End elections. Live democracy!
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Patrick Chalmers is a former Reuters journalist who reached out after reading about my portable home in September 2018. Since then, we've held monthly calls on the state of journalism and democracy. Here's Patrick's short documentary, When Citizens Assemble, on a group of randomly selected people who deliberated on Ireland’s de facto ban on abortion, leading to a two-thirds majority in the 2018 referendum to change the constitution in favour of women’s rights.
Where are you from?
I was born in 1966 in Fife, eastern Scotland and grew up a couple of hours north of there, in the countryside of Moray. My father is Scottish. My mother was half Scots, via her father, and a quarter English and a quarter Irish, via her mother.
I left Scotland at 18 and haven’t lived there since. Since 2005, I’ve been in southwest France, having come via several European cities and the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In the Pyrenean foothills, where I live, the outlook isn’t so different from where I grew up. There’s relatively low-intensity agriculture and wilder country nearby.
I like it both for the nature of the land and the mindset of the people who live here. The mix of locals and incomers from different parts of the planet combines French people’s deep engagement in politics with fresh perspectives from outside.
Why did a career in journalism suck?
It wasn’t a specific moment, more a dawning realisation that being a foreign correspondent, the form of journalism I’d pursued for six years after university, was far from what I’d imagined.
To put it grandly, I saw journalism as a pillar of democracy or at least of some help in improving society. I also wanted to see the world as part of doing a worthwhile job. I reckoned the best place to do that would be at a global news agency such as Reuters. It turned out to be something else.
What I did get was an on-the-job training in observing dysfunctional government and the baked-in compromises of any conventional journalism that tried to dissect it.
Mass, global communications and cheap air travel have opened our horizons to other people, places, and cultures. The exotic has become familiar. These developments have profound impacts on our politics and governance. They affect our societies on all levels, making them necessary fodder for journalists.
At the same time, journalism itself has faced profound challenges, not least from its falling credibility with audiences.
I was steeped in this at Reuters between 1994 and 2005, while also becoming aware that my employer had little interest in holding governments to account. It was hard to swallow.
Covering the European Union, financial markets, UK news, Southeast Asia, and global stories on trade, the environment and development, again and again I saw the problems of modern political systems and journalists’ failure to acknowledge or address them.
The tension between ideals and reality became increasingly hard to hold. That meant I leapt at the chance of a pay-off when jobs were being cut from my department.
The experience wasn’t lost, it provided me all I needed for a confessional-critique of both journalism and our system of electoral government: Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies.
What's wrong with our political systems?
Our political system of electoral governments is what gives rise to political parties, ones that vie for our vote to win power. Individual candidates and the parties they affiliate with must differentiate themselves from their opponents to win people’s votes.
This system, by definition, drives conflict and competition; it works against the compromise and cooperation required for effective public decision-making.
The Ancient Athenians understood very well the problems created by voting. The democrats among them – those who favoured government by the people – favoured lottery selection of public officials and mass assemblies both to make laws and to enforce them. They called that democracy.
Aristotle believed that the alternative was government by the few and for the few, known as oligarchy, or government by the self-interested, called tyranny.
He believed that elections created oligarchies, as voting favours the best-educated (i.e. wealthiest as education was expensive), richest, and most persuasive.
In contrast, lottery selection, the same system we use nowadays in jury trials, brought a truly representative sample of citizens to public office.
Of course, the Ancient definition of a citizen was restricted; women and slaves were excluded from the system, as they remained until fairly recently in some places in the world.
But it is illogical to reject a workable idea for its historical form without considering its essence.
Using lotteries as the essence of democracy could be reimagined for contemporary contexts, as David Van Reybrouck, among others, has already proposed.
To me, the political mechanism of elections is the problem; the political parties are merely inevitable symptoms.
Why the interest in political reform?
In the 1990s, the then 15 member states of the European Union were tackling the issue of a carbon tax, showing their inability to act decisively on climate change.
It made me wonder who in any government held power and how they exercised that power.
Climate change inaction
This pondering of the inertia on greenhouse gas emissions began my ongoing effort to understand what makes a political system fit for purpose.
After all, the same political failings that we’ve seen on climate change can be found with many issues, with policies favouring status-quo elites over the forces of progressive change for a wider public.
Why citizens' assemblies?
For me, the main power of citizens’ assemblies is in demonstrating how everyday people are entirely capable of politically wise choices, given the right circumstances.
The use of lottery selection for participants chips away at the idea of equating democracy with elections and referendums.
It offers what seems like a workable route to putting more decision-making into the hands of more people, not least those who will have to live with the consequences of any emerging legislation.
Citizens in transition
We live in times when ideas of country, state, government, and citizen are in transition. Our capacity to see the Earth from space challenges our long-standing perspectives.
At the same time, the current scale of global displacement due to conflict, climate change, and economic migration creates specific tensions.
We should be celebrating the richness of our human history and shared knowledge, but we’re far from this level of courtesy and generosity towards one another.
Conflict-based political systems, fuelled by regular elections, seem only to stoke these tensions and choke off the progressive breakthroughs we need.
Need for radical transformation
It’s not being dramatic to say our species itself is at stake here.
That’s why I argue that we need a radical transformation of our electoral systems to something resembling genuine democracies.
Elected politicians and governments could launch the necessary root-and-branch reforms and then stand down to become ordinary citizens, just like the rest of us.
What's your vision for our political upgrade?
One part is crude and requires systemic changes at local-to-global levels of political decision-making. We’d remove the power from political representatives in order to decide on our collective behalf.
The second part is more subtle, perhaps more difficult too.
It would require all of us to assume our responsibilities as political individuals in a world seen as a whole, a lifelong project for each of us, involving education and civic engagement in return for a real say in public decisions.
The attraction rather than obligation of this idea is in the associated autonomy each of us would gain by being involved. It would enrich our lives, just the sheer breadth and depth of things we would all have to learn would themselves bring immeasurable benefits, and not just to our political cultures.
Fundamentally, we need to upgrade our emotional intelligence – the mature awareness of ourselves and others – so as to engage with skill and sensitivity in debate and decision-making. These are learnable skills. And the alternative is grim.
Patrick Chalmers is a journalist and film maker focused on making political structures truly democratic. He worked at Reuters for 11 years then wrote Fraudcast News (2012). He directs All Hands On, a short-documentary series on ordinary people doing radical democracy.