure of our political institutions on a level that is, by now, nearly universally recognized, the argument for reasoned and well-informed democratic experimentalism is an easy one. The monoculture we have been relying on is dying. The time has come for us to try something else.
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No matter how we do it, though, it will take time and effort to define exactly how our improved political institutions should look. In particular, we will have to design deliberative institutions in a way that will reliably bring out the best thinking in citizens. Fortunately, we know from experience that this can be done, as the examples of British Columbia and Oregon attest. It is only by ignoring these success stories that this task might seem impossible.
Provided that we succeed in fighting pessimism, change—the kind that really matters, not the kind invariably promised by politicians on the campaign trail—is within our grasp. I hope that this book has inspired you to want to know more and to participate in this process. One way to begin is to join us on http://rebootdemocracy.org. It is a simple website with a simple purpose: to serve as a meeting point for all those who want to take part in building a more democratic future. See you there.
31. ^ For an illustration, see the chapter in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in which Alain de Botton shadows a tuna from the Indic Ocean to a British supermarket.
32. ^ The obvious, pathological exception is the financial sector. Then again, this shouldn't be surprising: the way it currently operates—as well as the purposes it serves—has very little to do with the real economy.
33. ^ “Managed democracy” was the term coined by political scientist Sheldon Wolin to describe regimes that are formally democratic but where the ruling elite has learned how to perfectly manage, to its own advantage, the political and (especially) electoral processes. Thus, those in power—and the interests they represent—are able to continue implementing their favored policies, effectively unimpeded by democratic constraints. A closely related notion can be found in Colin Crouch's discussion of a post-democratic society.
34. ^ Unlike what some market fundamentalists would like us to believe, the latter does not ensure that a nation will be teleported back to the Stone Age.
35. ^ It is worth pointing out that a “balanced public budget” is, at its root, not far from being a politically neutral term. It merely means that public revenue should match public spending over the same time period. In common debate, however, this term has been appropriated by those who mostly argue for the need for severe cuts in public spending. It is helpful to remember that the move towards a balanced budget can also be made through increases in public revenue—e.g., through more-aggressive taxation of corporate profits and financial trading operations, both of which currently benefit from sophisticated tax-avoidance schemes.
36. ^ To be more precise, in the case of biology, behavior is understood as maximizing the dissemination of one's genes. Regardless of whether or not this constitutes a form of “self-interest,” the resulting picture is equally dismal.
37. ^ Which, in itself, says a lot when you remember how poorly we tend to think of politicians in the first place. The positive bias discussed here implies that, in reality, they are even worse.
38. ^ Obviously, we can all name exceptions. Still, those exceptions bother us—and are, therefore, memorable—precisely because they violate our general expectation that, with a few bumps here and there, most people will get the outcomes that they justly deserve.
39. ^ Carne Ross explores this idea in greater depth in his book The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.