19 May 2023
I agree with many of the illnesses diagnosed by Julian Burrett afflicting the current political culture of representative democracies in Western Europe. Yet, I suspect that his solution does not, in fact, meet its own requirements in order to set recovery in motion. Setting aside Burrett’s analysis, I want to highlight a few implications of his proposal.
Who is directing the decisions?
The first question is whether Burrett can resolve the issue of diversity in his proposal. Burrett argues that the political elite follows a natural order of maintaining a status quo, having no interest in overcoming the “world that never imagined non-landowners having a choice, let alone women”. His solution: “I want to be one of the 650 Members of Parliament who vote on legislation and I want to allow my decisions to be directed by my constituents”. This proposal would have to answer the question of how to get all those who have either never been close to politics, have turned away from it or simply cannot afford to participate due to lack of time, money or a sense of self-efficacy to participate (1).
Thus, it can be dangerous to simply vote for what those who participate on the platform Burrett imagines, want, without ensuring diversity in this participation. Such an approach disregards pressing questions such as: How can politics and the population be brought closer together? Which resources (economic, social, time) do people lack and why? What power relations are at work and how do they affect people?
If, for example, structurally marginalised groups are less involved overall, precisely because they have rarely had the experience that it is of any use or that policies are made for them, then these voices are also less represented on this platform. Hence, the proposal would run the risk of primarily including those who already have a say. They could use the platform to pursue their own interests and use it as an opportunity to exert influence.
What does the process of voting look like?
Closely related to this is the second problem: the process. If Burrett wants the people to direct his vote, is he voting for what the majority of people directing him want? Who is this majority and how to solve the above-mentioned imbalance in citizen engagement? His proposal: a platform (valuemy.vote) where information can be shared, debate can take place and decisions can be made. What exactly does valuemy.vote look like? Who curates the information that is shared? Who moderates the debate? An unmoderated platform risks exacerbating the dynamics described above. It can be a gateway for lobbyists to freely highlight the information that supports their agenda and solidify existing power structures. Furthermore, without moderation, it captures voices that are influenced by a system that prioritises strong opinions over constructive negotiation of nuanced debates, which again is enhanced by online platforms.
Furthermore, this voting, portrayed as the citizen’s voice, can certainly be criticised on the basis of an understanding of a politician as someone who makes decisions responsibly, channelling a lot of knowledge and perspectives: understood in this way, Burrett would simply relinquish this responsibility. This also has implications for free political will formation.
What does one vote really change?
Let’s assume for a moment that Burrett gets a diverse group of people to value his vote on the platform and help direct his vote. And let’s assume he keeps his promise and votes accordingly. Then a third possible criticism would be: as one vote out of hundreds in parliament, this has no real impact on the outcome. What it does achieve is attention, both in the media and by sharing the experience in the political arena. In the best case, it conveys appreciation for the people and inspires other politicians. Burrett can only achieve these effects, however, if he can testify that the results are indicative of a diverse population, that they were produced in a democratic process and that they were not manipulated in any way by, for example, one-sided knowledge transfer or lobbying trolls.
Still, we need people like Burrett who want to increase participation and demand it to be a real force in politics. And I would like to defend the approach that politicians, know what concerns their constituents based on their diverse lived realities when they make decisions in parliament. A solution might be similar to what we (Es geht LOS) are currently doing in Germany with the “Hallo Bundestag” project: All MPs of a constituency (no matter which party) come together with people randomly drawn from that constituency. (For diversity we use the outreach lottery procedure) and discuss a federal policy issue. The basis for discussion is an accompanying booklet produced in cooperation with various scientific institutes. The process is professionally moderated so that everyone has their say. Our experience is that the MPs take what is discussed into their political work as a reflection of the diverse perspectives in their constituency.
(1) Nerdy sidenote on the analysis: The establishment’s resistance to change is not following a natural order as Burrett is arguing. Rather, it is (hu)man-made orders that have always relied and still rely heavily on exploitation and, hence, structural discriminatory practices like racism, sexism, and classism. They have evolved through different centres of power (god, the king, the capitalist) and have milled their effects into every pore of society. Those centres of power and the orders following from them are always contingent because they do not follow any objective logic. Hence, seeing those practices and orders as naturally given obscures the possibility of change. But this is untrue if we look at our world’s history. Change is possible. And I am sure Burrett would agree, otherwise, there would be no point in trying.