Saving democracy: three (r)evolutionary remedies

Democratic malaise, deconsolidation, backsliding, illiberalism, decline, erosion, rupture, decay, or simply: crisis. This 'conceptual bazaar' shows that democracy does not necessarily keep up with today’s challenges. Łukasz Wordliczek suggests three ways to save democracy

Voluntary munificence

While writing this piece, I did some informal, albeit thorough, research. First, I went to a nearby bank. The cashier told me I can authorise practically anyone I wish to have access to my savings.

Then I walked to a local clinic. Here also I needed to fill in a short form (half a sheet of paper) to give access to my medical records; again, to a person of my choice.

Last but not least, I visited the HR office at my university. Here, the case was not so simple. I cannot grant others access to my personal records, including payroll information. However, there is still a legal way I can authorise others to know how much I earn: by filing a joint tax return.

I contacted some of my friends living in other countries. It turns out we can quite easily reveal most of our personal data to others – freely and voluntarily.

This is convenient in many situations. But any practical considerations stop when we turn to one of the last strongholds of – to put it mildly – old-fashioned human inventions: democracy.

High hopes for democratic innovations

Democracy has enjoyed many advocates across ages, continents, and cultures. But if it is so successful, why all the current backlash, as the 'conceptual bazaar' shows? Can we make democracy more democratic?

Advocates of democratic innovations will say yes – there are myriad options from which to choose. Many of them are rather limited in terms of space and substance. Take, for example, sortition (lottery), participatory budgets, and citizens’ assemblies. I’d argue, therefore, that three other options are worth our attention.

A wealth of innovative options can revolutionise democracy and make it more democratic

Two of them, interestingly, have been around since the dawn of democracy, but are not in widespread use. And the revolutionary nature of the third remedy makes it rather provocative.

Evolutionary ways to save democracy

Most people have heard of citizens’ legislative initiatives and referendums. Surprisingly, however, they are not part of the common repertoire of democratic innovations. Their potential is significant because they address empowerment, participation, deliberation, public action, equality, inclusiveness, and other critical civic virtues. At the same time, however, they remain rare in democracies. (Switzerland is the obvious – albeit not the only – outlier.)

Why not exploit the potential in these two purely democratic vehicles to help save democracy? The answer, presumably, is political will, or the lack of it.

Obviously, there must be certain set limits within which citizens can take action. Without them, democracy would end up as a kind of 'plebiscitary' populism. On the other hand, however, even when constituents have a say, the final decision is in the representatives' hands, and that does not empower voters with civic values.

Thus, it seems rational to balance the two extremes of citizens' over-activity and passiveness by designing citizens’ legislative initiatives – and particularly referendums – as bottom-up, legally binding measures.

Looking beyond

Let us therefore now turn to a less familiar democratic measure. Interestingly, the standard definition of democracy embraces electoral designs that make a particular system of government a democracy. Of these, the non-transferable one-person-one-vote is a minimum benchmark. Can we move beyond this?

Consider 'liquid democracy'. It basically stipulates that voters may delegate their vote to someone they trust. Mandatory voting aside, if we assume that one is free to vote or not to vote, a voter motivated to have their say could therefore 'exploit' another constituent’s abstention.

Liquid democracy lets voters to delegate their vote to others, moving democracy beyond the one-person-one-vote system

Some versions of liquid democracy also stipulate that votes are divisible: you can authorise your trustee to vote for you only on a particular issue. As revolutionary as this may seem, does this leave any more room for innovation?

Revolutionary remedy

Notwithstanding some variation among democracies, the common pattern of universal suffrage limits voting to citizens over 18 or 21 years old. Here again, however, Switzerland, which granted suffrage as late as 1971, is an outlier. But why not also empower younger people to vote, too?

This would upgrade democracy by acknowledging that, depending on demographics, around a fifth of the citizenry would have some voice. They would not, however, have a choice. Why is that?

By transferring their votes to legal guardians, dependents would gain some democratic voice

I call for a design where dependents can transfer (note liquid democracy again) their votes to legal custodians. The two parents in a family of four would therefore have four votes to cast, not two. These votes would be used either in accordance with the children's wishes or based on parents' final say. (The question of when parents are allowed to overrule their child's will is a matter for a separate blogpiece.)

Two reservations pop up instantly for this endeavour to involve youngsters in the democratic process.

Firstly: how do you calculate the votes in the case of an odd number of family members? Would you divide the votes somehow between the parents? These are important questions but easily solved because they call for a tailored rather than a generic formula.

Secondly, many people live alone or without dependents. These people might argue that in such a scenario, they are systemically 'disadvantaged'. Quite the contrary – they would still enjoy the powers they already have. Remember the one-person-one-vote rule?

The suggested design addresses at least three problems and challenges. First, it acknowledges that those not empowered today could have some say. This may well build legitimacy among future voters whose interests are affected today. Also, it acknowledges that people raising children have more leverage over voting power. Demographic-welfare concerns about giving families incentives to raise children is widespread across the world today. And last, but not least, it would stop dead-end attempts to lower the voting age (typically down to 16). All of the above are not minor gains.

My plea for saving democracy…

None of the above measures are the magic bullet that will save democracy. But we should at least consider them based more on merit and less on emotions.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Łukasz Wordliczek
Łukasz Wordliczek
University Professor, Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora, Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University

Łukasz teaches courses on US and Polish political systems and foreign policy.

He is the author, co-author and editor of nine books, several dozen articles and conference papers on relations between technology and politics, non-state actors, public policy and political science methodology.

His two most recent articles are: Beyond Bag of Words and Monolingual Models? A Machine Translation Solution to Solving Classification Tasks for Comparative Research (with Akos Mate, Miklós Sebők, Dariusz Stolicki and Ádám Feldmann) and Neural Networks and Political Science: Testing the Methodological Frontiers (both forthcoming in early 2023).

Łukasz is currently setting up the Polish branch of the Comparative Agendas Project.

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