Voice metaphors dominate discussions of democracy, but have not proven very effective in political practice. One of the weaknesses of representative democracies is that elected leaders often do not heed what the people they represent tell them they want. Once the leverage of “the people” over their representatives is reduced to elections, time and again we have seen that “the people” do not get what they want.
Those who assume that identity politics in electoral politics produces direct access to constituent desires may be disappointed. Many women have found that not all women elected leaders will advocate for strong protections against domestic violence. Black voters do not find that black representatives necessarily serve their interests.
When citizens become passive and rely on representatives to do the work of democracy, then democracy tends to become vulnerable to what political scientists and economists call “capture” by wealthy or powerful interest groups. This makes it impossible for governments to serve the public interest.
One way to strengthen democratic accountability is to transform passive citizens into active agents. Rather than relying on elected leaders to tell others what you want, you speak directly for your own views and participate directly in decision-making, sometimes called direct democracy or participatory democracy or horizontalism.
These democratic practices tend to reduce centralization of power in organizations, making exploitation and abuse of power more difficult. History shows that decentralized democracy is a more egalitarian way to institutionalize democracy.
If the assembly is one of the constituent features of a working democracy, then speaking at the assembly is a fundamental democratic act. In established political theory, speaking in a formal forum like a legislative chamber appears to guarantee effective democratic process. Concerns about back room deals outside of public forums are one reason for laws prohibiting closed meetings by public officials, so called sunshine laws, but these laws only rarely are enforced by legal action.
Yet speaking does not always mean influencing decisions, and can even prove to be hazardous. Whether labor activists attempting to protect their interests, or elected officials speaking up for policies unpopular with autocratic officials, those who speak may find themselves in trouble or dead. This risk is not new, but those who traffic in voice metaphors act as if the weaknesses of democracy are unknown or these risks have been forgotten.
Argentina in the post-2001 rejection of electoral leaders found ways to practice democratic decision-making while ensuring that representatives would listen to their constituents. After the December, 2001 collapse of trust in electoral democracy, many neighborhoods and workplaces and schools began to govern their own affairs. Because they had found representative governments did not listen to what the voters wanted, they were suspicious of representative systems. Yet they needed to network and organize at scales larger than any single mass meeting could handle.
One practice that many neighborhood associations adopted in the first decade of the twenty-first century was to send two listeners with any representative. If the representative attended a meeting and spoke about what the group they represented wanted, then both listeners would come along and quietly observe what the representative said. Then when the representative returned to meet those whose views they had been chosen to represent, the representative kept quiet while the two listeners described what had been said and done. This system made the representative accountable to the group they claimed to represent by forcing them to report back to their constituents.
In late 1990s Ethiopia young women learned that their voices can be heard in assemblies, when they are able to talk to anyone in their community, even elders. Yet speaking was effective because Ethiopian women had already learned how to make changes in their communities that benefitted them, like fixing bridges, digging wells, and planting trees to use for firewood. Demonstrating how powerful they were at meeting their own goals meant that when they spoke in community conversations, men and elders would respect what they could do.Most importantly, the Ethiopian young women operated collectively as part of an organization known as Kembatti Mentti-Gezimma-Tope, a phrase in one of the oral languages of Ethiopia that reflects the power women generate when working together. By working in groups they increased their collective power and strengthened their positions as agents of change.
KMG Ethiopia also adopted a process of community conversations that practiced consensus, so that group decisions were made with all participating rather than majority-rules unequal power relations found in electoral practices. In this practice decision-making is held hostage by marginal groups through consensus, rather than experts and elites holding power hostage as in many national elected governments.
Table metaphors also don’t do much to pressure entrenched interests into taking constituent goals seriously. By using consensus to pressure those at the table to listen to all present, democracy can come to represent the general interest rather than only the interests of the powerful and the wealthy.
The linking of speaking in assemblies to multiple leverage points for the Ethiopian young women or other often marginalized groups is one way to demonstrate their agency and willingness to act in their own interests. This serves not only this particular interest group in the Ethiopian setting, a specific interest group, but also pressures community elders and other powerful groups into serving the general interest.
Listening will only be effective when elected leaders and people in other positions of authority are made accountable to their constituents. Police officers and others who should serve the public will do so only when accountability structures are both in place and operating effectively. When there is no accountability oversight mechanism in place and being used regularly, then democracy becomes nothing more than an excuse for abuse of power.
In lands where Indigenous communities are ignored or violated by governments, listening to Indigenous group members can shift power relations. If Indigenous historical narratives and other knowledge systems are to have traction in governments that claim to be democratcies, then listening to their perspectives will be important. This is particularly important in settler colonies(like the U.S. and Australia) or postcolonial nation-states in Africa or Latin America where Indigenous groups large and small govern together.
Governance mechanisms that do not have effective guarantees that leaders will listen to “the people” are vulnerable to domination by powerful groups. Yet there are communities where listening has been effectively linked to force relations as part of democratic systems.
Assemblies where all participate and speak equally, sharing time with all and not privileging the wealthy and powerful, are one way to end the reign of democracy as a politics of abuse. The use of consensus in community meetings, as KMG Ethiopia practices, produces leverage for marginalized group members, since they can use community need for consensus to pressure narrow interest groups into serving the general interest.
Democracy then can come to mean more than voice and table metaphors. Democracy can come to mean government by all for the general interest. A difficult task, certainly, but for many a task worth the delays and trouble of informing all equally and listening to all.