Monday, February 26, 2007

Do weblogs make Democracy more deliberative?

Seeing Mick's latest on CiF (which refers to this blog in passing), I think this is a good time to promote something that's been sitting in my drafts folder for a while.

Is representative democracy incompatible with the establishment of some kind of deliberative democracy? I would suggest - now that we have an emerging model for public deliberation and conversation (a small limb of which you are reading right now) - that it is no longer simply an option for exponents of representative democracy, but an essential component of history's most successful form of governance.

I say this because, when discussing representative democracy, there is a tendency to brood upon the rights that representatives exercise once they have been elected, and we spend a lot of our time convincing ourselves that they don't take their responsibilities as seriously as those rights. This, I would suggest, is the nub of most popular objections to representative democracy.

Most of the conversations I eavesdrop upon seem to ignore the role that we - the represented - play. Thus the regular schtick here about 'negativism'.

The result is the widely held conception of representative democracy. And it is a distorted one, as a reading of Edmund Burke's succinct - and I think, near-perfect - argument reveals.

Quoting from Burke, ...

" ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living"

The first sentence of that quote is, I believe, constantly overlooked. I suspect that representatives would find themselves less at odds with their electorate if they could have a higher quality of contact with the population than they currently have. But this requires that population to be more prepared for a meaningful dialogue on the subjects that are under deliberation.

Having worked for politicians, however, I can also confirm that the common view is that such a dialogue is currently a fools errand. Political suicide. And it's a view that I'd share.

So politicians naturally seek other, more mediated, forms of dialogue. At the moment, in the party that I belong to, we have either roundheads - those who are dominated by a crude availability bias - what 'our people' tell them on the doorsteps, or we have the exponents of management-speak, over-reliant upon the crude misanthropic tools of marketeers. Or - most often - a combination of the two.

Burke's point was, of course, that representatives shouldn't be focused upon giving people what they say they want. But, if you can't reason with the public, you end up having to act as their delegates. This is what Burke was worried about - and what should worry us today.

Here are a few questions that I think we could be asking in response to this quote:

  1. Do we over-focus on the ‘fairness’ justification for democracy, at the expense of justifications based upon the arguments that democratic policy-making is less sub-optimal than the alternatives? (My answer: Yes.)
  2. In that case, are elected representatives better at making decisions than plebiscites? I think that there is plenty of evidence that, at the moment, they are. There are plenty of objections to this argument (ones that involve advocacy of ‘demand revealing referenda’ – making spending decisions contingent upon questions that are placed before the public, and so on) - arguments such as those advanced by Chris here. But, as Chris acknowledges, there are no respectable worked-out proposals yet. So the answer to this one is a confident 'Yes - for now!'.
  3. The bigger question, however, is the suitability of any individual – no matter how clever – in using their judgement to take big decisions. Do any of us have the ability to make good decisions on highly complex issues? Can a large centralised state be managed in the way a puppet is? Are the number of levers small enough? Can anyone be born with, or acquire the skill needed, to know how those levers should be configured? My answer to this is no.
Is there a contradiction here? Clearly. Elected representatives aren’t perfect. They are better than government by referendum (the old "Direct Democracy is worse than Fascism – at least with Fascism you know who is in charge" argument applies here).

But it is quite possible that systems can be developed to improve the quality of decisions that representatives make. More to the point, it is, surely, possible to improve the system by which representatives are selected by their parties and elected by the public? This need is urgent, because society is becoming more complex.

Despite recent constitutional changes here in the UK (devolution, reform of The Lords, etc), the underlying forces that shape our democracy are causing it to become much more centralised than ever before. We are loading more decisions on to people who are becoming less qualified to make them. So, I've mentioned this emerging limb - the blogosphere - as one half of the solution (well, not half, exactly, but bear with me here). It has the potential to provide a useful popular conversation that elected representatives can tune into and learn from.

Is it doing this at the moment? Recent spats, and the 'bell-end' bloggers leave us with the impression that it isn't capable of doing so. But I wouldn't accept that this perception is an accurate one.

And, most importantly, is it beyond the wit of the blogosphere - or part of it - to establish a means by which high-quality high-content conversations can be encouraged and promoted? Or to establish a means by which mindless negativism, or a refusal to adopt a conversational approach can be discouraged?

Because - and let's be clear about this - few parliaments will ever vote for their own abolition. Anyone who wants a more deliberative democracy will have to first establish it, and make the case for it based upon its success. I suspect that a lot of (middle-ranking) politicians would welcome such an effort as an alternative to the demagoguery that masquerades as public debate at the moment.

Call me an optimist, but I think tougher nuts have been cracked in the past.

Update; The comments on Mick's post on CiF illustrate his point perfectly. Almost every response simply addresses the surface patina of his argument without directly engaging with his point about the need for consistency in argument. For an example of the narcissism implicit in negativism, have a look at this comment by one 'tonyellis'

Update 2: Michael White on Rory Bremner's hilarious spoof on Margaret Beckett:

"...a perfect example of different branches of our trade having its cake and eating it in a highly-collusive transaction for which it does not expect to be held to account."

(Hat tip: Guilliamus)


Gracchi said...

Really good article. Its something that I am often frustrated by- there seems to be a lack of analytical strength in the British blogosphere- partly because you gain prominence as a blogger by finding stories not by analysing them. Matt Sinclair is another interested in this issue- he wrote quite a good article on this kind of thing. I do think we need to do better when it comes to analysis in the British blogosphere- I look forward to the day when it isn't Guido who's looked on as the best of political bloggers.

tonyellis said...

So it's true: you have used my comment. Narcissistic, eh? Pity you didn't explain that to me there and then so I could (had I chosen) defend myself. Never trust a hippy indeed...