Monday, February 24, 2014

Given Today's Technology, Why Do We Continue To Elect Representatives From Political Parties?

Canada's political institutions have not evolved significantly from their conception nearly 150 years ago. We still regularly go to the polls and choose between the candidates from various political parties to represent us in Parliament and in the provincial legislatures.

Effectively, we transfer our popular sovereignty to a few individuals, who in turn vote according to the dictates of their political leaders.  Importantly, once the votes are counted and the seats distributed, almost the entire population is shut out of the political process that governs us.  We are left standing as spectators, hoping that are elected officials will be able to provide us with peace, order, and good government.

However, the political process, which should be in keeping with the values of a free and democratic society, is many things, but democratic is not one of them.

Political parties are corporate bodies that compete for market share in what I refer to as contested vote exchange.  In short by casting a vote for any candidate in this exchange, the citizen renounces his or her right to what the Greeks referred to as isigoria, the right to equal voice in the deliberations that lead to the formulation of policy and the adoption of laws.

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It might be argued that 150 years ago, given Canada's vast geography, sparse population, low levels of literacy in the population at large, and snail-paced communications, this institutional arrangement made a great deal of sense.

But what about today?

A well educated population and advances in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) seriously call into question the necessity of political parties co-opting the political process in order to provide what is supposed to be responsible government.

The logistics of representation no longer apply.  People living in an electoral district no longer need to suspend their right to equal voice in deliberations in favor of aggregating all of their voices and transferring this sovereign power to a single individual.

Historically, other than electing their military leaders, the Athenians did no such thing.  In fact, in order to prevent any faction from holding sway over their assembly, they rotated membership to the executive council on an annual basis, and the members were drawn randomly from a qualified pool of approximately 20,000 citizens.  Importantly, this institutional practice did not lead to "mob rule".  Far from it.  In fact, democratic practices like the right of every citizen to address the assembly were at the core of Athenian society, a golden age which saw an unparalleled flowering of human civilization, so captivating that their political innovation, democracy, rule by the demos (the Greek word for the people) remains as the sole basis of political legitimacy today, some 2500 years after its inception.

Today, people no longer congregate in a single venue at the same time to be heard.  Web casting, face-to-face communications applications like Skype, Google plus, and Face Time, combined with various social media like Twitter and Facebook, empower people from distant geographic locations to engage in meaningful dialogue without the need for intermediaries.  Moreover, supporting documents can be easily made available to everyone concerned and electronic voting can place the power of making the political decisions that affect the quality of their lives squarely in the hands of the people.

Rather than transferring their sovereignty to political candidates from a professional political class, citizens could instead form permanent citizens assemblies and keep their power to make political decisions close to home where they have the possibility of participating meaningfully in the political process.

Imagine a Parliament in which each and every seat represents the will of a citizens assembly in which every citizen has the right to be a member.  In this imaginary world, a network of electronically empowered citizens assemblies would govern Canada's affairs and political parties would be cast into history's dust bin.  Instead of celebrating the political victories of individuals, honour would be bestowed to those who served as stewards of democracy, those individuals that served to protect the democratic process from being appropriated by individual interests.

Maybe this is a project that could be undertaken when Canada commemorates its 150th anniversary and to be completed before it celebrates its 200 birthday.

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