Action: Reject the “this is a democratic country!” mental habit

In a previous post I listed some proposals for actions that activists can take to promote the idea of sortition. In this post and future ones I’d like to expand a bit on some of those ideas and open them for discussion.

From birth, citizens of Western countries are indoctrinated into thinking about their countries as being democracies. As they grow, citizens have to face a never-ending stream of pieces of evidence which falsify this idea. And indeed, they tend to become more and more disillusioned and cynical about the political systems of the societies in which they live.

And yet, it seems it is incredibly hard for Western citizens to break the habit of thinking of their societies as being essentially democratic, even if severely flawed ones. Each one of those flaws is perceived as a point in which the system does not function as it should, as it is expected, often as it has previously did.

The simple and stark fact that the Western system is not democratic and was never designed to be democratic – in fact, designed explicitly to be not democratic – is somehow almost never internalized. As they read or hear about another outrage of government, citizens keep repeating in frustration and indignation: “This shouldn’t happen! This is a democratic country!”.

With all the frustration and indignation, the underlying feeling that our political system, at its base, represents democratic values, and that if it is not perfect, it is certainly better than “all those other forms [of government] that have been tried from time to time”, and far superior to those of our enemies, persists. It is somewhat of a mystery why the rejection of the childhood myth of democracy so rarely happens, while in contrast most children come to terms at some point with the non-existence of Santa Claus.

Internalizing that we do not live in a democracy and never have is a truly liberating idea. Once adopted, the world around us makes so much more sense. One no longer has to live with the constant need to explain or to excuse the endless stream of horrors produced by one’s government. Instead of feeling confused by this dysfunction, instead of feeling betrayed by one’s “representatives”, one can step away and say: “These horrors are perpetrated on the population by the ruling oligarchy. They are not due to a mistake or a fault of mine. This oligarchy does not represent me.”

In addition to the psychological relief, acknowledging the oligarchical nature of the Western system opens the way for its reform. It allows citizens to stop being distracted by the perpetual electoral charade and focus on promoting meaningful democratic alternatives.

All of this, however, cannot happen while citizens keep thinking about the current system as democratic. Thus, it is an important action by sortition activists to kick the “this is a democracy!” habit and to encourage others to do so. Once this step is made, the political clarity the ensues can be used to take further actions.

10 Responses

  1. Actually, I don’t see anything clarifying about this proposal at all. It effectively blurs the difference between systems like the United States and France and systems like Russia or China. There’s a huge honking difference between them, and for pretty much the entire modern era the way to distinguish them has been (for obvious reasons) to describe the first group as democracies and the second group as non-democracies. A sortition-based democracy might be better than an electoral democracy, but that doesn’t somehow mean that as long as we’re living in an electoral democray we might as well be living in China.

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  2. Since I don’t know English, I use machine translation.
    The risk of a complaint like the one presented is to move more to action than to thought, more to reactions than to actions. Western “democracies” are the results of centuries of history of each country, in which monarchies, empires, invasions, dictatorships, fractionations and inclusions, etc. have followed. Each historical passage ended with a new balance that involved social advances but also the re-establishment of oppression in favor of the few over the many. What is happening today is not a novelty but a new way in which the same contradiction manifests itself. It is therefore only right to doubt the fulfilment of democracy or its current coherence. But if we want to arrive at a useful way to overcome injustices, we must first understand what are the objective reasons that could produce those situations that democracy itself denies. The first question is: what kind of democracy do you want? In the first paragraph of the Italian Constitution it is written that Italy is a democracy based on work. Is this right or wrong? If it is right, why does it not have concrete feedback in today’s reality? What prevents its realization? Is the cause the custom mentioned in the article? Undoubtedly the custom, which produces social identity, has its importance, so it is good that we help ourselves to look at ourselves as living people not immersed in others but coexisting with them. However, this does not happen by sudden lighting. So, alongside the search for what prevented the realization of a democratic coherence (in Italy, for example, they have never really come to terms with fascism, a law on parties has never been made, the relationship between central government and regions has never been clarified exactly, and, as in other democracies, it has not been clarified what the role of citizens should be, apart from having to vote periodically, so as to create an aristocracy with decision-makers and executors. Is it enough then to correct the defects? We must do that, but it is not enough. Eumans’ efforts to enable European citizens to take part in European decisions is a useful step, because it helps those citizens to ‘speak the same language’ and to feel more alike than different.
    I will stop here.
    Appearance reactions. Thank you.
    Giuseppe Maria Greco

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  3. Peter,

    > effectively blurs the difference between systems like the United States and France and systems like Russia or China

    This is exactly the mindset I was referring to in the post:

    With all the frustration and indignation, the underlying feeling that our political system, at its base, represents democratic values, and that if it is not perfect, it is certainly better than “all those other forms [of government] that have been tried from time to time”, and far superior to those of our enemies, persists.

    Leaving aside the matter of the veracity of the rather dogmatic and unscientific confident assertions about the “huge honking difference” between “us” and “them”, the point is that they are completely beside the point. The proposal of sortition advocates is not to adopt, say, the Chinese system but rather to create a sortition-based system that would be, unlike the electoralist systems, democratic. How then is the question of whether our system is “better” than that of our enemies?

    What matters for sortition advocates is rather that the electoralist system is anti-democratic by design and its outcomes reflect its anti-democratic structure. Until this fact is widely recognized it would be hard to mobilize people behind the idea of sortition. Thus it is important to kick the “this is a democracy!” habit ourselves and to keep pushing others to kick this habit as well.

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  4. Hi Giuseppe,

    The machine translation seems not to be of sufficient quality to convey your ideas clearly, so my response may not be quite to the point.

    I completely agree that the Western system is a historical development of power struggles, none of which was aimed – thus far – at creating a democracy. Still, I think making the current struggle about democracy is not impossible, and that is what I hope would happen as the current system destabilizes. I also agree that in order to attain this goal, it is important to understand clearly the situation we are in and to have enough of a political theory in order to make sure that whatever we are pushing for would be democracy rather than another form of oligarchy.

    To attain such an understanding, I don’t think that analyzing various details in particular systems (e.g., the issue of central government vs. local government in Italy) is useful. The rejection of elections as a democratic mechanism is exactly the kind of theoretical as well as empirical conclusion that is necessary in order to move forward.

    Regarding Eumans and “speaking the same language”: I am not familiar with this organization. I believe that there is a lot of common ground between people. This common ground is currently suppressed by the oppressive character of the political system, but there is reason to hope that it would become evident once the system becomes more expressive of the values and interests of ordinary people.

    BTW, note how at some point you also use the term “democracy” to refer to the Western system (“the relationship between central government and regions has never been clarified exactly, and, as in other democracies, it has not been clarified what the role of citizens should be”) – despite being well aware that the Western system is not a democracy. Like smoking, this is a destructive habit that is hard to break.

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  5. We need to do some reflection.
    True democracy is by its nature open to social change. Today it is not, therefore, as you say, it is a false democracy. Since, as you say, elections are the tools to maintain the lack of democracy, then they must be eliminated. It remains to be clarified why no democracy has been satisfactorily realized so far even though democracies have been generated by different histories and conditions. At first they were thought of as true democracies and only then did they turn into false democracies? They certainly did not agree among themselves, so there is no “single criminal political system” to fight against. What they have in common is that they are “liberal” capitalisms. I ask: is this the reason for the failure of democracies? Or from the outset the “democracies” (in quotation marks otherwise we do not understand each other) have maintained the separation between “citizens” and their representatives? Are elections the cause of the failure of democracy or are they the initial construction defect of “democracies”? If they are the cause, then, as you say, just eliminate them. If they are an initial flaw, then the very idea of democracy must be reviewed and reconstructed correctly.
    The final question is this: what do you think should be done to achieve true democracy?

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  6. I am not sure I understand the difference between “cause” and “initial flaw”.

    I do think that elections are the fundamental cause of the fact that the Western system is not democratic in the sense that this mechanism inevitably creates a political elite – i.e., an oligarchy.

    Regarding “what should be done”: I don’t have a full blueprint and I don’t think one can be drawn. I do think that replacing elections with sortition is a crucial step forward. After taking this step we will be able to see much more clearly what further steps need to be taken. The “we” here refers to both the entire population and to the allotted decision makers.

    The first sub-step toward instituting a sortition-based system is for the idea of sortition as the democratic mechanism for selecting decision makers to replace the common notion that elections are the democratic mechanism for selecting decision makers.

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  7. I agree that there is real value in telling people the history that the founders of the early electoral systems (House of Commons in England, legislatures in the United States, and legislative assembly in revolutionary France, etc.) were almost universally OPPOSED to democracy. But both the word and the electoral system evolved since then. The broadening of the franchise has allowed an originally purely oligarchical system (elections) to be thought of as “more” democratic. While we might argue this is misleading, the fact is, words MEAN what people MEAN when thy use them. Definitions aren’t carved in stone. Since almost all people use the word “democracy” to mean an electoral system, that simply IS what the word now means. Sorry. Dahl’s alternative term “polyarchy” is only known by a handful of academics.

    It does little good to channel Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'” The best we can realistically hope for is to follow Yoram’s advice about our own word usage to avoid reinforcing the notion that democracy means elections, but ALSO not waste our time trying to change the definition understood by several billion people. We can talk about a “true,” “pure,” “open,” “popular,” or other adjective democracy, or talk about “self-rule,” or other terms. I don’t have a solution, or perfect terminology for moving forward, but shouting into the hurricane that only we know the real meaning of the word “democracy” doesn’t seem worthwhile.

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  8. Terry,

    > words MEAN what people MEAN when thy use them

    In normal use “democracy” does not mean “elections-based”. A person who is indignant about some government misconduct does cry out: “This is an elections-based system!”. They assert “The political system in this country is supposed to serve the people!”

    The usage “Western democracies” is thus a manipulation which serves to imply that the Western countries are, at their core and despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, about representing popular values and interests.

    It is time to stop falling for this propaganda.

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  9. Terry,

    > The broadening of the franchise has allowed an originally purely oligarchical system (elections) to be thought of as “more” democratic.

    You are mixing up two different things. One is THE METHOD to select representatives from a given population. As we all know, there are two main possibilities (for the sake of simplicity, I don’t consider here the meritocratic method of the Chinese mandarins, nor any other): we can have either election, the aristocratic method, or lot, the democratic method.

    A different and separate problem is that of THE SCOPE, of the boundaries that delimit and define the said population. In other words, who gets to be considered a citizen? Solon gave a first answer to that question, but let me rather refer to the categories used by Renaissance Italians: i grandi vs. il popolo. If representation stems only from the former, we are in an oligarchic system; if it includes the latter, we are in what I call, for lack of a better word, an omniarchic system (yes, I know I am guilty of mixing Greek and Latin, but I’m not the first and I won’t be the last).

    > not waste our time trying to change the definition understood by several billion people

    I disagree. I think that “you have been lied for the last 200 years and the theft of that one word is the source of all the thieving that has followed” is a very powerful message.

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  10. Best post……

    Like

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