“When you take responsibility away from people, you make them irresponsible,” proclaimed English politician Sir Keith Joseph nearly half a century ago.
Sir Keith may not be a household name outside of his native Britain. But his apt sentence perfectly justifies how much societies around the world need more democracy and more civic engagement.
When democracies limit citizen participation in voting for political parties, we can blame our woes on politicians. In such circumstances, we easily fall prey to demagogues who promise the land, but are only there for themselves. What we need is a âresponsibleâ system of government, and that means we have to take our responsibilities ourselves.
Direct democracy offers several ways to make us more accountable. First, there is the citizens’ initiative, a practice in democracies like Taiwan, New Zealand, Switzerland and Uruguay. In Uruguay, if 25% of voters propose a bill (by signing a petition), the entire electorate must vote on it by referendum.
In 1994, Uruguayan citizens gathered enough signatures for a popular vote on whether to protect old age pensions. A majority supported the proposal; it seemed like a balanced choice and one that the country could afford. In making this choice, a majority of Uruguayan citizens opted for social justice and, as they did in a 1992 vote on a privatization plan, challenged the neoliberal political establishment.
So was there a liberal bias? Did Uruguayan voters refuse to support leftist policies? Not uniformly. Indeed, in the same year, when the country’s teachers’ union sought to guarantee the allocation of 27% of the state budget to education, the vast majority voted ânoâ. No, it must be said, because the voters were opposed to a good education. On the contrary, voters rejected the measure because the proposal was too blunt and lacked nuance. Also, overall, setting a fixed percentage was not a prudent way to budget. The debate on educational measurement has become a practical exercise of responsibility. The citizens weighed the alternatives and decided after long deliberation.
What is interesting in the Uruguayan example is that the two votes were initiated by the people. In this way, it is different from top-down referendums in many countries. Unlike California, for example, countries like Switzerland, Italy, and Uruguay do not allow paid petition collectors. Therefore, the initiative process is really bottom-up and less likely to be captured by those with the richer pockets.
Too often, politicians hold referendums when they themselves are in a difficult situation. As economist John Matsusaka wrote, governments often rely on referendums for issues “too hot to deal with”. In the late 1990s, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called a referendum on a parliament for Scotland so as not to alienate voters in England, and in 2005 the French government submitted the European Constitution to voters. for fear of upsetting a large part of the French voters. who were skeptical of the EU.
This process by which elected politicians bring unpopular questions to voters is not direct democracy. It is an abuse of it. And it’s totally out of step with the present moment and the way people want to engage with the world. In contrast, over the past three decades, some local and national governments have taken a much more proactive approach to citizen engagement through participatory budgeting.
Now that citizens had to make recommendations themselves, people’s positions have become more nuanced and they have become more open to a plurality of arguments.
The idea is simple: the government distributes a percentage (usually 10%) of the local budget to the citizens, who decide what to spend the money on. “How would you spend a million of the city’s money?” âAsked a brochure distributed to New Yorkers in 2011 that introduced them to the process.
Participatory budgeting came to Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most unequal neighborhoods, in 2009 and 2010 as part of a project designed to help the region choose new social service providers. The district was divided into eight smaller zones; in each, a representative section of community volunteers could ask providers what they wanted, including social responsibility and community engagement. Finally, the citizens were able to negotiate with the suppliers the details of the operation of the service.
Finally, as a result of this process, a vote was taken to determine which vendors offered the best value for money and which were most likely to provide jobs to local residents. This participatory project was a success. An assessment by the local government association concluded that âa majority of participants said they had developed skills related to empowerment, and the community as a whole felt they could better influence their environment and local services â. It was also popular. Over 77% wanted the board to repeat the event in the future. This level of engagement was considerably above the average for similar boroughs, where as few as 20 percent of residents even bother to vote.
The experience of Tower Hamlets, along with participatory budgeting in places as different as Porto Alegre, Brazil and Paris, France, shows that citizens behave responsibly when given responsibilities.
The money allocated to the participatory budget is limited and those involved in the process know they have to make difficult choices. True, âtrustâ is a difficult concept to measure, but World Bank research suggests that citizen engagement builds trust in the political system. In addition, citizens learn democracy by practicing it. As Harvard political scientist Jane Mansbridge wrote: âParticipating in democratic decisions makes many participants better citizens. ”
With the possibility of making choices – and difficult choices – people learn every day that politics is no simple matter. This awareness diminishes the appeal of those who falsely claim to offer simple solutions. The proof, as always, is in the pudding of facts. What is interesting is that populist parties have been less successful in countries that have experimented with deliberative mechanisms. In Ireland, for example, there is no far-right populist party. The same is true for Brazil, where reports on participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre suggest that citizens who have engaged in the process are more interested in Politics problems and less concerned about the tribe Politics.
This awareness is also a defense against those who would use plebiscites, electoral measures or other campaigns to threaten minorities or immigrants. Stronger citizen decision-making, if well designed, can defuse issues that divide and maintain civil and respectful debate.
Ireland offers an example of direct democracy protecting human rights. For decades, the European island nation has been a conservative stronghold that has banned abortion and even restricted the right to divorce. Politics were often polarized, with right-wing parties vying to be each more conservative than the other.
This changed when, in 2012, the government accepted the use of citizens ‘juries (or citizens’ assemblies), in which ordinary citizens meet, study an issue, and make a recommendation to parliament on how to proceed. Soon Irish politicians, seeking to end the division, agreed that such groups of ordinary citizens would deal with any proposed legislation on same-sex marriage and abortion.
The citizens’ assembly on abortion met in 2016. Because making informed decisions is based on information and weighing the pros and cons, the group had the same access to expert briefings as elected officials. and suggestions submitted by other Irish citizens. The organizers of the citizens’ assemblies also invited groups that advocate for the Catholic Church and LGBTQ + organizations to make their contribution.
After deliberation, the citizens’ assembly proposed to authorize abortion in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. This was well below what various feminist groups wanted, but was also much more liberal than the existing ban, which criminalized traveling abroad to terminate a pregnancy. This compromise position was approved by just over 60% of the assembly, then ratified in a referendum by a similar majority of Irish voters.
The use of the citizens’ assembly has been welcomed by both sides of the argument. Even senior Church clerics have expressed support for the deliberative listening process. âConcepts, by themselves, seldom affect people emotionally. Relationships and stories, however, touch people, “Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson said in a statement, noting that the referendum was decided after” telling and listening to stories ” on both sides “. citizen juries concluded that participants took their duties seriously and used their powers responsibly. Participants told assessors and the press that they themselves had to live with the consequences of their actions.
Previously, Irish voters could blame politicians for their dissatisfaction with social policy, even though they voted for civil servants. Now that citizens had to make recommendations themselves, people’s positions have become more nuanced and they have become more open to a plurality of arguments.
Society needs such changes more than ever, both to escape our polarized policies and to take advantage of our current way of life. Just as out of print books can be printed “on demand” if customers wish, democracy must be improved to reflect the wishes of voters. In the age of Netflix and Spotify, people are demanding the ability to select individual playlists and policies. We are no longer satisfied with the packages offered by political parties. Majorities in all democratic countries want more decision-making power and deserve democracy on demand.
Almost 200 years ago, concluded Alexis de Tocqueville, “the most powerful weapon and perhaps the only one left to involve men in the destiny of their country is to make them participate in its government”. Outside of the archaic gendered language upgrade, this conclusion still holds true.