06 May 2012

Democracy at the Margins

I have been waylaid on the first leg of a trip to Sweden and so am sitting in Newark, NJ. Hardly seems like a fair trade to me.

In any case, two recent news articles have caught my attention. The first, here at The Guardian really is a manifesto of sorts for a resurgent civil society in the EU. The signatories apparently think that volunteering on a mass scale will presage democratic renewal. The second, here at The New York Times is a brief report on the electoral surge of the "Pirate Party" in German electoral politics. This insurgency seems only slightly less naive. Here are some top-of-the-head reactions.

Working in reverse, I would simply point out that - setting aside the apparently right-wing inflections of the Pirates' politics -  political discontent is not a sufficient basis for "direct democracy." There is a naivety at work here in the notion that there are technological solutions (internet voting) to problems of political institutions. The Pirates seem to think that if only everyone simply acted on their ethical commitments and voted directly things would be remarkably different for the better. Count me unpersuaded. First, among the things we understand about voting is that different methods of counting votes (even from the same initial distribution of inputs) often generate quite different electoral outcomes. Institutions matter. Second, the very fact that the Pirates are contesting seats in regional legislative assemblies - in itself an admirable course of action - is a reminder that argument and debate are essential characteristics (both historically and conceptually) of representative institutions. And, to the best of my knowledge, the internet does not afford a terribly useful platform for productive exchange of political views. We may not reside in Cass Sunstein's dystopian virtual world, but where exactly do we find productive political exchange, instances where people actually listen and change their minds?

As for the luminaries (many of whom I admire) who are trying to persuade us that rejuvenating civil society will enhance democratic politics, I am not at all persuaded. This seems a variation on the argument that democracy presupposes robust "social capital" for which I have never seem a terribly coherent or compelling argument. There are a number of problems with the proposal being floated here too. How are the multitudes of volunteers to be coordinated? Can they actually accomplish more than providing compassionate care on a on-to-one basis? Nothing wrong with that, but it will not remedy any large scale problem. How will the putative moral uplift that such a campaign will generate actually get translated into politics? Isn't this proposal simply a capitulation to the neo-liberal view that government cannot provide remedies to aggregate problems? Can reliance on charity/philanthropy and volunteerism do anything more than further undermine the notion that persons deserve political-economic security as a matter of citizenship? Won't the sort of campaign being peddled here simply further subvert confidence in the efficacy of democratic politics? If the problem is that the 'politics of fear' is subverting the notion of a common Europe, what is required is a political campaign that might directly reply to the apprehensions and anxieties of those who are frightened or insecure. That would be a democratic reply, and a direct one to boot.

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Blogger Peter Haschke said...

Jim, the fact that a "leader" of the Pirate Party made an ill-chosen comparison and that some members of the party abused the party's open, unorganized, and unregulated structure to spew crazy right-wing drivel doesn't change the fact that the party is decidedly left. Yes the Pirates struggled to respond and couldn't quickly figure out how to reconcile notions of tolerance, open organization, grass-roots democratic ideals with running a party and getting rid of idiots. At the end of the day, however, the Pirates seem to closely follow the script of the Green Party in the 70s - minus the emphasis on the environment. The Greens as a party gained momentum when the student protests of '68 found a consensus topic (namely their joint opposition to nuclear power/weapons) to rally around. The Pirates least common denominator appears to be internet freedom and privacy. But again my impression is that the Pirates (incl 99% of their "membership") are far left of center. I.e. more fragmentation of the German left (SPD, Greens, Die Linke, and now the Pirates), versus consolidation on the right (CDU/CSU and the declining, dying FDP).

06 May, 2012 15:19  

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