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One Hell of a To-Do List for Saving Democracy

Here’s how we defeat economic inequality and political alienation

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

French economist Thomas Piketty used a century’s worth of data to show two terrifying things:

  1. The return on capital is higher than overall economic growth, so the rich tend to get richer and society becomes increasingly unequal over time.
  2. Only one thing quickly and reliably reduces inequality: war (or its near-relative and frequent progenitor, revolution).

Can our finance-driven, globalized hypercapitalism be tamed enough to make it compatible with democracy? Maybe. If we don’t figure out how, we’ll lose our comfortable Western democracies and the already shaky international liberal order they both model and support. We have maybe 20 years to save democracy and secure a progressive planetary order for the next century or two.

In my previous piece, I showed how we’ve tackled medium-sized clusterfucks, like acid rain or HIV/AIDS, using focused action on multiple fronts over a decade or more.

We need to apply that problem-solving skill to the systemic threat facing democracy.

Democracy’s two extinction-level threats in the United States and the UK are economic inequality and the quite rational political alienation it drives. Both countries are in the throes of a legitimacy crisis. Nothing feels right, for anyone. We have collectively lost faith in our future. Brexit and Trump showed that it’s not just economists who’ve noticed the system isn’t working.

A bit like the archetypal white working man each country imagines as its essential self, the UK and United States are both uniquely privileged yet manage to feel exceptionally hard done by. Leaders of each cultivate a “snowflake sovereignty” that believes cooperating with other countries is just another way to get screwed.

Photo: Anthony Quintano on Flickr

We have a substance problem, not a marketing problem. The answer is not to shut up about identity politics because it offends Rust Belt Man or, in the UK, True Labour Voter (also male). We won’t win by segmenting the audience and selling it a new version of the culture wars.

Economic Inequality: Here’s What We Need to Do

The answer is radical action on the root causes of economic inequality and political alienation.

Tax financial transactions and progressively tax inheritance, property, and income.

Piketty suggests a quite modest 2 percent tax on personal fortunes greater than $5 million. (It is a sign of how lost we currently are that your likely first reaction to that was, “That’s impossible.”)

Require financial transparency for all significant assets.

This needs to include overseas trusts and to legally require all public office holders to publish tax returns and all sources of income. Every day needs to be Paradise Papers day.

Use regional and international coordination to block capital flight, especially by tech firms.

Let’s start at the EU and G7.

Match the OECD norm on average health spending per person and maximize efficiency.

Dear America: One quarter of spending on administration is not efficient.

Dear United Kingdom: “Reorganizing” the whole system every decade while privatizing the cherry-picked assets is not efficient.

How much anger and resentment in U.S. politics is actually driven by day-to-day fear of bankruptcy or death for individuals and the people they love?

Regulate the tech platforms as what they really are.

That is, tax-evading monopoly suppliers of essential public goods.

And roll back decades of union busting.

Too radical? Get used to the feeling. Just protecting what we have will require sustained resistance and the construction of alternatives you will be repeatedly told are impossible. As Ursula LeGuin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

This won’t fix everything, but it may buy us a decade.

How to Fix Democracy Itself

You can’t regrow the state’s phantom limbs without a brain to control them. We need to fix what’s obviously broken.

Ditch “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral systems.

No ruling political party has won even a simple majority of UK votes since 1931. (Even the 1997 UK Labour “landslide” won just over 40 percent of total votes cast.) So, for almost a century, most of the people have felt they lost, no matter who’s in power. In swaths of the UK and United States, there is literally no point in voting. In both countries, FPTP also means only two parties have a chance of power. But coalition-building is how we get important stuff done. FPTP is too polarizing and unstable in an interconnected world where our enemies have weaponized freedom of speech against us. Hell, FPTP countries even go to war more easily. Now that we can be vaporized in our sleep when a man-baby throws a tantrum watching Fox & Friends, it’s clear that “winner takes all” is a terrible way to run anything more complicated than a slot machine.

Tidy up your political system.

America, in short order, you also need to sort out voter suppression, gerrymandering (Democrats, I’m looking at you, too), and campaign finance. You also need to protect the hell out of your midterm elections in October.

Yes, it’s a lot. It’s just the start.

For the love of God…

Avoid electronic voting.

Does this all seem too procedural or too small?

The political theorist Miriam Ronzoni says that to have a chance of taming capitalism, we need to focus not on which policies might work, but on “how to gather sufficient counter-power to put any progressive policy back on the agenda.”

So what we really need is to double down on democracy. Our enemies want democracy to fail so they don’t have to go on pretending there really is any. That means we need more democracy and deeper democracy and to stop condemning it with low expectations.

A couple years ago, Ireland created a Citizens’ Assembly to make better decisions on issues like climate change, an aging population, and abortion. For a year, 100 randomly selected people gathered to hear testimony, assess evidence, and have tough conversations about abortion. Led by retired judge Mary Laffoy, the citizens workshopped the hell out of the issue. The unthinkable happened: People came to a consensus view. They changed their minds, together. They presented their findings to an Irish parliamentary committee, and then it, too, changed its mind.

We think that almost never happens, right? But it turns out confirmation bias can be overcome. It’s just hard bloody work.

Now, the 2018 Irish referendum to make abortion legal might still be hijacked by the international hard right. (In mid-2017, I met a Leave.EU operative in London who had been engaged a year ahead, by people he wouldn’t name, to campaign against Ireland’s constitutional change.) But the Citizens’ Assembly shows that we can build a progressive politics that brings everyone along together.

I started this series saying we need to change what we can and burn the rest. These articles are about the political power of joy versus fear. But bonfires can be fun, too.

The existential threat our democracies face — accelerated by disinformation and dirty tricks—is not an even, “on the one hand and on the other” debate. Left-wing female MPs are not shot and stabbed to death in the street by misguided Marxists, but by the radicalized right. In 2017, more than half of all online abuse of British MPs went to one black, left-wing woman, Diane Abbot. Extreme-right American gunmen murder dozens of police, but no one seems to notice. Democracy is being murdered by the hard right. We need to see that for what it is and burn it out.

That’s some pretty dark stuff. Next time, I’ll talk about how we build the networks and the collective emotional resilience to double down on democracy, helping it survive and flourish by looking after everyone’s interests.

Irish writer based in London. Tech policy, possible futures, politics. @mariafarrell

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