Long democracies

This article is part of the Futures in Long-termism series. You can read all other related blogs by following the links at the bottom of the text.

The recent explosion of citizen assemblies around the world points to a systemic problem of contemporary democracies: The unprecedented futures we’re facing require a level of citizen participation that can drive collaborative rather than centralised innovation. Our current mechanisms for democratic participation fail to incorporate meaningful deliberation processes; as Clay Shirky has noted, “the people experimenting with participation don’t have legislative power, and the people who have legislative power are not experimenting with participation.” Long Democracies could examine new deliberative mechanisms in relation to their contexts to support governance that engages in long-term decision making to imagine and plan potential civic futures.

Short-termism is nowhere more apparent than in the world of politics. Short-termism is in fact a standard government practice all over the world, employed to assess policies. Social discount rate is a technique policy-makers use in their cost-benefit analysis to gauge whether to make investments in policies with a long-term impact. The rate weighs the upsides for future people against costs borne in the present-day, and proposes that the calculated value of benefits to future economies and people should steadily decline over time. For example, if you’re weighing up whether to build an expensive sea-bridge to foster trade, it’ll tell you that a five per cent boost in economic growth in 12 months is better than a five per cent boost in 12 years. When applied to intergenerational problems, it effectively weighs impacts on future generations lower than on the present generation.

This instrument is warping our ability to decide for longer time periods. In combination with the crisis democracies are facing today, it would seem that there is an inability to address structural problems and an inability to represent future generations.

In 2019, the Edelman trust barometer, revealed that 75 per cent of people claim to trust their employer to “do what is right” compared to 48 per cent for governments. This pervasive crisis in political trust has motivated prime ministers in countries as varied as Japan (Takeo Miki, 1974), the Netherlands (Jan Peter Balkenende, 2002) and the United Kingdom (David Cameron, 2010) to pledge to “restore” or “rebuild” the public trust in politics.

But there is a persistent inability to understand and represent current generations. Despite the growth in the global voter population and the number of countries that hold elections, the global average voter turnout has decreased significantly since the early 1990’s. In the United States, gerrymandering has increasingly warped the translation of voter preferences into political outcomes. By some measures, close to 45 per cent of the US population lives in gerrymandered districts where outcomes heavily favor one party, diminishing the need for parties to consider the preferences of voters outside their base. Given all this, it’s unsurprising that political scientists have found that senior staff members in Congress—the people who help their bosses decide what bills to pursue and support—have “no clue what Americans want.

But how can we democratise deliberation to restore political trust and most importantly how can we form new decision-making processes that shift citizenship relationships towards the future?

 

Experimental probes

We’re proposing a two-part experimental probe to investigate the potential of new democratic instruments in fostering collective action beyond five year representative cycles. The first part inquires into redesigning parliamentary processes to drive long-term decision making; the second part advances the idea of a new piece of temporary institutional infrastructure to construct a legitimate transition in the European Union.

a. Parliaments for the future

Innovation has entered multiple sectors, from medicine to biology, engineering and economics, so why hasn’t it been applied to democracy? Historian David Van Reybrouck claims that citizens have an “unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections.” However, as Reybrouck points out, elections were invented by the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789 as a way of revealing the ‘will of the people’. If elections were invented we may be able to invent new instruments fit for the 21st century, that will allow us to focus on the ‘long-term will of the people’.

Old-fashioned deliberative instruments and rituals persist; elections, opinion polls and referendums are employed to allow for a momentary, static expression of public opinion. More worryingly, our current instruments have been transformed to tools of political manipulation, with Cambridge Analytica meddling in the US campaigns during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

There are a number of ways in which we could start experimenting with democracy. For example, a study in Japan incorporated imaginary future generations into democratic negotiation processes and concluded that, faced with members of an imaginary future generation, 60 per cent of participants selected an option that favored sustainability; in contrast, when the imaginary future generation was not salient, only 28 per cent of participants chose the sustainable option. This is a remarkable observation that reveals how changing our deliberation processes to be biased towards future-thinking could result in different political outcomes.

Beyond decision-making negotiations, we can experiment with our voting systems. Michael Abramowicz has suggested that a new system, he names Preditocracy, could incorporate market mechanisms for conducting adjudication. He claims, prediction markets can identify the wisdom in crowds because the market only attracts participants who feel confident enough in their predictions and are willing to place money on their judgement, as a result better representing citizens’ preferences. Another experiment is quadratic voting—which has been used by the Colorado House of Representatives, to decide on legislative priorities. The process formed a new way of setting legislative priorities by applying weights, through tokens, to express strong and weak preferences. The process was facilitated by an interface driving us to consider the possibilities provided by technology in supporting democratic experimentations.

A country that is disrupting democracy through technology is Taiwan. In 2014 vTaiwan created the first country-wide digital deliberation platform based on pol.is. This open source platform fosters online discussions in a gamified manner in order to find common ground between diverse opinions, instead of surfacing divisions between citizens. The outcome is consensual statements rather than the acceptance of the will of the 52 per cent. vTaiwan has already been used to agree on permissions relating to Uber and is now employed to deliberate the use of e-scooters in cities. Decide Madrid is another digital platform which allows any resident to propose a new local law which other residents vote to support. Parlement et Citoyens also involves the public in law-making processes; stakeholders are invited to make suggestions to draft bills, which are then summarised and communicated to parties before the bills are officially submitted to parliament.

We need to form flexible democracies that can constantly update their formats of deliberation and adopt future-oriented structures for long-term social outcomes, perpetually transforming the architecture of representative democracy. We propose, Parliaments for the Future as a research project to investigate emerging democratic innovations that tackle the current capacity deficits of parliaments characterised by institutional inertia and regulatory barriers surrounding meaningful action towards long-term issues.

b. EU citizen juries

Until we can develop and establish more permanent ways of constantly updating our democracies, the urgency of the issues we’re facing today (e.g. climate change, tech monopolies, populism) require immediate action. As ecological degradation, public debts and technological risks become a reality, we no longer have the luxury of time to treat the future as a distant outpost. We’re in need of temporary easy-to-set-up tools that can function as quick injections to gain legitimacy and arrive at decisions on pressing issues.

To this end, we propose to construct a European Citizen Jury—selected through sortition from across all EU citizens—to advance and invest in a portfolio of options and experiments that accelerate the transition of European Governance towards long-term outcomes, while producing empowered, informed and supported subjects. We, therefore, propose to research, design and convene a European Citizens’ Jury—chaired by a European Commissioner in a dual purpose manner; to both challenge current processes of mainstream politics and provide a meaningful platform for democratic experimentation and innovation to accelerate the much-needed shift towards the long-term.

Citizens’ Juries models are currently proliferating at all levels of governance and across countries, instituting new forms of political engagement and demonstrating deliberation opportunities to practice collective long-term decision-making whilst adding value to representative democracies.

For example AmericaSpeaks (now defunct) uses networked, small table deliberation to make decisions. Each table discusses proposals, with the help of a facilitator and a note-taker. A “theme team” oversees what each table is discussing and summarises the output, which is then presented to the entire assembly, who have individual voting keypads to prioritise results. AmericaSpeaks engaged with a variety of issues such as health care, climate change, budgeting and national policy. Another example is the Citizen’s Assembly of Scotland comprising of 130 citizens, with the aim to ask: “What kind of country are we seeking to build?”, “How best to overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century?” and “What further work should be carried out to give information necessary to make informed choices about the future of the country?”. The Assembly is meeting six times between October 2019 and April 2020 to deliberate on these questions and make recommendations. The Citizen Dialogues on Canada’s Energy Future, convened 150 citizens from 2017 to 2018, across different perspectives and backgrounds to advise the federal government on energy policy. The dialogues were led by Natural Resources Canada as part of its larger Generation Energy public consultation.

These new forms of representative democracy ask citizens about the what and how rather than who, rendering the people a performative agency, a term developed by Judith Butler to describe democracies as being constantly performed by citizens. Platforms that allow mini-public forums for political deliberation could transfer discussions outside the parliament and in between citizens, creating consensus well before parliamentary proceedings and complementing elected parliamentary chambers. We could create an EU mini-publics—at different points of the policy cycle; understanding why, how and where to institutionalise to test different scales of decision-making would be essential. Could an EU Citizen Jury address the ‘legitimacy deficit’ of our transnational democratic institutions and re-establish collective collaboration for a shared long-term vision?

This is one of another six experimental zones and probes we’re investigating as part of our work on Futures in Long-termism.



We would like to thank Maddy Capozzi and Joëlle Dubé of the Office of Rules and Norms at Concordia University, for sharing research and conversations.

These pieces have been co-authored by Chloe Treger, Indy Johar and Konstantina Koulouri. The visuals were developed by Juhee Hahm and Hyojeong Lee.

This portfolio of experimental probes is part of broader system of interventions being prototyped by the Long Term Alliance.

The Long Term Alliance is co-founded by EIT Climate KIC, Dark Matter and a cohort of partners focused on five Areas of Action, which when combined seek to leverage systemic impact—changing behaviour, mindsets and action towards a long-term oriented society.

Our five Areas of Action are: Resetting the Rules of the Game for Regulation and Governance; Rethinking Notions of Value to Reform the Financial System; Empowering Individuals through Information Transparency, Capability Building & Behaviour Change; Enabling Collective Action & Creating New Democratic Spaces to Create the Ground Swell Pressure for Change; and Shifting Culture & Narratives to Promote Long-Term Mindsets.

In parallel and in recognition of the scale of change necessary, EIT Climate KIC together with Dark Matter and our partners are also experimenting with new instruments, mechanisms and vehicles that can invest over longer time frames, invest in the institutional deep code experimentation necessary, invest vertically in portfolios spanning deep culture change to new institutional infrastructures to accelerate the transition of Europe towards a long-term society.

Futures in long-termism

The Long Term Alliance is co-founded by EIT Climate KIC.

 

This article first appeared on Dark Matter’s Medium account.

 
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