Democracy is in a crisis, at least in the so-called developed world. Peoples lose connection to their elected governments, and vice-versa. Elected representatives – the main institutional feature of modern parliamentary democracy – repeatedly show that they are unable to properly fulfill their duties. As a result, authoritarian and populist movements gain ground – Hungary is only the tip of the iceberg. So, maybe it is time to think about what democracy really is and whether the current institutional framework is still up to the needs of our time.
We are accustomed to identify democracy with Western democratic institutions: election polls, parliaments, ministries, referenda, separation of powers, “checks and balances” etc. However, they are not necessarily the only possible set of democratic institutions – although representative democracy is the most widely adopted political system of today’s world, there are exceptions, most notably Switzerland, with its semi-direct democracy. Meanwhile, democracy is not institutions – it is rather a concept. John Stuart Mill famously defined democracy as “government by discussion”. Just as a parliamentary system need not be really democratic, democracy need not rely on parliaments.
The failures of modern parliamentary democracy are manifold and far-reaching. Above all, elected governments repeatedly have shown an apparently inherent inability to solve any of the most pressing problems of our time – be it the environmental crisis, be it the financial and economic crises – or even the democracy crisis itself. So, maybe there is something wrong about how our democracies are structured?
A parliamentary system in which the people elects decision-makers who create a government accountable to the parliament has many benefits (it has been successfully adopted and deployed in many countries around the world since at least World War 1). But it also exhibits flaws, many of which has recently become particularly obvious. Some examples are:
- The time horizons of elected governments are very short – in most cases no longer than until the next election. This is particularly problematic today when most of the challenges of our time require long-term, deep solutions that may well be painful in the short-term – and therefore they have been neglected by politicians.
- Elected politicians are prone to lobbyism and influence by pressure groups. They depend on their ability to attract votes, which is easier if one has a reliable source of financial contributions. Moreover, they often lack the understanding of certain complex issues (e.g., genetic engineering), which makes them even more susceptible.
- Not only politicians lack knowledge and understanding – so do citizens/voters. They therefore are only limitedly able to assess particular policies and may fall prey to populism. Recent examples of such complicated, but important political issues have been the climate change, genetic engineering or property rights arrangements (particularly ACTA). This is also the reason why referenda – often called for – are not necessarily a better alternative: how should the people decide if it does not understand?
All this is not only a problem of the decision-making process – it is also a danger for democracy. People who don’t understand what the government is doing, who do not see any possibility to influence the political process and, at the same time, see how lobbyists celebrate one success after another – sooner or later they will turn their back to politics (and thus to democracy). We already can see symptoms of this in falling voter participation quotes and fast-changing governments in many countries. A democracy cannot work with a disinterested, resigned people at its basis. This can only lead to a dictatorship of one kind or another.
What can be done? I have no ready-made solution (I guess, nobody has), but I would like to suggest one possible institutional innovation: so-called deliberative panels.
Deliberative panels are not a wholly new idea. The concept has been developed not long ago in experimental social sciences (and has been used, for instance, in environmental economics when attempts have been made to assess the value of ecosystems), but certain basic ideas can be found in the US-American judicial system. There, every citizen can be asked to join the jury in a court trial – after a short training, ordinary people are expected to decide about guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens. The principle of deliberative panels is similar – a random sample of ordinary citizens is invited to join such a panel. In the beginning, they are comprehensively informed about an issue by experts. Then they discuss the issue with each other (and possibly with the experts as well), so as to form a possibly well-informed opinion. In the end, the participators of the panel make a voting to reach a decision in the discussed issue. This decision may then be interpreted as being representative of the “people’s will”.
At least in theory, deliberative panels have the potential to overcome all the flaws of parliamentary decision-making processes I listed above – there is no reason why time horizons should be limited (since there is no equivalent to election polls); direct lobbyism is hardly possible since participants are chosen randomly; the instrument is so designed as to provide decision-makers with best possible information and to facilitate their understanding of the issue; there is no clear reason for populist argumentation or “strategic” behaviour (as social scientists call attempts to hide one’s true preferences in order to gain something).
Of course, this method has it limitations – every method has. Above all, there is a trade-off between representativeness of the panel (i.e., the number of participants) and their ability to deliberate and discuss effectively. However, this is also the case in parliaments – perhaps even more profoundly since parliament members mostly have to discuss more than one issue at one meeting. Another limitation is the impartiality and objectivity of experts who are expected to provide the informational basis for a decision. Here as well, this is not an “additional” problem as compared with the existing institutional framework. More likely than not, a truly objective information-providing process is simply not possible, within any institutional framework. Meanwhile, since lobbyism is, as indicated, hardly feasible in a deliberative panels system, this problem may well be less profound than currently.
It would be a fallacy to expect that deliberative panels should completely substitute for elected parliaments and governments. Also, in some cases, referenda may be a better instrument – especially when the issue at stake is both highly important and not very complex. So, deliberative panels should be seen rather as complementary to the current system. They seem particularly sensible when stakes are high and powerful pressure groups are present, or when the time horizon needed for decision is long. Also, deliberative panels are only one possible institutional reform – there certainly are more, some possibly more sensible and feasible. But one thing is certain: the current democratic institutional framework is not more sufficient and has to be reformed. Otherwise we may wake up one day in a world where “democracy” has become not more than an archaic word, a word of the past.