Building Better Democracy
The concept of democracy has been examined, pulled apart, prodded, analysed and criticised more than ever in 2016. Recent research surveyed people across North America, Western Europe and the Pacific to understand their level of satisfaction with the interpretation of democracy they live in. The researchers found the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has decreased. And the percentage of younger people who believe it is essential to live in a democracy is particularly low when compared to older generations.
As I read the findings, the first question that came to my mind was: what’s the alternative? If democracy — in its current form, exercised through elected representatives — is becoming less popular, what might a new system of governing look like? What could a new system look like? In many ways, democracy has taken a form that is not inclusive, ineffective, and perpetuates a certain view of the world. Surely, we can see a democracy where a greater diversity of views is accurately represented and where we women have a particular role to play in building better, fairer, ways of governing.
So what is it about the current system that has led to disillusionment — or, at least, my disillusionment?
Democracy has strayed from its Ancient Greek roots. Its current form perpetuates traditions and beliefs that originate from a patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon worldview. It’s 2016 (almost ‘17). Much of the world is not Anglo-Saxon and at least 50% of it is female. Perhaps it’s time to really think long and hard about whether the way our nations are governed truly represent the world we live in.
As a white, middle-class, university-educated female, my elected representative in federal government — a white, middle-class, university-educated female - comes pretty close to representing my views. She does this fairly well, since we share similarities in backgrounds — shaped by our whiteness, middle-class upbringing and education. But she’s also the elected representative for the newly arrived immigrant family who operates their small business in my neighbourhood, and those in my neighbourhood who live in social housing, and those in my neighbourhood who live in multi-million dollar homes and have never known anything other than multi-million dollar lives. Whilst she does well at her job, I think it’s safe to say not all my neighbours feel she represents them well. And try as she may, consultative efforts usually result in the outspoken and incensed sharing their views, and a large majority of the community remain unheard. We need a better way, where we can get a true cross-section of the communities we live in together to make decisions — representative representatives, rather than elected representatives.
Luckily, some pretty clever folk have been on to this for a while. For a few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside Lyn Carson, an expert in public participation, community engagement and deliberative democracy, and a co-founder and Director of the newDemocracy Foundation. She, and newDemocracy, believe in deliberative democracy as an alternative to current systems of decision-making and governance. I agree, I had a chat with her about how deliberative processes might be better suited to traditionally female traits, and in turn, whole communities.
We talked about Democracy in Ancient Greece, and how it achieved representation through random selection of groups representative of the community. These groups were not elected, but were randomly selected to ensure equal representation of the community. And they deliberated. They collaborated. They offered opinions and expertise. And they made decisions. Decisions by the people for the people.
In Ancient Athens, governance was accepted as democratic when public offices were allocated by lot (random selection), and as oligarchic when they were filled by election. Deliberative democracy with random selection is democracy in its purest form. It by-passes the zero-sum game that partisan politics has become. It allows groups that are truly representative of populations to inform themselves on issues, collaborate with others, and make decisions.
What makes this a more female way of governing?
Before any men reading this reach for their cyber pitchforks, what I call ‘female traits acquired through socialisation’ can be acquired by people from any gender, not just females. The system of democracy we’re disillusioned with is one developed by men in the 18th and 19th centuries, promoting traditional masculine traits of exercising power over others and promoting individualism. A better system, a system built on deliberative democracy, therefore needs less of these traits.
For one, deliberative forums require collaboration, looking after the well-being of the whole. The socialisation of women (to become mothers, carers for others) promotes a focus on collective well-being. Collaboration inevitably leads to better decisions as individuals work together to build on individual knowledge, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Decision-making systems where leaders ignore collective intelligence, or refuse to acknowledge the expertise of others, are limited at best, doomed to fail at worst.
Women are also socialised to listen more than talk. Whilst generational change may mean a better balance of both, deliberative forums that require more listening than they do talking mean a way of decision-making that encourages and rewards a more female trait. Listening more does not imply remaining silent. It instead implies a respect and consideration for the ideas of others. If two heads are better than one, the consideration of many ideas naturally should lead to better decisions.
It isn’t enough when we celebrate the hiring or election of a woman to a position of power as progress. Certainly, we should celebrate it, but it isn’t enough. It frustrates me when we encourage women to ‘lean in’ and be more like their male counterparts to advance professionally. Absolutely, shattering the glass ceiling is to be celebrated. But if women are elected, hired, promoted or placed in positions of power within systems that perpetuate masculine ideals — ideals that men are socialised to be more familiar with and can conform to more easily — we still have work to do in imagining a better, fairer way forward.
So what can we do about it?
Next time you lead a decision-making process in your workplace, your family or your community, consider what traits you can encourage by setting up a truly deliberative way of decision-making. Start with what you can affect directly. Your community, your family, your place of work… The idea will spread. And one day in our enlightened future, maybe our elected officials will return decision-making to those they are meant to represent in order to make better decisions.
Not possible, you say? Too time-consuming, resource-wasting to sit around and talk? Examples of effective, deliberative decision-making processes exist at the local, state/provincial and federal levels. Systems that have existed for hundreds of years won’t change overnight, but perhaps the energy we’ve collectively put in to criticising electoral systems this year could be put to better use to create better democracies.