COVID and Democracy: Part 2
In last month’s newsletter I argued that the decisions society has to make around how it manages the COVID pandemic are unavoidably political. I also argued that a lot of the frustration and anger we’ve seen from members of the public is due to the lack of democratic input into pandemic management decisions. Of course, finding fault is always easier than finding a fix, and criticizing quadrennial elections conducted under a first-past-the-post system is hardly a radical position to take in a socialist newsletter. So I think it’s worth having a think about pragmatic ways a society could democratize its crisis management processes.
The first big problem with citizens’ assemblies is their name. While I think CAs are generally a good idea, the name ‘citizens’ assembly’ invokes images of grey bureaucracy (at least, it does in my mind). I think the name ‘people’s parliament’ would be better as it gives some idea of what the institution is and how it would operate; but, at least for now, we’re stuck with the terrible name.
For the uninitiated; CAs are bodies made up of a random selection of citizens, picked using a method similar to picking jurors*. The selection process can be weighted to give a CA with demographics that are representative of the citizenry as a whole. CAs are usually convened to address particularly thorny political questions. For example, in BC and Ontario they have been used to give recommendations on electoral reform. To date, when CAs have been convened they have usually only been given the power to make recommendations, either to an elected body or directly to the people in the form of a referendum vote. However, there’s no reason in principle why CAs couldn’t be given the power to make decisions directly. In fact, this has been tried in Gdansk, Poland, where CAs consisting of 60 citizen’s are empowered to make binding decisions about how the city manages flood defense and other issues.
There are a lot of attractive features of CAs, but one of the biggest is that its possible for a CA to be truly a representative sample of the population it is seeking to make decisions for. It’s been recognized across the political spectrum for a long time that elected parliaments are (often comically) unrepresentative of the countries they govern. There’s been some work done by political parties to correct these imbalances, but the focus has usually been on correcting gender and racial imbalances. This is admirable in isolation, but it does leave class somewhat out in the cold. In essentially every democratic country, before you’re allowed to play the election game, you have to win the fundraising game, and this is always going to systemically disadvantage political movements of the poor and working class**. CAs offer a way to short-circuit this deficiency of representative democracy.
Could CAs serve a role during pandemic management? I think they probably could. One of the big issues during the COVID crisis has been that decisions are being made by civil servants, politicians and health officials who all work in offices, and have jobs that can all be done remotely which they probably won’t lose no matter how bad the economy gets. This isn’t the fault of those people, but it does mean that, essentially by definition, if you’re a COVID decision-maker, you are highly isolated from the consequences of those decisions. If a CA was calling the shots, then the demographic balancing that takes place when members are selected would mean that alternative perspectives would at least have a seat at the table.
Referendums seem to have a pretty bad reputation at the moment. I think this is probably because of the Brexit referendum, which seems to have traumatized everyone (even some of the politicians who originally claimed to want Brexit). However, I think we should bear in mind that the Brexit referendum was somewhat atypical. Usually referenda have clearly defined options with outcomes that everyone understands, but this wasn’t the case with Brexit. In fact, even three years after the vote, its not clear what ‘Brexit’ will mean for Britain (Canada-style deal? WTO terms? red-white-and-blue Brexit? who can tell?). There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but there’s no reason why it has to be a feature of a referendum vote.
I actually think referenda could be very useful democratic tools for pandemic management. It’s common for governments to generate a number of policy proposals before deciding on a course of action. If the proposals are all well-defined, why not just let people vote on them instead of letting politicians make the decision? Of course, there’s a myriad of Yes Minister-style shenanigans that would go on amongst the people empowered to develop the policy proposals, but this is already the case with policy making. In a case where all options are one-or-another flavor of bad, politicians might even welcome the ability to say that they’re just carrying out a decision made by the electorate, instead of having to take responsibility for the decision themselves. There would obviously be some technical obstacles to overcome, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to run regular nation- or region-wide votes on a weekly or monthly basis. But if these were addressed I think referenda could give people a sense of control over decision-making that is currently lacking.
It’s natural to look to already-existing practices when trying to think of ways to democratize pandemic response. But, it’s possible that the democratic tools we need for this type of crisis management simply don’t exist yet. In this piece I’ve mostly focused on the COVID crisis, but we are also in the midst of a climate crisis. The types of government intervention in society necessary to avoid the climate crisis are likely to be much more dramatic than those required for COVID, and the COVID measures have already been colossal compared to what we’ve been accustomed to.
It seems clear to me that if we constrain ‘democracy’ to the act of having general elections every four years or so, democratic societies are going to lack both the policy flexibility to respond to emergencies and the persuasive power necessary to actually get the population to follow whatever policy is decided on. Democratic societies haven’t covered themselves in glory during the COVID crisis, and this has naturally led people to wonder whether we should emulate more authoritarian regimes who seemed much better at getting things under control. This is silly, partly because it ignores the underlying fragility that often exists in authoritarian states, even when they have a surface appearance of solidity, and partly because it wasn’t the democracy that was at fault in our response to the crisis. Decisions were made without democratic input, and emergency decrees were sometimes implemented without even the traditional democratic ratification of a parliamentary vote. That meant that the concerns and imagination of the greater part of society went unaddressed and untapped. To avoid an endless repetition of this cycle we need to start experimenting today with the democratic institutions of tomorrow.
* The technical term for this is ‘sortition’.
** And, of course, even if a working class movement gets some of its members elected, once they start drawing their MP’s salary and enjoying their new social position they stop being a member of the working class in some sense, meaning it might be impossible to ever have truly working class representation in parliament.
The JI Newsletter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. If using material from the newsletter, please credit the author and provide a link to the relevant newsletter in your attribution. Any content produced using material from the JI newsletter must be licensed under the same terms.