Democracy is practiced in many ways. If ours isn’t working, why not learn about some others?
Looking ahead to municipal elections, and also at the start of Canada’s Democracy Week (Sept. 16-23), Demo-X St. John’s is an event that models and puts into practice an experimental democratic system, trying to imagine a politics in which everyday citizens can participate beyond the act of voting every four years.
There is a tendency to imagine our representative system to be the only (or the best) kind of democratic practice. However, there are many examples of different kinds of democracies, including a number of direct democratic systems around the world. In Switzerland, for example, there are some communities where large outdoor assemblies decide on issues by having people raise their hands. There are a number of states in the U.S. where similar sorts of direct votes by communities decide issues. These examples are different from typically representative systems, in that an elected official does not make all the decisions on citizens’ behalf. There are some elements of direct democracy in the Canadian system, such as referendums, plebiscites, and special ballots, but our politics tends mostly toward representation.
An interesting example of a blended representative-direct form of democracy is the “liquid” democracy practiced by the Demoex political party in Sweden (also where the title for the St. John’s event comes from). The party has won seats in the municipal government in Stockholm, running on a platform of direct votes by citizens on local issues. They have put this in practice through websites where citizens participate in discussions and vote on issues at hand. The elected representatives are directed by the outcomes of the online polls, and cast their votes accordingly in the municipal council. The party’s continuing success is due, in no small part, to citizens being able to participate in the process and see representatives act out their will.
The St. John’s Demo-X event takes the idea of liquid democracy and tries it out on a small scale, with non-technological means (pencils, voting cards, chatting face-to-face). More specifically, we will take a few local issues, and issues generated by those attending, for discussion and votes in order to experiment with a system of voting similar to the one used by the Swedish party.
That is not to say, of course, that enterprising politicians might not take a look at such online models of participatory democracy for very practical reasons (such as getting elected). Moreover, it seems there are a number of community groups (such as Happy City St. John’s), political parties, and individual politicians with online platforms that are on the cusp (or at least capable) of bringing such a system into being (here is a link to some free open source software for anyone interested). Oddly enough, it may be political expediency, and not any sort of agitation or protest movement, that will bring new forms of democracy to our politics.
Certainly there are enough people that want to be engaged and have their voices heard to make it something to consider. With regard to the upcoming municipal election, there have been some interesting editorials, such as from Hans Rollmann and also from Candice Walsh, expressing a desire for a new politics (if in somewhat uncertain terms). It is not so much any specific issues that are of immediate concern for these authors, but rather the stogy and aloof way the political game is played. Status quo politics become more difficult to justify as alternatives become apparent, and so prefigurations of a new politics are helpful, if only to indicate the possibility of something different.
Demo-X St. John’s sets out to imagine an alternative democratic process, while recognizing that all the details aren’t worked out. A new politics is not going to emerge ready-made, and any alternative system will have to be adapted to the local context. Introducing practices of direct democracy in our system would bring challenges, no doubt, but it would also give our politics an openness and authenticity that so many people seem to crave. Join us for this experiment and be sure to bring an open mind, a willingness to work with groups of new people, and a passion for political change.
Demo-X St. John’s will take place Sunday, Sept. 15, 7-9 p.m at St. John’s City Hall, Foran-Greene room. It is a free event sponsored by the Social Justice Co-operative NL and People’s Assembly NL.