It seems to be taken for granted that Egypt’s next step in forming a people’s government is to form parties and hold elections. Deep inside me something unexpectedly recoils at the idea of forming parties and something even deeper begins to question whether elections are the most effective strategy for creating a democratic government that is truly accountable to the will, needs and interests of the people governed. The powerfully dignified, powerfully moving revolution of the Egyptian people confounded the world and caught all the diplomatic and political experts off guard. The Egyptians needed no party, no leadership, to state their complaints with eloquence, to state their demands with clarity and determination.
They didn’t gather in unity over any political ideals or any vision of a new constitution or a new democracy. They gathered in unity that the conditions of their daily lives were intolerable: educated people working two or three menial jobs for a pittance and spending 80% of their meager incomes on food. The world answers “well done, you’ve toppled that greedy Mubarak, now to get what you want, copy us, form a new government like ours..start by forming parties and holding an election” We democracies of the western world have done it that way in the past 300 years. But is our model of parties and elections even right for us in a modern world.
ARE POLITICAL PARTIES NECESSARY IN MODERN DEMOCRACIES?
Keith Sutherland argues persuasively that simple two party systems are incapable of reflecting the fragmentation, diversity and pluralism of modern society. In response to the concurrent voter apathy and confusion, the distinctions between parties has blurred as each rushes to claim ground in the center . A People’s Parliament by Keith Sutherlandhttp://www.imprint.co.uk/books/9781845401085.html. What Sutherland calls the “hollowing out” of politics is apparent in the performance of the American legislative system in the past decade, and especially in the past three years. The battle for party power and control has overshadowed consideration of the conditions and challenges of the American people. The stated singular priority of the new Republican majority is to regain the presidency in 2012. In America among the 40% of the electorate who vote, those who share the values of Green Party and Independent candidates are afraid that a vote for these candidates is a vote for the opposition. Forming more parties may not be the only answer or even the best answer for us. Creating parties may not be a good idea for the Egyptians.
ARE ELECTIONS THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY OF CREATING A TRUY REPRESENTATIVE BODY?
We take it for granted that “free and fair” elections are the hallmark, the core, of any democracy. At first blush it may sound extremist and radical to even seriously consider a democracy without elections. But there are compelling alternatives which may provide more effective representation of a pluralistic and diverse modern society. The sages have said from ancient of days “there can be no unity without diversity”. The more accurately the legislative body reflects and contains this diversity, the more likely its focus and its deliberations will legislate to the “common ground”, to the unity of the core, fundamental values that express any people as a nation. Modern wise man, Tom Atlee, writes and speaks with the fluency of truth about the wisdom and insight that emerges when a deliberative body contains the diversity of the whole .”If Egypt’s 21st century revolutionaries want their revolution to turn the world, they will make this supposed weakness — their inclusive diversity — into the greatest strength of their emergent democracy. They will cherish, develop and institutionalize their cross-section diversity AS a political platform AND AS the principle underlying their new forms of democratic leadership.. (http://tom-atlee.posterous.com/will-egypt-revolutionize-democracy-itself) .
A True Citizens Legislature: An Alternative To Elections
Clearly any modern large scale democracy requires that individual citizens transfer their voting rights to a surrogate body who will deliberate on their behalf and create laws for their benefit and protection. Direct participation on every issue just isn’t feasible. After deliberating with wisdom and knowledge, our founding fathers, at that moment in time, decided that elections were the best method of creating that surrogate body..the body to stand in the stead of all Americans when deliberating and enacting laws.
But is it necessary that this surrogate body be an elected body ? Many serious thinkers and historians are
looking to the merits of a “draft legislature” similar to what was once used to draft for the armed forces and is still used for jury selection. Also called “sortition”, It hasn’t been tried as a method of transfer of rights to the surrogate body since Solon created the first democratic government in 600BC. His version of the legislative body. The”Council of 400″ , was drawn by lot, 100 members each from the four Greek states The function of the “Council of the 400” was to vet all laws before they were submitted for popular vote ( Solon wrote the constitution and all the laws..I gather.) Without promoting Solon’s government design as a model, many voices, including Atlee’s and Sutherlands, are suggesting we consider “sortition” over elections via parties” for the creation of new democracies and the correction of our own. ( Keith Sutherland’s “the Citizen’s Parliament(http://www.imprint.co.uk/books/9781845401085.html ,Atlee OP cit,iSolorn.org ).
I for one hope to see a broader discussion of how a Citizen’s Legsilature would work. I am attracted to Sololn’s model: vetting for a separate law making body, vetting both what issues and problems laws will address and vetting the laws produced. This is vaguely similar to what Keith Sutherland proposes in The Citizen’s Parliament ( op cit, see above) Such a system might create sufficient transparency to break the stranglehold of interest groups and private interests. .
A Citizen’s Legsilature might refocus and redirect all the time, energy and resources drained from the citizenry by our national party elections process. Pre-draft caucuses on issues might evolve a time of collective reflection at the local level on how existing laws are working and on any critical gas in our legal framework. The entire electorate might become available for Co-Intelligence as Tom Atlee would say. Those drafted would go to take their place in the legislature informed by this pre-draft deliberative process at the local level.
Are The Checks And Balances of Our System Adequate Protection Against The Tyranny of Plutonomy
The most compelling reason to re-evaluate the viability of the American model of democracy is its apparent inability to resist control and manipulation by the plutonomy. In America the top 1 % of the population owns and controls 40% of the wealth..more than the entire amount owned by the bottom 95% of the population.. That 1%, not elected or appointed by anyone, have more access to our elected officials than we do and have greater influence in shaping the policies that create the laws of our surrogate body. That is essentially what constitutes a plutonomy. And plutonomy is not nation based. It is global. To thrive it requires the tolerance of the electorate..the populace and “freindly” governments. The tolerance of the elctrorate exists as long as the electorate believes in the possibility of upward mobility and even wealth. In America, the UK and Canada that tolerance for plutonomic tyranny also makes it possiblefor a facilitating legal structure to emerge , as it has here in the U.S. There is much reason to question whether the checks and balances the founding fathers built into our own system of government are an adequate protection against the further diminishment of the many by the very few. Whether it is even possible using only the existing framework of our own American democracy to take control back from the plutonomy. We have our our first ammendment rights.. a principal intended check.. but public opinion seems to be no longer effective in realizing a governance in the public interest. There is a sense that it would take something as dramatic as the demonstrations in Egypt to force a meaningful dismantling of the elaborate web of protections and supports for the plutonomy ..to make credit and loans flow again..to get hundreds of thousands out from under the tyranny of usurious mortaages and credit cards. A sense that we may have still have a right to speak but no one who govrens is listening.
In framing our government, the system of checks and balances only addressed the usurpation of power and control amongst the governing, an internal tyranny. It didn’t imagine and hasn’t been effective for the past fifteen years in providing checks and balances against control of the governing and the governed by external private tyrannies..the 1% of who own and control 40% of America’s wealth.
The conditions at the heart of the complaint of the Egyptian people who flooded that square before the world aren’t just a product of the corrupt Mubarak government. These conditions are the extreme of conditions manifesting throughout the world and here in America as more and more wealth, power and control are focused in the hands of fewer and fewer people. They are the extreme result of the global plutonomy. The condition of the Egyptians—a well educated population who believed in the possibility of a better life and who are living in poverty, working two or three menial jobs for a pittance and spending 80% of their income for food –is the condition with power enough not just to topple a Mubarak but to launch a global backlash capable of breaking the plutonomy.
This is acknowledged in the brilliantly insightful September 2005 Citibank memo to top investors made famous by Michael Moore. “ societies allow plutonomy,…because enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant. Why kill it off, if you can join it? In a sense this is the embodiment of the ’American dream’. But if voters feel they cannot participate, they are more likely to divide up the wealth pie, rather than aspire to being truly rich. Could the plutonomies die because the dream is dead, because enough of societ
y does not believe they can participate? The answer is of course yes (http://www.scribd.com/doc/6674234/Citigroup-Oct-16-2005-Plutonomy-Report-Part-1 )
The power of social backlash inherent in the witness of the Egyptian people, the power in the realization of what is going on can and will break the grip of the global plutonomy. But only if we also can undo the supports for plutonomy already in place in democratic governments around the world and build systems which are more effective in repelling attempted intrusion in the future. Given what has happened in America in the past 13 years it seems very questionable that our existing framework contains all the tools we need to excise our existing supports for the plutonomy in our own framework of laws and policies..
Again the very clearly written and insightful analysis in the Citibank memo (op cit above) posits the essential role of governments in sustaining and facilitating the plutonomy. “..key tenets for the creation of plutonomy…( are). capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes, globalization that re-arranges global supply chains with mobile well-capitalized elites and immigrants, .. the rule of law, and patent protection.” In other words, they need the support and cooperation of goverments world wide to have a vibrant plutonomy. Things like bank regulations that prohibit speculation, usury and misrepresentation, environmental protections, worker rights statutes, immigration laws, child labor laws are all impediments to the plutonomy. The plutonomy needs government partners who are willing to undo or non enforce these restrictions on free commerce, governments who are willing to not enact such restrictions.
Is there any question that the party process and the elections process are a large and fertile growing field for the deeply penetrating roots of plutonomy? How many of of our elected officials turn up to serve day one completely free of prior obligations to the plutonomy.?
In America our democracy has allowed , and is still suffering the consequences of, a series of laws and” reforms” that are a utopia for the plutonomy. The arguments leading up to repeal of Glass-Stegall and financial deregulation at the end of Clinton’s term in office were advanced on the arguement that they were necessary to allowing American companies to compete more effectively in the global economy. At least that’s what I heard as a member of the New York State Banking Board from 1986 to 1997 .Over that entire period the banking members of the board, all CEO’s of major American banks, at the Board table with me more than anything wanted a repeal of Glass Stegall…It came up at every single meeting one way or another. In the last 5 years of my term they were itching to get into the derivatives market and already were through book keeping methods that were referred to reassuringly by.each of the superintendents of banking during my term.
Perhaps Egypt can build a new democracy that has more effective checks and balances against outside private interests. Pausing now as a world community of seriously flawed democracies to provide moral support to Egypt maybe we can learn something for ourselves that may restore the balance of power in our own governments. Perhaps not if we just cling without review to the notion that parties and elections are a first and necessary part of forming a new democracy. In other words I am asking whether parties, even multiple parties, and a system of party based elections is inherently vulnerable to usurpation and control by private welathy interests?
Sortition Not A Magic Shield:Preserving Connection to the People
The many insightful thinkers who are looking to the role of “sortition” both in building new democracies and healing broken ones have all acknowledged or confronted one way or another that bodies appointed at random are no less vulnerable than elected bodies to a kind of broken communication with the populace that ocurrs in the process of transfer of rights to the surrogate.body. There is a missing piece, preventing that gulf from ocurring, Iin our democracy that will not be cured simply by using sortition instead of election via parties. Egypt has a chance to build that missing piece in from the beginning and perhaps we have an opportunity to add it to our broken democracy to improve the performance of the existing framework of party election based democracies.
That “sortition” is not immune from this gulf between itself and the populace. is apparent in the Canadian experience with Citizen Assemblies created by draft to accomplish election reform.. Their recommendations became a direct citizens referendum requiring a 60% approval to pass. .P Snider..Isolon President and clear thinker addresses that in some detail in his working paper…. (iSolon.org If Men Were Angels…. Should the Checks & Balances System Include Electoral Reform Juries?* By J.H. Snider, President iSolon.org September 5, 2009)). The Canadian experience with sorition in modern democracy suggests that the process of deliberation itself , the deep immersion in an issue, in and of itself creates a gulf between direct participants in that process and those who were not participants. Tom Atlee says lots every day on the wisdom that can and does emerge through what he calls co-intelligence..a good faith deliberation in the service of others where each voice is heard and valued respectfully. (http://www.co-intelligence.org). Deeply focused collective attention to any facet of community life, or spirtutal life for that matter leaves us in a different place.
We have all experienced that..Those of us committed to public service, to truth, equality and justice. Unless we have brought others in our lives along during the process of our deliberations through our blog, our facebooks, our conversations “outside the circle’, it isn’t all that easy to reconnect with the big circle. We often seem to be speaking about strange ideas in a strange language that is difficult for people to readily connect with.
Speaking only for myself, and with some remorse,now tha tI live on an island and am not earning my living as an advocate, I must say I often find a I prefer the company and support of those who have been part of the deliberative processes I choose to undertake. The Canadian Assembly experience speaks to a truth that must be addressed in any effort to build a new modern democracy or to fix our broken ones. The focused attention necessary to legislate wisely and as sparingly as possible requires an investment of intellectual and spiritual energy that most people can’t carve out of their daily lives. There’s no way around the transfer of rights to a surrgoate body. But the longer and deeper the deliberation the harder it may be to cross the gulf and reconnect with the people whose interests and needs were addressed in the deliberation..
So working towards this presence in the ground of my being that reacted intuitively to the premise that parties and elections are necessary to a vibrant democracy , I have to say what speaks feels more and more true.. neither elections nor parties guarantee a healthy vibrant truly representative democracy..There is a growing conviction that there needs to be a better ongoing connection to the public.. a way for the public to initiate and force a national vote on any referendum.. a way to require the surrogate body to deliberate and report out on such a referendum in a timely fashion.. a way to take the vote back via public referendum , a way to stay connected to the public served throughout the process.
As a life long public administrator witnessing to, particpating in, and dealing with the results of our American legislative process for more than three decades I have come to believe that any need for regulation or law is a failure in the community of the governed to conduct its private affairs with due regard for the saftey and well being of the whole. The better the governed govern themselves the smaller the need for government. The logical extension of that is that is that the more opportuniy the governed have to deleberate on what restrictions, limitation and supports are truly needed, the leaner and more effective government would be.
Tholerus & Palme have proposedhave an insightful discussion of keeping the citizenry in the deliberative loop and propose a system for doing just that, “electronic democracy”. http://people.dsv.su.se/~jpalme/society/representant/the-representant-system.html By Torgny Tholerus and Jacob Palme May 2003, Revised December 2005 )
The idea that is most intriguing to me in the Tholerus/Palme discussion is that we need a mechanism to take our vote back on issues we feel strongly about ( through the electronic democracy ) and have a citizens’ referendum..
I think there also needs to be greater opportuniy for citizens to be part of the legislative process.. The Canadian Assemblies show us that referenda may not be well received or well understood unless the elctorate has somehow been kept in the loop. I have been advocating “legbook” , a sort of legislative Facebook, a way for any citizen to go on line and at the state, federa lor local level readily identify any actions before the legislature in any area of interest..eg a lobsterman should be able to immediately identify all pending legislation that would affect the lobster fishery. That should all be in plain english. Any citizen should be easily able to directly contact by email or snail mail the sponsor of any bill before the legislature. All bills should have, through the ‘legbook” or Tholerus and Palme’s “electronic democracy” a required 30 day call for public comment. Any citizen via a skype system should be able to listen to and tetsify at any public hearing without leaving home. We can’t be involved in every legislative but the level of alienation, frustration and confusion Keith Sutherland refers to might at least be eased if we were able to engage on issues of greatest importance to each of us.
The important thing is that the people’s quiet dignified revolt in Egypt has pompted a lot of co-intelligence about the viability of the established democracies in modern society and a lot of good thinking on what a modern democracy should like to deal effectively with the global plutonomy..to accurately reflect and realize the power of a diverse and pluralistic modern culture. That thinking has to be brought out of our “e-think tanks” directly to the people of Egypt and to the American public through media ordinary Americans listen to and read.