An experience late last year—after I had completed this book—reinforced for me the idea that a shared perception that we need to “try something else” is not enough. As the following account will convey, we also need to intelligently manage our different understandings of what that “something else” might stand for.
On a mid-November evening, I attended what promised to be an interesting roundtable in Palácio Pombal, an old palace in my native Lisbon that now houses a young, vibrant cultural association. The event was named “What good are large demonstrations?” It brought together representatives of the four social movements responsible for organizing the largest street protests in Portugal since the years immediately following the 1974 democratic revolution. Contributing to my high expectations was the fact that one of the most insightful columnists in the Portuguese media had been invited to moderate the discussion.
I don't know what others took away from the event, but what struck me the most was how easy it is to lose sight of a common objective. In this room, there were, perhaps, 40 or 50 people, all of whom had a remarkable amount in common. They opposed the austerity program being imposed on the country. They agreed on the need for sustained protests to increase the pressure on the government. They opposed “sectarianism” and believed in the need for cooperation when organizing future protests. By any rational account, this should have been enough for them to build a shared agenda well into the foreseeable future. However, that was not what happened. Instead, they spent most of that evening attacking each other.
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What might explain that? Identity, the powerful psychological mechanism that came up several times in this book, certainly played a large role. Most of the participants were members of a variety of tightly-knit groups, each of them possessing a set of strong beliefs that made for equally strong identities. In a setting that made those identities salient, tensions easily flared up.
But let's try to see what might lie behind these antagonistic political identities. Why are these movements—most of which did not even exist five years ago—recreating the pathological dynamics typical of leftist parties throughout the twentieth century? The in-fighting, the propensity to splinter, the deep animosity that is almost impossible for an outsider to grasp—where do they come from?
I realized that these are the pathologies that inevitably afflict movements aiming at broader political change. If we sit down together to figure out what the world should look like (and there are no external constraints preventing disagreement from causing a group to splinter), we will end up with as many utopias as there are participants. And not just that: even if two of us happen to share the same utopia, we are still bound to disagree on the best path to take us there. Since we face not only a multitude of final destinations, but also so many different paths to get us to each of them, it's easy to see how clashes will erupt. That is what I witnessed that evening, and it did not bode well for any attempt at meaningful reform.
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So, have I succumbed to pessimism in the end? Not at all. My point in telling you this short tale is that we need to be aware of these pitfalls—and clever in the way we navigate around them. In particular, it is worth asking ourselves if there are there any practical lessons we can derive from this all-too-common story.
One possibility, I believe, would be for us to advocate a process for reforming our democracies rather than just a handful of specific solutions. Perhaps we could focus on launching a project that would enable society as a whole to intelligently decide how to reshape the political system—as opposed to hammering out the details ourselves and then trying to sell those ideas to the public. If done right, this approach could make it substantially easier for those who care deeply about these matters to act together. Collaboration would be possible as long as we agreed on the intrinsic soundness of that decision process.
Contrast this with the endless internal discussions that would ensue if a movement to reform our democracies had to decide on a concrete, detailed program to promote. How could we expect the members of this group to deal with the myriad options available to them when delineating the precise workings of their dream democracy? We'd soon be left with, at most, one or two people in the room—all the others having gone off to find (or launch) a political group that shared their exact vision of the future. Agreeing on utopias is tricky that way.
Such a strategy would have other advantages, too. We are all wary of others trying to sell us their own pet solutions. As Alain de Botton observed, in most domains, we'd much rather have ideas appear to be the result of common sense or collective wisdom than a gift bestowed upon us by an enlightened few. This means that those aiming to reform our democracies can probably do better than to go around preaching the virtues of the particular solution(s) they favor. Thus, it might be preferable to let the actual solutions emerge from a public process of some sort.
It will come as no surprise that I believe citizen deliberation to be perfectly suited for conducting such a process. In particular, holding a large citizens' assembly on how to reform our political institutions would allow us to identify which concrete solutions to enact in a way that both sidesteps political elites and mitigates the risks of decisions made with inadequate thought or reflection. The assembly's proposed solutions could then be presented to the electorate for approval in a referendum. The bulk of those who have an earnest desire to democratize our way of doing politics should be able to support such a plan, confident that the intrinsic merits of the proposals they personally favor would win them the support of the citizens' assembly.
The case for this strategy is bolstered by the fact that several citizens' assemblies have been convened precisely to decide on issues of political reform. In addition to the case of British Columbia, over the last decade, similar processes took place—with varying degrees of independence from the local political class—in Ontario, the Netherlands and Ireland. In all of these, the focus was strictly on electoral reform, but there is, of course, no reason to restrict the assembly's mandate in that way.