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Forbes Interview & Review: Time To Disrupt Our Powdered-Wig Democracy

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

Article by Brook Manville

The January 2017 stock market is showing plenty of optimism, but the political sphere swirls with anxiety. People—of all partisan stripes—worry about our democracy’s decay. Will the political system of freedom and equality as we know it survive? Will it weather the leadership style of the U.S. president-elect? Meet the challenges of rising populist nationalismand growing totalitarian regimes?

Too Much Incrementalism?

Alas, most ideas about "fixing democracy’s problems” seem narrow, self-serving or incremental: abolish the Electoral College so the popular vote always prevails; end gerrymandered voting districts, so representation is more fairly mixed; support President Obama to pass more executive orders to protect against abuses by Donald Trump.

Is that really enough to save democracy? Maybe we need to swing for the fences—not just mend the procedural edges, but instead rethink the whole system today. Why not really disrupt our powdered-wig representative model that's become a morass of distant legislators, conniving lobbyists, and aloof commanders-in-chief (#DTS)?

Yeah, rock on, argues Roslyn Fuller, in her cracking recent book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Purpose and Lost Its Meaning. Fuller, a researcher in Law at the Waterford (Ireland) Institute of Technology, has been writing about the limits of status quo democracy for several years—and believes the only hope now is complete revolution.

No, not armed insurrection. Fuller wants more literal revolution: circle back to democracy’s invention, in Greece about 440 BCE. What’s needed now, she insists, is recapturing the spirit and mechanisms of deeply participative and engaged political communities, as ancient Athenians once created. We should rediscover the world of real civic life, as when, in the shadow of the Parthenon, every citizen served, deliberated, and voted month after month to steer their own futures.

Giving People The Power

Beasts and Gods (invoking Aristotle’s famous discussion of man’s socio-political nature) makes an impassioned case for why, in an age of declining political institutions and growing social media, it’s time to double down on democracy’s true essence: full-on civic engagement by all, hands-on contributions to the government by everyday people, and organized mass decision-making. Forget fixing gerrymandering or changing rules for lobbyists: just give millions of people a direct role in making their own laws, and deciding how their money will be spent. Imagine if you someday had real and regular say in the kind of healthcare you'd have, the schools you want for your children, what to do about terrorism, and the taxes you'd pay--and that you even played an occasional hand in implementing the policies?

Of course our founding fathers explicitly steered the U.S. Constitution away from such “people power” (let us beware of “mob rule”!)—but Fuller believes their design decisions have wrought debilitating, unintended consequences: representational elections that neither represent nor excite people; game-changing influence of wealthy interests; decision-making gridlocked in a blindingly fast global economy.

Channeling Pericles And Aristotle

The book begins with an edgy and acerbic question: if modern democracy is so great, why is everyone now so unhappy? Fuller answers coolly, buttressed with plenty of data: today’s system simply isn’t engaging the people it’s supposed to empower. She goes on to explain why small fixes won’t ultimately fulfill freedom-loving citizens; and then, as if channeling Pericles and Aristotle, insists that western civilization once created a better version—and whose time for rediscovery has now come.

Ms. Fuller next explores adapting the model and spirit of Athenian direct democracy to a modern world hungry for more self-governance. Fuller is no antiquarian—she doesn’t envision chiton-wearing citizens arguing before water clocks in the open air. She simply advocates replacing the musty 18th century constitutions we still live under with the classical practices and humanistic values that, some two-plus millennia in the past, allowed hardworking farmers and shepherds to govern themselves successfully.

Social Technology For The Best Political Purposes

So how to reinvent this ancient model for ourselves? Perhaps predictably, this young legal scholar emphasizes the promise of technology, imagining an institutionalization of the real time conversations, debates and decision-making already underway across social media networks today. She further argues that technology could help scale up classical-style democratic experiments emerging in a few American cities and other parts of the western world, such as virtual open town meetings (where citizens debate schools, traffic patterns, or plans for affordable housing, etc.); and participative budgeting (providing opportunities for everyone to see and vote on priorities for local spending).

Her discussion at times seems incomplete--but in fairness, this 260 page book is less a reengineering blueprint than a visionary thought experiment. Skeptics will nitpick many of the suggestions, and scorn the incomparability between ancient and modern-- but I guarantee Ms. Fuller will make you think differently about the trillion dollar bureaucracies we call democracy today.

In Search Of A Few Core Principles

When I spoke to Roslyn Fuller, I asked her to extend her analysis by offering some “core principles” of the classical democracy, to frame a more accessible summary. We kept the discussion general enough to be applicable to both political and business contexts (since many companies today are also wrestling with democratic-style management.)

Summarizing a complex system of institutions and human beliefs is no easy task. But the list that follows can get any would-be democratic revolutionary started:

1.First understand why democracy matters. Advocates of current democracy stress the freedom, equality, and personal rights it guarantees citizens. Fuller argues that the fully participative, Greek-style version produced greater justice and performance for society overall. “The Athenian model surpasses modern democracies in three ways: greater legitimacy—when everyone is involved and deciding the critical issues of the state, there’s no filter of depending on some representative who can pervert your preferences; greater stability—instead of the every four year big fight about elections, participative democracy is more of an ‘agile organization’—ongoing deliberation and decision-making, and thus smoother adaptation to change; and greater accountability—there’s nobody else to blame when the policies are truly decided by the people who also have to implement them.”

2. Clarify and build the member community. Fuller acknowledged that the Athenian system was as much about the strength of a community as it was about egalitarian institutions and processes. “Obviously it’s difficult to recreate the kind of cohesive relationships they had. Like it or not, we’re all organized in nation states now. But there would be opportunities to build more truly democratic communities on a smaller scale, in cities and regions. And technology is now unifying groups of people across time and space; networked democracy is an emerging new model. But whatever the scale, without the right human relationships—and a clear understanding of who ‘belongs’ to the engaged community—the classical model won’t work.”

3. Create “pull” for large-scale participation: Declining voter participation bedevils modern democracy, according to Fuller. She argues we need to make it much more worthwhile for people to play a role in their own governance—in lots of different ways. “I don’t suggest citizens should be required to vote, but they ought to be paid for their civic service, of all sorts. That was a real innovation in the Athenian revolution. When you couple material incentives with giving everyone an opportunity to do real work and decision-making, you’re promoting participation that will build more legitimacy and accountability. When people see the value of engaging, they will engage—and democracy becomes more vibrant.”

4. Amateurs and experts side by side. The author of Beasts and Gods was passionate about undoing the modern “tyranny of the elites”-- but also calling on expertise when needed. “Ancient democracy was more alive because a large part of the government was literally chosen by lottery. Citizens took turns serving in different public and administrative offices, and on juries—all the time, regardless of their previous experience. But some critical positions were also reserved for people with demonstrated skills (chosen by vote). The military generals—on whom the city’s survival depended—were not amateurs.”

“The model thrived through the combination of deep knowledge when needed, coupled with everyday experience and perspective that kept things practical and meaningful for citizens.”

5. Decision making that’s fluid, efficient and consequent for all. Athenian citizens argued and voted to make policy on an ongoing basis—but decisions weren't based on consensus, nor was there tolerance for endless debate.

“Issues and court cases were debated within rigid time frames. Many people think of democracy as a talking shop, but efficiency was actually a major priority for ancient democrats,” commented Fuller. “They believed in closure and had procedures designed specifically to prevent entrenched factions from forming, and, above all, from paralyzing effective state action. They recognized that there was a point when arguments had run their course, and that they were better off throwing their weight behind a democratic decision than seeking to wage a war of attrition among themselves. They knew they had to survive as a community before they could prosper as individuals.”

6. Ensure the value and civility of community communication. Fuller attributes much of today’s democratic decline to media practices. “Communication is essential to creating community, and we live in a world very different than ancient times—where people were primarily informed by public debate, or by friends or family members. Today’s mass media now dominates thinking; and it has the potential to unfairly shape and trivialize important issues (which it often does).”

“These imbalances are similarly reflected in social media, which can be unduly negative. There is little point to being constructive when you don’t have the power to implement positive outcomes. And lacking that power, people have learned the dubious pleasure of ‘venting.’ We’ve come to a point where a stream of criticism is seen as helpful conversation-- rarely the case. A participatory community needs to focus on constructive outcomes.”

“Unless democratic leaders have the courage to elevate the discussion of important problems, their participative community will fail.”

The Moment Is Now

I closed by asking Ms. Fuller why reinventing classical democracy was now so urgent.

“People everywhere have good ideas--but also pent-up frustration. They’re just not being listened to. Democracy can’t be an every four-year event anymore. Technology affords us better means to engage and tap into those being governed, and ultimately letting all of us govern ourselves.”

“Of course more will be needed than just technology. But if we don’t create the mechanisms to harness the talent and energy of all people in democracies, our governmental systems are just going to collapse—or be taken over by somebody else.”

This article first appeared on Forbes.com


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