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This Is Not A Democracy

Originally published on The Dig as part of the Transitional Democracy series here.

Aren’t we lucky, we’re constantly told, that we live in a democracy, a government by and of and for the people. Except our system of government is none of those things. It’s certainly not by the people, it’s barely of the people and we’ve surely gathered more than enough social and economic data to show it’s not for the people.

But how could it be otherwise when it’s based on elections, given that elections are incompatible with democracy. No, that wasn’t a typo: elections are incompatible with democracy. It might seem a surprising statement on its face, given we are raised to equate the two. But one need only scratch the surface of how electoral systems like ours actually work to see the truth of the claim.

What elections actually do is elevate elites to power — those with greater than ordinary wealth, influence, connections, education, charisma, celebrity, privilege… And rule by elites is in fact the antithesis of ‘Democracy’ which properly applies only to governments where power is exercised by the people, the vast majority of whom are ordinary. Electoral systems do not do this; they cannot do this.

The Westminster-based system we live under serves us very badly. Not only is it undemocratic, it is unresponsive to ordinary people, it is cruel and divisive, and yet virtually from the cradle we are taught that it is sacrosanct, an article of religious faith, untouchable, and that while we might tinker around its edges, there is and can be no better, more democratic system of government.

But this system is a cultural product like any other, something Māori know only too well, having had it imposed on them as if prior to the arrival of British colonists, this land were a kind of political terra nullius. It simply wasn’t so. It’s a point the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (the independent Māori working group on constitutional transformation) makes in setting out both a Māori critique of the current system, and proposals for a way forward.

As I read it, Matike Mai holds fast to the promise made in Te Tiriti of tino rangatiratanga for Maori, where Māori make decisions for Māori”, and offers up a “‘kāwanatanga sphere’ where the Crown will make decisions for its people” and a “relational sphere” “where the Tiriti relationship will operate.” The report adds that this latter sphere is “where a conciliatory and consensual democracy would be most needed.

It’s not surprising that Māori are better positioned than Pākehā to confront the illegitimacy of our current system of government and challenge the received Westminster wisdom, given Pākehā dominance among those very same elites that electoral systems invariably elevate. Pākehā in general also tend to have a much more ingrained belief in the superiority of this liberal democratic system over all others.

The authors of Matike Mai made clear their report “should be read as part of an ongoing dialogue into the future”, but went on to stress that for Māori, it’s not a new dialogue: “The kaupapa of constitutional transformation has been part of Māori political debate for over 170 years.”

In that spirit, and speaking to those kāwanatanga and relational spheres, this Pākehā wants democracy, true democracy, not the faux electoral kind. I want government of, by and for ordinary people. It’s not a new idea, and it turns out there’s an excellent functioning model of just the type of decision-making system we need hidden in plain sight, right in the middle of our faux democracy. We call it ‘trial by a jury of your peers’.

Juries are picked randomly, by ‘sortition’ not election, and so they’re genuinely representative of the non-elite majority. Judges monitor the presentation of evidence and testimony to ensure that juries receive only relevant, high quality information, and juries are allowed all the time they need to absorb that information and deliberate on it in the privacy of the jury room. When they’re ready, they issue a verdict that both the contesting parties and the court are obliged to respect. Add to this the fact that jurors are remunerated, allowing — in theory rather than practice, in New Zealand’s case — even the poorest members of society to do their civic duty without undue hardship.

Politics Without Politicians 

Jury trials are a genuine model of true democracy in action, and one that can just as easily be applied to the government sphere. There, it goes by a few different names, but the one I’ll use here is Sortitive Representative Democracy, or SRD for short. Under SRD, societies like ours would shift political power away from career politicians to randomly chosen political juries. As a recent article in The New Yorker put it, ‘Politics Without Politicians.’

It’s true SRD would be a radical change, which is why we’d want to adopt a gradualist approach, to adapt it to our own situation, to learn what works and what doesn’t and, based on that, cautiously extend the system. A good place to start might be with legislation. Let a democratic jury decide whether a piece of legislation passed by Parliament is or is not in the general interest. If it smacks of serving special interests, the jury would have the power to veto it, which would send it back to the legislature to be rewritten or set aside. If that model proved successful, then the purview of democratic juries could be extended to the implementation side of legislation. Once SRD earns the public’s confidence, it could eventually expand to encompass all the functions of government.

It can work, it has worked and there are examples of experiments like this springing up around the globe. (If you’re interested in those, or in more of the nitty gritty, check out some of the links below.)

But I wouldn’t stop with government. I’d like to see other institutions follow suit, particularly the news media. When journalists harp on about their importance in upholding, or safeguarding, or something, “democracy,” one can only nod in sad assent. We have an electoral system that is designed to keep ordinary people out of power, a system that can’t help but focus on adversarial party politics, on personalities, on the voices of those already at the top. The media does as it claims, upholding that status quo by narrowing the boundaries of debate around the same old elites, be they the candidates themselves or their backers. Electoral democracy and corporate media work hand in hand; neither can be reformed, both must be transformed.  

Just watch, just listen, over the remaining weeks of this election season. If you strip away enough of the symbolic veneer of electoral politics, it quickly becomes clear it’s not about democracy but about those who already have the power holding onto it. They’re not us. They’re not ordinary people. And this is not a democracy.

Further Reading: 

Take Part in the Transition 

ScoopCitizen is walking the walk on this participatory democracy through the Transitional Democracy series and our partnership with NextElection in the lead up to the 2020 election. To find out what we mean by Transitional Democracy, please read this introductory piece.

Sign up to ScoopCitizen now to comment and participate as we develop the conversation on Transitional Democracy in Aotearoa. 

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