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We Ought To Do More Than Vote

3.28.2006

From Irish election:


Lets face it, being a citizen in Irish society is not the most difficult. Every five years we are invited (not forced) to go to the polls and cast our vote. To what extent however should voting in a General Election be seen as the measure of participation in democratic society. Ought Irish people do more than elect representatives?

More... This is a question as old as the hills. A recent report from the Democracy Commission at TASC (PDF) discussed a number of issues reagarding participation in Irish Democracy. Our current model see us vote while under the impression that to some extent all politicians are the same and it is only rarely that our will is to be found in Government or Legislative outcomes. The interests of louder bodies are heard first, the wealthy are listened to more, business comes first, these are refrains not only of the left but of all sides of society. Should anyone feel Im being too harsh check out Mahon or Irishcorruption to diabuse yourself of the genuine concern behind this assertions.

"It does require, however, that people can have their say on matters that affect them."

I think that in principle we would all agree that the true spirit of democracy lies somewhere in the median between the full-bodies representation we have at the moment where our autonomy and deliberation is outsourced to politicians for five years and the Athenian model of direct deliberation where all 4 million+ Irish people descend on Kildare Street for three days a week.

Aristotle defines the citizen as "one who shares in the administration of justice and the holding of office". Where justice ought be read in a wider sense of social justice and the division of goods as well as the common usage of justice. On such a model of citizenship the population of Irish democracy radically reduces from 4 million to some couple of (tens of?) thousand or so. Many however would condemn such a model as wholly unworkable, in today's society we have large populations and the need for quick decisions and workable systems of government necessarily excludes the vast majority from some sort of involvement with the running of state and society.

I disagree and believe that it should not be so. The Irish are in the luck position to have a large amount of wealth generated in the last few years, we are bursting with technological nous and other forms of intellectual strength. There are few logisitical reasons why Irish democracy cannot be more accomodating to the idea of popular deliberation.

Dr. Iseult Honohan of UCD School of Politics and IR (in the report) suggests "two dimensions to active democratic citizenship, status and practice. Legal status grants certain rights, such as equality before the law, freedom of speech and association, etc., and certain duties or obligations, such as obeying the law, paying taxes, etc. In this sense being a citizen is essentially a matter of laws, and of fixed rights and obligations. The practice of citizenship on the other hand involves such things as participating in self-government, sitting on juries, informing oneself about the democratic process, supporting the public good and defending one’s country, and refers to people’s attitudes and behaviour."

Active democratic citizenship is the involvement in more than voluntary social and local schemes, it is the retaking of institutional government by the idea of popular involvement. I will even fall short of arguing for popular veto but certainly the capacity is with us for more active democratic citizenship. The active forii for public deliberation and engagement now exist only on the periphary (boards.ie, blogs etc) and there is little or no statutory observation given to the debate. Indeed such debate often lacks the legitimacy of having a mass of people arguing positions.

Before I go further, I ought address why popular deliberation ought be considered a good thing. The current trend in political discourse is to maximise freedom arguments and to see the state as thief in chief. Perhaps there are elements of this argument that ought be heard, considered and then accepted and rebuffed yet the counter trend to see in the state the expression of another vital and essential element of the human social consciousness is one which offers such an idea oxygen. For those of us who eye the state as provider and expect of it, the state too needs reform, it ought be more open and suceptible to the intervention of the people even those who would see it done away with. There is a public sphere, a popular forum for discourse the realm of social action, it simply is. To ignore it is to bracket an equally vital component of political society and to argue away elements of being.

The condition of the public realm deteriorates when we, as components and actors in it, are alienated from control or input over it. The decision reached by the most people has by definition considered the most opinions and most options. The enabling of the popular sphere ought not be seen as crude tyranny of the majority for it is not intended as a simple referendum on each issue. It is a complex means to achieve an active and engaged population capable of approaching a problem from thier private perspective and also of empathising and contributing to the broader social narrative.

A population does not reach that state simlpy be being abandoned to their own compartmentalized space, active exposure to ideas, history and life in general ought be included. The educational system which currently equips our kids so capably for the private industry of their choice needs to address its deficiencies in the skills needed to negoitate and build an active and vibrant public sphere.

Where we see democracy as the outsourcing of our autonomy and interests for five years at a time falls prey to the marxist dictum that you are simply electing a different set of oppressors. I personally feel that the people need the right to ask questions of their own and have a hand in deciding the fate of a people. Not a national/exclusionary people but a people that is a polity, a cosmopolitan society of equals.

Back to our report: "Democratic deliberation aims to ‘reinvigorate our understanding and practice of democracy in a pluralist and complicated world through emphasising democracy itself as a process that requires constant deliberation or dialogue'".

Indeed bringing the majority of the people along with the thinking of a state encourages greater strength and pride in the democratic integrity of a state, not mere resignation at the futility of casting a vote every so often. Indeed when such resignation is dominant and futility the most common feeling, there are truly crises of legitimacy.

Some of the commissions ideas are off the wall, most will only work with a sustained root-and-branch commitment to enhancing democracy in this state. Deliberative polls, citizen juries, Preferenda(sic). Indeed an eyecatcher is the idea of a popular bill, submitted to the legislature or the people for consideration with the required number of signatures. California here we come.

But the issue at heart is not the means but the principle, today's Ireland can sustain all sorts of deliberative arrangements that bring the people much closer to power, bring decisions much closer to the ground and make scrutiny not an indulgence or a play thing for the opposition but an inbuilt part of the system. I believe a commitment to a more expansive democracy, democratising the public sphere and re-forming government is a good thing for the Irish people.

The increased vitality of debate, interaction of citizens and recognition of mutual interdependence is at once the logical extension of democratic thought and the taboo of representative democracy. Sure we agree to elect others to decide for us, but what is wrong with working alongside those who represent us on issues of great importance?

Many would say we were radical to pursue some economic policies in the 80s leading to the Celtic Tiger, well let us be radical about social inclusion and the reenforcement of the public sphere. Deliberative democracy ought be firmly planted high on the agenda for the next election.

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