Skip navigation

Tag Archives: democracy

In the past few months, there have been lots of discussions about the necessity for political representatives to reflect their constituencies not only in terms of the ideas they defend, but also in terms of social categories in the broadest sense. Since that one has been floated around recently – and because it is worryingly popular – I’ll take as example the case of  feminine representation. Be aware that I consider however that my arguments hold in discussions about representing any social category.

A prime example of this concern was the nomination of the President of the European Council and of the High Representative for foreign affairs. During the build-up to the actual nominations, it was frequently stated that a major goal during the nominations was to ensure correct gender representation. And this, in turn, greatly impacted the choice of the person for the latter role. The consequence of this is that the nominated person might be representative of her constituency, but is just not fit for job – she doesn’t have the credentials to do it right. Aiming for “representativeness of representatives” can only lead to mediocre representatives.

This is lunacy raised to an art form. Here’s why.

The goal of representation in the political arena

It seems lost on many people that the goal of representation in the political arena is to represent the will of We the People. Put in other words, the aim is to represents people’s ideas, not who or what they are. This is not some sort of marketing oriented statistical population selection. Politics is not about reflecting what people look like, how they live or what they do. It’s about what they believe is good for society.

People are people

Couldn’t resist the urge to quote a Depeche Mode song. Anyway, people, however you may wish to categorize them for whatever dark purpose, are individuals. They have their own life, make their own choices, hold their own ideas.

Thinking that a specific characterization – gender, race, hair colour or shoe size – will adequately capture a set of common ideas is basically denying that people are complex entities, for sure influenced by a certain amount of determinations, but essentially defined by their own free will.

Some will feel the need to argue for social determinations, or even genetics, and try to convince us that free will is an illusion. Well, apart from my total rejection of such metaphysics, you can’t escape the single obvious fact, observable in everyday life, that there is no single social category that can adequately provide for the prediction of a person’s beliefs. Case in point: the single person with which I hold the most common beliefs is my dearly beloved. And apart from the obvious fact she is a woman and I’m not, we have enormous differences in our social backgrounds.

So at the very least, even if someone were to hold on to the dangerously mistaken notion that free will is an illusion and our beliefs are determined, they would have to admit this determination is chaotic and thus, unpredictable.

Social categories are represented anyway

By the way, in the political arena at least, social categories are represented. In case somebody didn’t notice, voting rights in our societies are not limited to any specific social category (except children and sometimes convicts). So, to take the example of women, holding that our representatives should comprise more women “to express the voice of women” is clearly absurd. The voice of women has already been expressed – in ballots.

And for those who have decidedly not been paying attention, there have been high-profile women in politics for decades, both across the world (Thatcher, Gandhi, Clinton or Meir to name but a few) and closer to home (just look at party presidents in Belgium).

Do you really want to represent all social groups?

Just for fun, let’s imagine the idea that our representatives should exactly reflect the social categories of their constituencies is correct. What would that mean, and where would we stop?

How about ensuring hair colours are adequately represented? Sexual orientations (with obvious implications as to full disclosure of all sexual practices)? Shoe sizes? Illnesses and ailments? Criminal records (criminals are entitled to be represented too after all)? Homeless politicians? Politicians in a coma?

Of course, there could be no such thing as professional politicians, because all professional categories would need to be represented.

And then, of course, most of our representatives would need to be morons, because, let’s face it, most people just aren’t that smart.

Actually, that last one might be achieved already.

The root cause of this idea

At the end of day, people who fuss about how representatives do not match the general population usually have a hidden (often to themselves as well) agenda. And that is trying to get more representation by people they (wrongly) believe will share their ideas. Just can’t accept that their ideas aren’t the dominant ones.

Actually, I can’t either, but I don’t kid myself about it, nor do I try to mess with the system under false pretences.

Final side-note

Of course, if representation were done at a much lower level, this kind of argument would basically disappear. With representation at a very low level and direct democracy as much as possible, there would be little room left to complain about not being heard – you would be heard loud and clear.

Because, guess what? The person that can best represent me is myself.

Democracy is, sure enough, as the old Churchill quote goes, the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be improved.

The thing that worries me about democracy is that, when practised on a large scale, it destroys the very thing which makes it desirable: the possibility of dissent through three means:

  1. Excessive intermediation
  2. Destruction of local specificities
  3. Levelling of opinion

 

But before going on to those three means, what do I mean by “practised on large scale”? Well, basically, when one democratic entity is too large. Your typical example would be Europe, governed by the European Union. But Belgium fits the bill too. What exactly is the right size, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely smaller than most countries.

Anyway, on to how things go awry.

Excessive intermediation

This one is only really obvious in very large democratic units, usually when some sort of federation is going on. Between “We the People” and whoever our government is, there are just too many levels of representation.

But it’s not just that our “elected” representative elects a representative who elects a representative who actually governs. It goes quite further.

At the end of the day, the election concept is based on the idea that you are going to vote for somebody who will, at least broadly speaking, represent your views. Someone with you’ll agree most of the time.

The problem is, I don’t know that many people with whom I agree most of the time. And none of them is a politician.

So basically, the issue is the scope of the mandate we give our elected leaders. I don’t know many people with whom I agree most of the time, but I know a lot of people with whom I mostly agree on economic issues. Or social issues. Or defence issues. Or health issues. You get the idea.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could vote for actual ideas instead of people? And specific ones too, where you wouldn’t have to accept the bundle that is a party’s program, which you are bound not to agree with in full.

Removing excessive intermediation would help that.

Destruction of local specificities

Obviously, if you go more than a few kilometres away from where you live, the average concerns of the people will start to change. Not necessarily dramatically, but they will vary. If you go hundreds or thousand of kilometres away, radical change is likely. The concerns of the Greeks just now are rather different from those of, say the Germans.

Yet through large scale democracy, these differences are necessarily brushed away, or, at the very least, compromised about.

The consequences are clear. The desires of some will be sacrificed in name of the desires of others, or, more likely, nobody’s desires will be met, and some compromise will leave everybody unhappy.

Some of these differences might be conjunctural, but some could be more permanent. This means structural disagreements will lead either to permanent dissatisfaction of large numbers of people, or to structural modification of opinions as people tire of being unhappy. Which leads us to the last element.

Levelling of opinion

Through both media and normative uniformity, large-scale democracy tends to level opinions. Extremes are quietly pushed aside. It becomes ever more difficult to escape conformity. Because as regulation becomes unified, so do the reasonings behind them. And these in turn get loudly communicated.

The thing about Big, is that it can – and does – impose it’s views. A belief shared by millions of people remains just that: a belief. But it does look a lot like a truth, and those who have no beliefs or have doubts about their own beliefs will be all the more likely to adopt that belief.

It’s positive reinforcement really. You are encouraged to share the beliefs of your fellow citizens.

Of course, it’s nice to share beliefs. But I like to share them based on more than just group-think. I like to share them based on reasoning, constructive criticism, challenges. But in a large forum, there is no room for that. There is room only for slogans. Mass appeal.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, democracy on a large scale erases differences. And not in the good way. Very gently, like an overbearing kindergarten teacher, it instils in people the need to conform. And erases personality, displacing any possibility of anything more than symbolic dissent.

So what?

So, will I just complain? Well, since I’m a grumpy old man, I’ll do whatever I please, thank you very much. But no, here are at least a few outlines of solutions (don’t complain about the fact these are nothing more than outlines, it gives me stuff to think and write about later):

  • First, obviously, the locus of power should be brought much closer to the people. How close, not sure, but definitely low. I’m thinking town level or something.
  • Second, have people discuss ideas. Enable them to vote on issues. Why not referendums? It works for the Swiss. Could work for others too.
  • Third, test-drive new ideas. Let people not pay that new tax. See what happens. If they don’t pay it, they don’t want it.

 

Sound a lot like “direct democracy”? Sure. That’s the only real one there is…