The end of politicians?

By Richard Wilson

Published on

17 Feb 2022


This piece is #11 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.

On May 6 2021, Super Thursday election day in the UK, more candidates stood on what we might call a people power platform, than ever before.  

In March 2021 La Primaire Populaire was launched, to unite the left behind a single candidate for the French presidential elections in April this year. Democratic reform is a key demand of La Primaire Populaire, and to reflect this they selected their candidate, Christiane Taubira, through an open primary, that any French citizen over 16 could participate in and more than 390,000 have.

In 2019, the Sudanese Neighbourhood Resistance Committees (NRCs) were the grass-roots deliberative backbone for the movement that led to the ousting of dictator President Omar al-Bashir. 

We have of course seen much of this before, just look to Five Star in Italy, Podemos in Spain or even the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but this time it feels different.

One of the most striking features of the French Climate Citizens’ Assembly is that it was initiated by the Gilets Citoyens, a civil society collective bringing together the Gilets Jaunes and climate activists.

One way it’s different is the people behind the NRCs, La Primaire Populaire and Flatpack Democracy in the UK are first and foremost participation professionals. One of the founders of the Primaire Populaire helped organise the French Climate Citizens’ Assembly that continues to rock French politics. The NRCs have now turned their community building skills to support the Covid-response, being involved with everything from disinfecting markets, mosques and bus stands to sending messages on how people can protect themselves.

Deliberation and community development are not slogans to these groups, they are technical disciplines that are the media, message and method of their movements. Another important difference is that these campaigns are driven by a visceral sense that the social and climate justice emergencies are produced by the failures of the current democratic system and that unless we fundamentally change this, we cannot solve these crises. They also tend not to be political parties; instead encouraging independent people to be elected or become community leaders.

Professor Hélène Landemore from Yale thinks that we need to get rid of politicians all together, and she’s not the only one. Professor Alexander Guerrero published the influential paper ‘Against Elections’ in 2014, and Sortition Foundation Director Brett Hennig’s TED talk ‘What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people’ has had 1.7m views.

These arguments are gaining traction, maybe not in Brussels, Washington and Westminster, but on the streets. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in late 2020 found big majorities across the US, Germany, France and the UK to allow citizens, not politicians, to decide what becomes law on key issues (73% US, 70% Germany, 68% France, 63% UK). 

The same survey found that the anti-political sentiment that continues to be channelled by populists around the world is as strong, if not stronger, than ever, with 67% of Americans agreeing with the statement “most politicians are corrupt”, 46% in France, 45% in the UK and 29% in Germany. There are also big majorities in the US (65%) and France (68%) for dramatically changing the political system. A position that is also core to movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion.

Our failure to upgrade representative democracy is partly to blame, in my view, for 2020 being the year of greatest democratic retreat on record.

One of the most striking features of the French Climate Citizens’ Assembly is that it was initiated by the Gilets Citoyens, a civil society collective bringing together the Gilets Jaunes and climate activists. Unlikely bed fellows, but united in their desire to transfer power from politicians to people. The Pew Research also found that giving power to people instead of politicians was popular across the ideological spectrum.

We are in my view about 30 years into the third great democratic struggle. The first was for universal suffrage, the right for all adults to vote; the second was civil rights; and the third is the right for citizens to make policy themselves. Each of these struggles is ongoing. Universal suffrage campaigns were initiated in the mid 1800s and took around 60 years to come to fruition; there are now powerful arguments being made, notably by David Runciman, for allowing children to vote. The civil rights movement is clearly still in full swing, as the George Floyd protests of 2020 bear testimony. And I believe the movement pushing for Citizens’ Assemblies as a fix to everything from air quality to social care is simply a proxy for the third great democratic struggle to give people, not politicians, the right to make decisions.

Many find such talk abhorrent; either because they believe we shouldn’t challenge the sanctity of our representative democracy for fear of unleashing authoritarian sentiment, or because they believe it is totally unrealistic.

I don’t find either argument useful.

Covid has, I believe, brought us to a fork in the road where we are going to have to choose more democracy or less.

Our failure to upgrade representative democracy is partly to blame, in my view, for 2020 being the year of greatest democratic retreat on record. Time and again when politicians were faced with Covid they chose the authoritarian response rather than the democratic. And in many ways you can’t blame them; they needed fast, simple responses that they could have confidence would work. Authoritarianism tends to be fast and easy to understand.

Covid has, I believe, brought us to a fork in the road where we are going to have to choose more democracy or less. Just as governments were ready to deploy authoritarian measures to stop the spread of Covid, they may be again to manage the next pandemic or ensure people adapt their behaviours to limit the impact of the climate emergency. And critically, we have seen during this pandemic that, on the whole, people have been willing for their freedoms to be curtailed if it means they feel safer.

John Stewart Mill famously[1] explained how the primary purpose of government is to keep its citizens safe. We therefore need to come up with forms of democracy that can do this, ideally whilst increasing our freedom.

The problem is “we are still running on the fumes of political ideas from 18th century” explained the New York Times journalist Ezra Klein in a podcast on 23 Feb. 2021. “Is that a function of it working so well at this point? Or is it a function of our inability to imagine alternatives; to believe, as those who came before us believed, as we honour them for believing, that the future really can be radically different from the present?”

What matters at this fork in the road is not what is realistic, but what is necessary.

The futurologist Bill Sharpe infamously said “To shape the future, we need to find the seeds of the desired future and help them grow”.

I think we need seeds of a new democracy which generate:

  • Good policy; policies that keep us safe and are commensurate with the challenges posed
  • Agency, so that people believe they can, and do, change the world around them
  • Citizen leaders, where the fact that each of us is a leader whether we like it or not is emphasised, acknowledging that our behaviours have a powerful effect on those around us
  • Solidarity and empathy between people, especially those that disagree most; and
  • Truth, to support people to engage deeply in the evidence and lived experience of any issues in question.

Democracy isn’t fair, pure or perfect.

I guess if you’re reading this, you have probably seen countless ‘seeds’ which exhibit these characteristics across the new democracy field. The trouble is it’s rare to see politicians who exemplify this. This isn‘t their fault of course, they’re trapped in a system built for an earlier age. A system designed to polarise, to make clear the differences between people, a system that delivered the welfare state and lifted perhaps billions out of poverty. But a system that in 2020 saw its greatest push-back in history.

Of course there are seeds of other possible ‘democratic’ futures that are also with us. Cambridge Analytica and its social media campaign “black ops” are one variety; another is what we might call surveillance-democracy, where the state harvests personal data and uses it to enforce compliance with anything from speeding to social-distancing. Both these models have had very good pandemics and are now more well-established species than seedlings.

We democracy professionals are on the front line of the battle for the future of democracy. You may reject the military metaphor, but I can assure you that those designing the hyper-targeted campaign ads in your social media stream are framing this as a battle, and you are the target.

Democracy isn’t fair, pure or perfect. It’s messy and open to manipulation and has been since Edward Bernays introduced social science and psychological manipulation to ‘engineer consent’ from citizens in the 1940s.

On Super Thursday Dominic Campbell, founder of Futuregov, tweeted “Trying to think if I’ve ever had the opportunity to vote for someone who I believe in. Who I think can really represent me. Who can deliver on a radical vision for change. I think the answer is no. Hugely depressing.”

He wasn’t alone, as millions of us went to the ballot box we weren’t filled with the belief that we might usher in a new dawn of social and environmental justice. Rather, we just wanted to stop the other guy, the party that is worse than the one we voted for.

This is not good enough, and we the new democracy movement need to give people something worth voting for, or provide a better alternative, and we are running out of time.

My short bio is: Founder of Involve, co-founder of Global Assembly and Good Help.

[1] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_Liberty ("The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.")