Ingeborg van Teeseling

Is the Democratic System Broken?

Keeping last week’s shocking election result in mind, I’d like to pose a larger question: Is the democratic system broken? And if so, how do we fix it?


Okay, so what do we do now? Since the U.S. election result has sunk in, I have been through all the phases: give me a doona and I’ll bury myself; give me a gun and I’ll get on a plane; give me money and I’ll organize a visa for my stranded loved ones. I might yet choose to go for any or all of them, but for the moment I would like to propose something else.

Like The Big Smoke Australia Editor-in-Chief said, fear will do your head in, so let’s see if we can get control back and counter the angst.

First: an analysis of the problem. What we call democracy, in Australia and in the U.S., is a very crude system where people get to say what they want to say once every three or four years only. If we’re lucky, we are asked for our opinion in an extra referendum or two, but from an Australian experience, now and in the past, we know that this is a blunt instrument as well, which hardly works the way we want it to. This is because in both elections and referendums, citizens only get the choice between two options. If there are others, they are only nominally available.

Look at the race between Clinton and Trump; did you know that there were another 29 people running who collectively won more than 6 million votes, or 4.9% of the population? Given the fact that the difference between Clinton and Trump was minimal, the 4.9% could have made the difference but chose not to.

Democracy has got a bad reputation at the moment. In July, the World Values Survey and Harvard did a study into Millennials and their feelings about democracy. They found that in the U.S., 75% of people born in the 1980s thought democracy was not “essential” versus 25% of people born in the 1930s. A quarter of the Millennials considered democracy a “bad or very bad” system and 1 in 6 was convinced that it would be good if the military would rule the country, preferably with a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament or elections.” In France, it is even worse. There, the Institut Montaigne and Le Monde found that 57% think democracy doesn’t function “well or at all” and that 33% prefer a “regime autoritaire.” They are convinced that “elections change nothing” (70%), because “the system doesn’t listen to the citizens” (65%).

Filmmaker Michael Moore, one of the only people who predicted a Trump victory months ago, said that voters go for people like Trump “just because they can.” He calls it “closet anarchism,” and a “fuck you” to the system.

The consequence has been, as we have seen, that people vote against what they see as the system and in favor of men (mostly) who present themselves as a counterforce. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is one example, but not the only one by a mile. In the last couple of decades, we have seen the elections of Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Hun Sen in Cambodia, Sheik Hasina in Bangladesh, and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand. They all lead their countries with iron fists, “power over” (as opposed to “power with”), and the style of an autocrat. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Sheik Hasina was one of the first to congratulate Trump on his win and his “extraordinary leadership.” Of course, Putin was not far behind, after some alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and after one of his mates had threatened that if Clinton would be chosen, she would be “the last U.S. president, ever.”

Because this is how these people operate. Duterte is proud of the fact that his countrymen have started killing druggies by the thousands; he has even said, “I don’t care about human rights, believe me”—and I believe him. Although it might offend the people voting for the populists slightly, they are willing to accept these kinds of methods (and those of Trump), because they look like decisive action. And we know from Hitler and the Nazis that action, any action, is attractive to people who feel they aren’t listened to. And, herein, my friends, lies the problem. But also the solution.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, one of the only people who predicted a Trump victory months ago, said that voters go for people like Trump “just because they can.” He calls it “closet anarchism,” and a “fuck you” to the system. Although I understand his sentiment, I disagree. People vote for the Trumps of the world not because they can, but because they feel they can’t do anything else. Voting is the only power they’ve got, it is the only moment “the system” (that amorphous blob) actually listens to them. Sort of. The thing is, we all want to be heard, especially now that Facebook and Twitter teach us that what we’ve got to say is valuable.

So, the solution is not an end to democracy, which is what seems to be the trend at the moment. It is more democracy, better democracy, and democracy for a greater amount of people. What the grumpy voters are telling us is that they want to be involved. That they don’t want to be ignored anymore, but want to have a say. Fantastic, I think! Let’s go! A few months ago, I wrote about the Citizens’ Senate and the experiments with broader democracy in South Australia. Since then, many other proposals have come forward. There is the Electronic Townhall, a concept that wants to engage 1/50th of the population in discussions about issues every year, after which they cast electronic votes. Together, they would form an additional house in parliament and be exactly what the critics now say they crave: a more representative alternative to the “political class.”

Then we’ve got what is called “demarchy,” where a network of decision-making groups (chosen randomly from the electoral roll every year) deal with specific issues in a specific area. There is also the Citizen Legislature, with, as the name says, citizens operating as legislators assisted by the Senate as a house of review. And the idea of a Popular Branch, an extra branch of decision-makers, consisting of randomly chosen citizens, who indicate what the issues of the day are according to popular consent.

There are Consensus Conferences and Multi-Body Sortition, and many, many other alternative plans to the system of democracy we’ve got now. Hell, the American state of Maine has even voted for ranked-choice voting, which is a first step in a different direction. Frankly, I don’t care which one we go for. But we need to do something to turn the tide.

Remember what Churchill allegedly said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  And, “It is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”




Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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