11.27.16

The Revolution is Being Televised

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:37 pm by Administrator

This post isn’t directly related to alternate energy but discusses what I believe is a serious issue with the way that we govern ourselves. Problems translating the “will of the people” into political action will impact all policy decisions including those related to attaining a sustainable energy environment.

Political leaders, captains of industry, and ordinary citizens around the world are debating how it is that Donald Trump was elected President of the world’s greatest democracy and what impact that vote will have on a variety of issues, most notably International Trade and action on Climate Change.

Regardless of what Donald Trump may or may not do as President I feel that his election demands that we as citizens of the world ask ourselves a couple of very important questions. What is wrong with our democratic institutions and how can they be repaired?

The general consensus is that 2016 saw one of if not the most devisive and depressing U.S. Presidential campaigns ever. It made me recall the spoken-word song by Gil Scott-Herron from 1975. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – it turns out that he was wrong. The Revolution is being televised.

What we are witnessing is no less than the transformation of a very important exercise of citizen rights and responsibilities into a very bad reality TV show.

It started with a primary race that lacked focus on the Republican side, with more than a dozen contestants vying for the nomination trophy. Contrast that with a race on the Democrat side that pitted pure (perhaps naive) principle against a single-minded quest for power by an establishment politician with more than a few skeletons rattling around in her closet.

During the primaries Donald Trump’s schoolyard taunts alienated millions. But millions of people that feel alienated and manipulated by the “elite” applauded him for his lack of political correctness. Trump’s utter disdain for everything and everyone associated with “politics as usual” was a major factor that helped him win the primaries and the election.

Bernie Sanders, at the age of 75, tapped into the youthful desire for something to believe in. Young people in the U.S. and many other countries also feel alienated from a political system that seems sadly out of touch with their concerns and has been remarkably immune to their influence (consider the extremely short-lived impact of the ‘occupy’ movement).

Citizens of other countries (including my own Canada) might be tempted to characterize what went on during the 2016 U.S. Presidential race as a grotesque anomaly, something that could only happen in an electoral environment where candidates need close to a billion dollars to be “competitive” (2012 estimated spending by Obama/Romney was $2.6 billion). But I don’t think we need be so smug. The bigger issue, and in my opinion the reason that money has become such an important factor in elections, is the lack of engagement by the electorate.

If you truly believe that all politicians are power-hungry, unscrupulous, self-serving partisans, then why not vote for the one you find the most physically attractive, or the one that says that one thing in a TV ad that you relate to, or repeats one nasty allegation about their opponent that you find credible?

To me this is the fundamental problem that undermines the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. There have been too many cases where politicians campaign on a specific issue only to completely ignore it once elected. There have been far too many policy flip-flops, post-election priority adjustments, and “unexpected” financial revelations that prevent the successful candidate from keeping promises made during the election campaign.

The most troubling manifestation of this lack of engagement is the declining participation rates in the mature democracies. Routinely, about one in three eligible voters stays home. That was the case even in the hotly contested Brexit vote. Recent U.S. Presidential elections have experienced participation rates as low as 49%.

Citizens are not to blame. They are not lazy, stupid, or gullible. But they find themselves having to choose between politicians who all owe huge financial debts to the same group of wealthy backers. They also know that any politician they elect will be virtually invulnerable to popular opinion or voter dissatisfaction until shortly before the next election, if at all. For many people, far too many, the conclusion is that their vote really cannot make a difference so why bother.

In a world where societal changes come as fast as Donald Trump tweets and many people are unable to hold the same job for more than one election cycle our current form of democracy just doesn’t make sense.

Having one opportunity to express a political preference every 4 or 5 years is not enough to engage the electorate. That is especially true when the only way to express that preference is to physically travel to a polling station, wait in line for an indeterminate period of time and mark a piece of paper with a pencil.

Having to choose one political party that will necessarily represent a broad spectrum of positions on all manner of issues means that it is impossible for many citizens to feel totally comfortable with any of the available choices.

For the past 10-15 years most successful electoral campaigns have promised “change”. But after several sequential change agents have been elected voters continue to crave more change. Perhaps what is needed is not a change in policy or a change in the party in power but rather a change in the system itself.

Representative democracy is probably still the best hope to have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to quote Abraham Lincoln. It is not possible for even the most engaged citizen to obtain a deep enough understanding of every issue facing government to allow for direct democracy on a daily basis. So it does still make sense to choose representatives who can be tasked with the operation of government as a full-time job.

However, there are issues that arise on a regular basis that represent significant inflection points in the trajectory of the economy, care for the environment, civil rights and other issues of National importance. I would contend that for decisions being made on those issues there is a role for direct citizen input.

Many state legislatures make quite extensive use of citizen propositions which represent a kind of direct democratic input. As valuable as these propositions are they suffer from many of the same problems as general elections. Campaigns for or against propositions are conducted largely through Television advertising that attempts to summarize often complex issues into 15 or 30 second sound bites. And being associated with general elections, votes on propositions require that trip to the polling station that many electors find archaic.

I would suggest a different approach to the implementation of direct democracy in our political system. What follows are some ideas regarding how this might work.

What the Public Could Vote On

First, direct citizen input would be requested on motions put forward by elected representatives. The public would not have the authority to initiate votes. The process to do that would be overly complex and drafting legislation is complicated enough as it is.

So which votes would be subject to direct democratic input?

I would suggest that in Parliamentary democracies the Official Opposition could request public voting on Government motions. Sponsors of Private members bills could request public voting if they could attract the support of no less than 25% of all members.

In Congressional systems public voting on a Bill could be requested with the support of 25% of members in either the House of Representatives or the Senate (or equivalent bodies in other countries).

How Would the Public Vote?

Direct Democracy voting would be done on-line or by telephone over a 24 hour period. There are sufficient identity management and verification systems available today to ensure that the rule of one person, one vote is maintained. We already have secure access to bank information and even border security systems such as Trusted Traveler in North America. Voting on-line or by telephone can be made safe, secure, and reliable.

Implementing on-line and telephone voting will disenfranchise some citizens and that is unfortunate. Before such a system was implemented the extent of this problem should be quantified. With the ubiquitous use of mobile devices it may be an acceptably small number when considering the potentially significant expansion of participation that on-line and telephone voting could generate.

What Would be the Impact of a “No” Vote

A “Yes” vote by the public would have no impact other than to confirm that the motion being considered had public support.

A “No” vote would have implications and for that reason there should be some qualifications and limitations built into the system.

First, public votes should be “informed” votes to the greatest extent possible. I would suggest that a short (10 minute?) audio and video presentation be prepared that provides both proponents and opponents of the motion the opportunity to make their case. The presentation should include critiques of these arguments by at least 1 or 2 trusted non-political sources agreed upon by the proponents and opponents of the motion.

Citizens would be required to watch the video or declare that they were well enough informed by other means to cast a vote.

A “No” vote would only be considered valid if at least 10% of the electorate participated.

It might offend some people’s sensibilities regarding the definition of “democracy” but I do not believe that 50% + 1 is a reasonable measure of public will, particularly with regards to blocking a vote sponsored by the elected representatives of that same public. I would suggest that anything less than 55% “No” would have no impact other than letting elected representatives know that there was significant public opposition to the motion.

A 66% “No” vote would mean that the motion was defeated and could not be reconsidered for a specified period of time – perhaps 6 months or a year.

A “No” vote between 55% and 66% would automatically trigger a second public vote within a specified period of time – perhaps 2-4 weeks. A second public vote with a “No” greater than 55% would mean that the motion was defeated and could not be reconsidered for a specified period of time (treated as a 66% “No”).

In a Parliamentary system a public “No” vote would not bring down the government even if on a budget vote or other motion of confidence. Special rules regarding this type of motion would need to be implemented.

These specific recommendations are only meant to stimulate thoughtful consideration of options. The key goal of these proposals is to make democracy relevant to a greater number of citizens and consequently to encourage greater engagement in the democratic process. Without significant reforms to current practices liberal democracies run the risk of greater disenchantment with elections and elected governments.

I end by quoting Winston Churchill’s comments to the British Parliament in 1947.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried …

I agree that it is the best form of Government but the way it is implemented could benefit from some fundamental reforms.

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