July 4, 2017

Other Democracies: Democracy Beyond the Nation State

Democracy promises rule by all rather than the few. Yet national electoral democracies limit decision-making to small groups of representatives and policy experts, and have always had a weakness for inequality. Those who believe in equality may ask how the poor and the Indigenous, migrants and minorities, women and the underemployed, the rural and the subaltern can all come to take charge of their lives through democratic governance. Where does democracy serve all of society rather than only the few?
Equality in practice is limited in electoral democracies to formal political equality, such as equal rights, like the right to vote, and other general principles. The failure to produce equality outcomes in other parts of life, such as economic equality and social or cultural equality, has often been hidden in the past half century by this emphasis on formal political equality.
By forcing voters to limit their participation to leverage over delegated representation, the modern electoral state weakens their ability to produce equality in their economic, social, cultural, and even political lives. By reducing their equal democratic practice to participation through abstract political rights and principles, modern electoral states prevent direct participation for those who wish to produce economic, social, and cultural equality. Equal outcomes may be electoral democracy’s weakest point.
These days, most national democracy tells us not about equality but about how we must accept inequality: how we must vote for those who can only talk inequality, must live in places where inequality seems normal and natural, must complain about inequality but not practice equality. Electoral democracies often reinforce or deepen the inequalities between political elites and ordinary citizens, rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, colonizers and the colonized, workers and employers, educated and uneducated, and other social divisions.
Yet many communities and organizations from all over the world practice forms of democracy that give equal power to all members in sites beyond the modern nation. Many have built egalitarian democratic structures to claim their power as equals to govern their own lives. Many of them use councils and assemblies as broad-based decision-making bodies, structures used widely in history and in the present. Multiple communities use consensus or other practices instead of voting for representatives. Both these practices reduce the centralization of power in the hands of the few.
They may do so as part of state governments, or as parallel to or even in competition with the state in small communities or in large territories and transnational networks. They do so not only in the past but also in the present. They do so in rural settings and the largest urban areas of the world, in families and towns, in farms and in everyday affairs. They often do so in difficult and even impossible conditions, yet they have succeeded for decades or centuries. Above all, they do so in order to govern their own affairs in ways that actively and carefully avoid reinforcing established inequalities in politics, economics, and other parts of daily life. These communities and organizations show that there are many avenues to democratic equality, that difference is central to democracy.
            Over the next months and years more posts will introduce multiple sites for democratic practice beyond national electoral systems that are not found in the book. These sites ask us to reconsider the meaning of democracy. Democratic practices are commonplace in ordinary society, and the more they spread through social relations the weaker national monopoly claims on democracy will become.

May 31, 2017

Defend Democracy: Tactics to Trump Tyranny Part 1 Abstract Principles

Recent election results in the United States have spawned a lot of writing about how to protect democracy. Some have proposed concrete actions, such as marches or campaigns or specific organizations to join. Others have suggested multiple principles to keep in mind as citizens respond to the election of a man who may see democracy as his enemy. Others have begun to build new movements.

A quick overview of some specific tactics to trump tyranny will show that each tactic has its strengths and weaknesses. Each approach makes assumptions about democracy that not all accept. The election of a leader who has not demonstrated a strong public commitment to democracy has led some to question the democratic form that centers on elections. These questions are an opening into important reconsiderations of what democracy is all about.

One of the weakest points of democracy in the United States and many other electoral governments in the global north is the tendency to understand democracy in abstract terms. Rather than holding leaders accountable to equality in concrete outcomes or direct responsiveness to citizens’ demands, the turn towards the general allows leaders to divert governance towards their own narrow interests.

Many of the recent discussions of democracy in the United States have responded to the perceived threat of the election of Donald Trump as President by reviewing key principles of anti-authoritarian action. Historians, linguists, philosophers, and others have chosen to defend democracy by a turn towards general principles.

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2017) draws its lessons from historical study of the rise of the Stalinist centralized one-party state in 1920s Soviet Union and the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. Some of this history’s lessons are very general. Snyder calls for courage and for setting a good example for future generations in the years when citizens do not yet realize we are giving in to authoritarianism. Setting an example often takes simple forms for Snyder, like making new friends outside your familiar circles, making eye contact and small talk to break down social barriers, having personal exchanges face to face, keeping up friendships abroad. Setting an example also breaks the spell of the status quo, which takes on a vividly ominous cast in this analysis. 

Snyder invites all of us to defend institutions by joining one you care about, a court or a law or a newspaper or a union. And he asks us to support the multi-party state by voting, since tyrants prefer to lead the only party around and work to ensure that a political life for their opponents will be first difficult and soon impossible. He suggests that it is particularly important for lawyers and doctors and business leaders and civil servants to maintain their professional standards and ethics, since tyrants require that norms and rules be bent and soon broken. Some of this history’s lessons are clearly cautionary, like ensuring your passport is renewed when needed, spending more time reading long articles to figure things out for yourself, and learning alternatives forms of the internet. And Snyder invites us to create our own ways of speaking and living, rather than repeating what many others are saying and doing, and to figure things out for ourselves. 

He also recommends more openly political actions like subsidizing investigative journalism, learning about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns, and joining a couple organizations and supporting others that defend democracy. He warns against abandoning facts and against dangerous words, like “extremists” and “terrorists,” many of which are already commonplace in global discourse. He reminds us that some internet content is there to harm us. And he asks us to notice the signs of hate, the unofficial graffiti and the official swastikas, and to take them down rather than get used to them. Strong emotions like hate are what tyrants need, so interrupting these feelings is an important way to act.

Snyder advises us to be prepared to say no when the police and soldiers begin to do irregular things. When the unthinkable arrives, he also calls for calm in the face of the sudden disaster that seems to require the end of opposition parties, of checks and balances, of the right to a court trial, and all those other niceties that tyrants find inconvenient. And he warns that when paramilitary armed groups supporting a leader begin to collaborate with the police and soldiers, then the end of democracy has come. By then it is too late for defensive tactics.

While this frame for defending democracy has clear implications for the present day experience in the United States, the author also reminds us that the United States is not so different from other countries where democracy was threatened. So while those in the U.S. may feel they are facing unusual circumstances, history suggests that the problem is commonplace. 

The linguist and activist George Lakoff also developed a list of abstract points for defending democracy, “Ten Points for Democracy Activists.” Released shortly after Trump took office in early 2017, Lakoff emphasizes the importance of propaganda and news media for the brain to focus on the public good rather than policies that benefit corporations and other narrow interests. Taking a strongly partisan approach criticizing the political party that took the presidency in the 2016 election, Lakoff emphasizes the power of the majority that in his view lost control of the electoral process. In his focus on mass media framing practices as the key to protecting democracy, he follows of the German theorist Jürgen Habermas’ belief that better communication will solve the problems democracy often seems to have. 

Lakoff’s approach does little to confront the long history of covert and overt violence found in democratic societies, whether Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives are in office. Women have still worked in inhumane conditions in low-wage sweatshops and slaughterhouses whichever political party is in the White House. Young Black and Latino and Native men have still been shot and killed by police with impunity under both white and black presidents. The violent destruction of indigenous structures for caring for the land that the founding fathers put in place and that threaten the health of the land and the water will continue whether President Trump stays in office or is forced out. The public sphere so central to Habermas’ notion of democracy still can’t resolve the electoral government production of unequal social relations. By ignoring the ways that language framing hides histories of violence, Lakoff’s general proposals and Habermasian theory do little to transform business as usual in electoral democracies. 

These general approaches to political tactics claim to protect electoral democracy understood in a modern liberal frame. By centering politics on electoral practices that have demonstrated a weakness over centuries for structural violence and inequality, both Lakoff and Snyder support a form of government that entices citizens to submit to a nation-state that protects narrow interests. 

Their generalized approach to democracy may work to prevent autocracy that benefits individual interests. However, it does little to promote the general interest over the narrow interests of the government experts and their corporate benefactors. When will democracy come to mean something besides persistent inequality?

April 30, 2017

Defend Democracy: Oligarchy or Democracy?

Recognizing when democracy deteriorates into oligarchy, or rule by the few, is an important skill for defending democracy. Oligarchies are not always dominated by a small group of families; sometimes they simply benefit the same small social sector, such as the super wealthy or a small gendered racial or ethnic group. Persistent wealth or racial and ethnic inequality may be a warning sign of oligarchic rule.
Asking about oligarchy is very important in democratic systems where elections are central, since elected representatives are elites and often have been able to manage policy development to serve their narrow interests. So the border between democracy and oligarchy may be surprisingly easy to cross not just for small organizations but for large ones as well.
Many indigenous communities have not traditionally used electoral practices to choose leaders, instead preferring selection by consensus or through various careful vetting practices to ensure leaders advocate for the common interest. In the views of some, this is because electoral systems themselves are a form of oligarchy, centralizing power in the hands of the few.
The question of oligarchy is also important in organizations where the founding members were not fully committed to democracy, or the rule by all. Many nation-states were founded by wealthy merchants and their land-owning allies in struggles with queens and kings, aristocrats and church leaders, colonial governments and neighboring nations, so many of their founders compromised democracy with other interests.
One quantitative study from 2014 compared the impacts on national policy in the United States of ordinary citizens and elite groups, such as business elites. The study found that economic elites consistently had a determining impact for over 20 years on more than 1,500 different policy issues. This suggests that those who see the United States as a democracy may be confusing oligarchy with democracy. Similar problems may be found
There are many strategies to defend democracy from attempts by small groups to impose their interests on the entire organization. Aristotle suggested one very long-established method: draw lots to select representatives, rather than use elections. This view requires that all citizens be prepared to hold office, and rejects the commonplace view in some circles that only experts are qualified to rule. It also requires that all citizens be educated sufficiently to prepare them to govern their own affairs, rather than leaving government to small social minorities. By decentralizing the right to rule the people, this practice certainly democratizes governance.
Another effective strategy for combatting oligarchy is the assembly: large gatherings where not only decisions are made but also policies are drafted together. By allowing everybody into the policy development process, those with narrow interests may be challenged before they can restrict policies to those that benefit their narrow interests. Instead, discussions will encompass a wider range of ideas.  And policies will emerge that benefit all.
Assemblies are widely used in rural communities and indigenous nations that have proved impervious to the influence of European models of democracy, and even at global scales. Though this practice is not well-known among urban residents in democratic nations, it still may be useful for rejecting oligarchy.
There are many other practices that prevent narrow interests from dominating democratic bodies. Which ones do you practice?