In the latest in our series of guest blogs Dr Roslyn Fuller, of the Solonian Democracy Institute considers whether we have misread the public’s ability to make decisions. She argues in defence of democracy and trusting ‘ordinary’ people.
I have been researching democracy for over a dozen years.
During that time one of the key debates has revolved around whether or not ‘the people’ deserve to participate in politics. You may be forgiven for thinking that we already decided on this back in the ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ and ‘we hold these Truths to be self-evident’ days of the Enlightenment, or at the very latest during the ‘power to the people’ swinging sixties.
But unfortunately, as I discovered while working and lecturing at universities, a rather significant layer of the ‘intelligentsia’ views the average person as incapable of assessing their own best interests, irrational, uninformed, and above all, just plain stupid. Books like Democracy for Realists, Against Democracy, The China Model, Renovating Democracy, and The Myth of the Rational Voter contain a host of claims about the shortcomings of ordinary people, with many arguing that they should be cut out of politics in favour of other systems like ‘rule by the knowledgeable’ or ‘rule by eminent persons’. It is really quite concerning that few ‘intellectuals’ are willing to stand up for the idea of democracy today.
In reality, the ills of ‘the average person’ are greatly exaggerated.
For one thing, the average person is far less partisan in their political preferences than political activists and funders are. Thus, while parties have become much more polarized over the last decades, voters haven’t. This means that when citizens are given the opportunity to decide directly on issues together there is generally far less acrimony and far more common ground for making compromises than there is in representative institutions. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in participatory budgeting and direct digital decision-making.
Move forward with more win-win situations.
People may not agree on all aspects of immigration, for example, but when I ran a digital decision-making exercise in 2016, large majorities agreed that asylum processing times should be shortened and that direct provision (a system whereby asylum-seekers must live in boarding houses with their needs met by subcontracted private companies) should be halted.
This is certainly a huge step towards better mental health for asylum-seekers and a boon to the taxpayer, who is often over-charged by service providers. Making these changes, which positively impact people right now, is certainly a more constructive use of time than arguing eternally over whether one should reduce immigration or completely throw open the borders, while the needy continue to languish in limbo.
Knowledge that resides in the citizen body is considerable.
‘Ordinary people’ may not be terribly good at answering trivia questions such as naming all their local councillors or recalling the amount of the budget deficit of the 1990s (a point that most commenters like to dwell on), but political decision-making is not about trivia. It is about governance, which requires practical, workable solutions.
‘Ordinary people’ like nurses, firefighters and environmental scientists often bring a knowledge of their field to the table that far outstrips that of the average politician with the added benefit of knowing how any policy is likely to be received and implemented on the ground. This allows for a lot of troubleshooting to occur in advance of a decision, rather than belatedly, and prevents good policies being discarded due to an easily correctable mistake in the detail.
Studies suggest that far from calculating outcomes from abstract principles, humans tend to problem solve in an interaction with the world around them. For example, someone who needs to fix a bicycle will often glean information from the bicycle itself and/or consult other people. We rely far less on storing ‘right and wrong’ answers in our heads and far more on adjusting to the reality around us. This is why people who may not be political aficionados or closely following campaigns are still absolutely capable of making decisions in their own best interests.
Participatory budgeting and digital decision-making centralize facts and perspectives.
Putting them into a format where an overview is possible to attain. Contrast this to conventional political debate where statistics tend to be thrown out in isolation, participants frequently talk past each other, and where, as in social media, no decisions are ever taken and therefore no accountability is necessary, and one can easily see the difference between constructive, fact-based decision-making and argument for argument’s sake.
With its focus on practical outcomes, participatory budgeting (and direct democracy) demand that people focus on the issue at hand, rather than point-scoring. This makes the entire process far more efficient and focused on substantive debate than traditional politics is – something that helps to increase knowledge over time and encourage people who dislike political sniping (most people) to participate.
The digital world has widened the gates for a level of participation not seen since the ancient democracy of Athens – something many of our leaders unfortunately aren’t just unprepared for, but actively oppose. Democracy, they insist, is screaming at each other and trying to win elections – not making practical decisions that one intends to live with in the long-term with a clear view of the opportunity costs implicit in each of them.
Failing to adapt, however, is just going to create even more strife, and one of the best ways that we can prepare people for a future, more enfranchised democracy is the learning-by-doing of participatory budgeting.
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is the Managing Director of the Solonian Democracy Institute in Dublin, and author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (Zed, 2015) and In Defence of Democracy (Polity, 2019).
Based in the Republic of Ireland, she has been closely following South Dublin’s 300,000 Euro annual PB process.
Opinions remain those of the author.