Democracy – Join the Party

An invitation to renew and revitalize politics.

If the political playing field were a billiards table, politicians would engage in nothing but obstructing their opponent’s ability to play. In billiards, there is a style of play focused entirely on positioning the balls so as to make it nearly impossible for your opponent to score. That’s pretty much the situation in Washington today. The Republicans seem intent on thwarting President Obama, and the Democrats seen happy to play the same game.

Of course, there are also attempts to ­revive and revitalize democracy. In many countries, the Pirate Party is developing into a movement that solicits followers’ opinions via the Internet to inform the way its members vote. Across the Middle East, new, imperfect democracies are breaking out. Even in Russia, people are taking to the streets to demand more representative politics.

But the solutions have to go further, even in the West. Democracy is about a lot more than just showing up at a polling station every two or four years and casting a ­halfhearted vote. Democracy has become the art of disagreement, and the political stalemate that reigns in so many countries is driving some to the political extremes. Ironically, ideological viewpoints can and should differ, but the point of politics is to recognize differences, explore ideas, come to agreement and formulate a solution. It seems we’ve forgotten that, as the cliché goes, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

When democracy turns into an exercise in disunity, society is chronically deprived of solutions. Small wonder, when the emphasis in our political discourse is on differences rather than similarities. That leaves just one conclusion: Somewhere, there is a serious design flaw. And that flaw can be traced back to indirect, representative democracy.

That’s right: our political system, so uncontested and widely praised that people take to the streets for it in other countries (see “Giving peace a chance,” page 76) is itself the source of the logjam. And that shouldn’t surprise us. What we mean today when we say “democracy” has very little to do with the intent behind the original brilliant idea.

You sometimes hear people speak of Athens some 2,500 years ago as the cradle of democracy, a word that literally means “rule by the people.” But things in the ancient Greek city—at the time, a megacity with tens of thousands of residents—were quite different from our present system. The Athenians had direct democracy. Every taxpaying citizen—none of them, incidentally, women or slaves—took part. Each one served in public office at some point, always for a limited period of one or two years. They were appointed by lottery, because elections, they reasoned, would benefit only the rich and the eloquent.

It went wrong hundreds of years later, hundreds of miles away. The Romans introduced the elected representative of the people, who relieved ordinary citizens of the duty to give at least occasional considered thought to how to govern the city. It seemed efficient; the people’s representative could make decisions on behalf of all the people who had voted for him, so that daily life could go on while those in government gained experience and expertise.

But in the end, the solution became a problem. Politics—read: democracy—­became a professional gig, which is where the divide between politicians and the common man began.Ultimately, it also meant the aggregation of power and the associated vulnerability to corruption. Political parties were formed, in which influence irrevocably settled in the organization’s top layer. More than a century ago, German sociologist Robert Michels determined that even the parties with the most eloquent speeches in favor of participation and democracy become just as impenetrable and elitist as the aristocratic parties they once wanted to displace. It is the nature of organizations, according to Michels, that leads to “dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.” In his 1911 book Political Parties, Michels concludes that a true party democracy is impossible, because each organization is ultimately led by its own internal elite, where the power concentrates.

And then there’s the desire for rules, of course, which leads to ever expanding, crippling bureaucracy. To help the European economy recover, all kinds of new guidelines and coordinating agencies must be created, which the technocrats are certain will solve all the problems—at least until these guidelines and agencies create new problems that, according to the same technocrats, can only be solved with new guidelines and agencies. It’s a job-creating machine, our democracy. In these times of economic crisis, that’s the most positive thing we can say about it.

So there we are. Once every few years, during the “celebration of democracy” known as elections, we check a little box and vote for a political hero with a suitcase full of plans, most of which will never get implemented. Above all, democracy offers the illusion of representation and participation. The ritual of voting should confer power on us, but it keeps us powerless. That frustration is also becoming apparent in the Middle East, where people are making the difficult transition from revolution to governing.

Democracy is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Because citizens carry no responsibility, it’s easy to complain about all the professional politicians. In a democracy, as Australian spiritual teacher Barry Long once suggested, every person can express his unhappiness by voting for a party full of unhappy people, who will express his unhappiness for him to other unhappy parties. According to Long, this endlessly recycled dissatisfaction rests on the misconception that someone else is responsible for your happiness, and that they can and should solve your problems. In Greece, of all places, people are starting to realize this error in thinking, and citizens are deciding not to wait on their politicians to find solutions.

While searching for ideas to modernize our dated version of democracy, we encountered the work of Tom Atlee, codirector of the Co-Intelligence Institute in Eugene, Oregon. His work attempts to incorporate the citizen—and his or her responsibility—back into democracy through a relatively simple, practical method (see “Voting is not enough,” page 68). Atlee calls for the introduction of “citizen councils” that offer a platform for “collective intelligence.” Among other things, this requires a new way of communicating so that we can achieve insight and wisdom through dialogue.

This issue’s theme offers a refreshing ­answer to the fascinating question of ­whether an Athenian government by lottery could work today. By appealing to our collective intelligence, we truly celebrate democracy. And this time, you’re invited to the party.

Solution News Source

Democracy – Join the Party

An invitation to renew and revitalize politics.

If the political playing field were a billiards table, politicians would engage in nothing but obstructing their opponent’s ability to play. In billiards, there is a style of play focused entirely on positioning the balls so as to make it nearly impossible for your opponent to score. That’s pretty much the situation in Washington today. The Republicans seem intent on thwarting President Obama, and the Democrats seen happy to play the same game.

Of course, there are also attempts to ­revive and revitalize democracy. In many countries, the Pirate Party is developing into a movement that solicits followers’ opinions via the Internet to inform the way its members vote. Across the Middle East, new, imperfect democracies are breaking out. Even in Russia, people are taking to the streets to demand more representative politics.

But the solutions have to go further, even in the West. Democracy is about a lot more than just showing up at a polling station every two or four years and casting a ­halfhearted vote. Democracy has become the art of disagreement, and the political stalemate that reigns in so many countries is driving some to the political extremes. Ironically, ideological viewpoints can and should differ, but the point of politics is to recognize differences, explore ideas, come to agreement and formulate a solution. It seems we’ve forgotten that, as the cliché goes, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

When democracy turns into an exercise in disunity, society is chronically deprived of solutions. Small wonder, when the emphasis in our political discourse is on differences rather than similarities. That leaves just one conclusion: Somewhere, there is a serious design flaw. And that flaw can be traced back to indirect, representative democracy.

That’s right: our political system, so uncontested and widely praised that people take to the streets for it in other countries (see “Giving peace a chance,” page 76) is itself the source of the logjam. And that shouldn’t surprise us. What we mean today when we say “democracy” has very little to do with the intent behind the original brilliant idea.

You sometimes hear people speak of Athens some 2,500 years ago as the cradle of democracy, a word that literally means “rule by the people.” But things in the ancient Greek city—at the time, a megacity with tens of thousands of residents—were quite different from our present system. The Athenians had direct democracy. Every taxpaying citizen—none of them, incidentally, women or slaves—took part. Each one served in public office at some point, always for a limited period of one or two years. They were appointed by lottery, because elections, they reasoned, would benefit only the rich and the eloquent.

It went wrong hundreds of years later, hundreds of miles away. The Romans introduced the elected representative of the people, who relieved ordinary citizens of the duty to give at least occasional considered thought to how to govern the city. It seemed efficient; the people’s representative could make decisions on behalf of all the people who had voted for him, so that daily life could go on while those in government gained experience and expertise.

But in the end, the solution became a problem. Politics—read: democracy—­became a professional gig, which is where the divide between politicians and the common man began.Ultimately, it also meant the aggregation of power and the associated vulnerability to corruption. Political parties were formed, in which influence irrevocably settled in the organization’s top layer. More than a century ago, German sociologist Robert Michels determined that even the parties with the most eloquent speeches in favor of participation and democracy become just as impenetrable and elitist as the aristocratic parties they once wanted to displace. It is the nature of organizations, according to Michels, that leads to “dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.” In his 1911 book Political Parties, Michels concludes that a true party democracy is impossible, because each organization is ultimately led by its own internal elite, where the power concentrates.

And then there’s the desire for rules, of course, which leads to ever expanding, crippling bureaucracy. To help the European economy recover, all kinds of new guidelines and coordinating agencies must be created, which the technocrats are certain will solve all the problems—at least until these guidelines and agencies create new problems that, according to the same technocrats, can only be solved with new guidelines and agencies. It’s a job-creating machine, our democracy. In these times of economic crisis, that’s the most positive thing we can say about it.

So there we are. Once every few years, during the “celebration of democracy” known as elections, we check a little box and vote for a political hero with a suitcase full of plans, most of which will never get implemented. Above all, democracy offers the illusion of representation and participation. The ritual of voting should confer power on us, but it keeps us powerless. That frustration is also becoming apparent in the Middle East, where people are making the difficult transition from revolution to governing.

Democracy is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Because citizens carry no responsibility, it’s easy to complain about all the professional politicians. In a democracy, as Australian spiritual teacher Barry Long once suggested, every person can express his unhappiness by voting for a party full of unhappy people, who will express his unhappiness for him to other unhappy parties. According to Long, this endlessly recycled dissatisfaction rests on the misconception that someone else is responsible for your happiness, and that they can and should solve your problems. In Greece, of all places, people are starting to realize this error in thinking, and citizens are deciding not to wait on their politicians to find solutions.

While searching for ideas to modernize our dated version of democracy, we encountered the work of Tom Atlee, codirector of the Co-Intelligence Institute in Eugene, Oregon. His work attempts to incorporate the citizen—and his or her responsibility—back into democracy through a relatively simple, practical method (see “Voting is not enough,” page 68). Atlee calls for the introduction of “citizen councils” that offer a platform for “collective intelligence.” Among other things, this requires a new way of communicating so that we can achieve insight and wisdom through dialogue.

This issue’s theme offers a refreshing ­answer to the fascinating question of ­whether an Athenian government by lottery could work today. By appealing to our collective intelligence, we truly celebrate democracy. And this time, you’re invited to the party.

Solution News Source

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