Full text of writer and researcher Max Rashbrooke’s talk: We need to reset democracy at TEDxAuckland conference.
Listen to the MP3 audio here:
Max Rashbrooke – Writer and researcher
I want to talk to you today about democracy, about the struggles that it’s experiencing and the fact that all of us together in this room might be the solution.
But before I get on to that, I want to take a little detour into the past.
This is a picture from Athens or more specifically, it’s a picture of a place called the Pnyx which is where about two and a half thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Athenians gathered to take all their major political decisions together.
I say the ancient Athenians, in fact, it was only the men. Actually it was only the pre-resident property owning men. But with all those failings it was still a revolutionary idea, that ordinary people were capable of dealing with the biggest issues of the time and didn’t need to rely on a single supposedly superior ruler.
It was, you know… it was a way of doing things; it was a political system. It was, you could say a democratic technology appropriate to the time.
Fast forward to the 19th century when democracy was having another flourishing moment. And the democratic technology that they were using then was representative democracy. The idea that you have to elect a bunch of people, gentlemen in the picture here, all gentlemen at the time of course, you had to elect them to look after your best interests.
And if you think about the conditions of the time, the fact that it was impossible to gather everybody together physically, and of course, they didn’t have the means to gather everyone together virtually, it was again a kind of democratic technology appropriate to the time.
Fast forward again to the 21st century, and we’re living through what’s internationally known as the crisis of democracy, what I would call the crisis of representative democracy. The sense that people are falling out of love with us as a way of getting things done that it’s not fundamentally working.
And we see this crisis take many forms in many different countries. So in the UK, you see a country that now at times looks almost ungovernable. In places like Hungary and Turkey, you see very frighteningly authoritarian leaders being elected. In places like New Zealand, we see it in the nearly 1 million people who could have voted at the last general election but who chose not to.
Now these kinds of struggles, these sort of crises of democracy have many roots, of course. But for me, one of the biggest ones, is that we haven’t upgraded our democratic technology. We’re still far too reliant on the systems that we inherited from the 19th and from the 20th century.
And we know this because in survey after survey, people tell us they say, we don’t think that we’re getting a fair share of decision-making power, decisions happen somewhere else. They say we don’t think the current systems allow government to genuinely deliver on the common good, the interest that we share as citizens.
They say we’re much less deferential than ever before, and we expect more than ever before, and we want more than ever before to be engaged in the big political decisions that affect us.
And they know that our systems of democracy have just not kept pace with either the expectations or the potential of the 21st century.
And for me what that suggests is that we need a really significant upgrade of our systems of democracy. That doesn’t mean we throw out everything that’s working about the current system, because we’ll always need representatives to carry out some of the complex work of running the modern world.
But it does mean a bit more Athens and a bit less Victorian England. And it also means a big shift towards what’s generally called everyday democracy. And it gets this name because it’s about finding ways of bringing democracy closer to people giving us more meaningful opportunities to be involved in it, giving us a sense that we’re not just part of government on one day, every few years when we vote but we’re part of it every other day of the year.
Now that everyday democracy has two key qualities that I’ve seen prove their worth time and again in the research that I’ve done.
The first is participation, because it’s only if we as citizens as much as possible get involved in the decisions that affect us, that will actually get the kind of politics that we need, that will actually get our common good served.
The second important quality is deliberation. And that’s just a fancy way of saying high quality public discussion, because all very well people participating.
But it’s only when we come together and we listen to each other, we engage with the evidence and reflect on our own views, that we genuinely bring to the surface the wisdom and the ideas that would otherwise remain scattered and isolated amongst us as a group. It’s only then that the crowd really becomes smarter than the individual.
So if we ask what could this abstract idea, this everyday democracy actually look like in practice?
The great thing is we don’t even have to use our imaginations, because these things are already happening in pockets around the world. One of my favorite quotes comes from the science fiction writer William Gibson who once said the future’s already here, it’s just unevenly spread.
So what I want to do is share with you three things from this unevenly spread future that I’m really excited about in terms of upgrading the systems of democracy that we work with. Three components of that potential democratic upgrade.
And the first of them is the citizens assembly. And the idea here is that a polling company is contracted by government to draw up say 100 citizens who are perfectly representative of the country as a whole, so perfectly represented in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, income level and so on.
And these people are brought together over a period of weekends or a week paid for their time and asked to discuss an issue of crucial public importance. They’re given training on how to discuss issues well with each other, which we’ll all know of course from our experiences of arguing online if nowhere else is not an ability that we’re all born with innately, most the pity.
In the citizens assembly, people are also put in front of evidence and the experts, and they’re given time to discuss the issue deeply with their fellow citizens and come to a set of consensus recommendations.
So these kinds of assemblies have been used in places like Canada where they were used to draw up a new national action plan on mental health for the whole country. A citizens assembly was used recently in Melbourne to basically lay the foundation of a new 10-year financial plan for the whole city.
So these assemblies can have real teeth real weight.
The second key element of the democratic upgrade: participatory budgeting.
The idea here is that a local council or a city council takes its budget for spending on new buildings, new services, and says we’re going to put a chunk of this up for the public to decide but only after you’ve argued the issues over carefully with each other.
And so the process starts at the neighborhood level. You have people meeting together in community halls, in basketball courts making the trade-offs, saying well are we going to spend that money on a new health centre, or are we going to spend it on safety improvements to a local road, people using their expertise in their own lives.