Democracy needs a clumsy solution - RSA

Democracy needs a clumsy solution

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  • Economic democracy
  • Leadership

Those who read this blog regularly, or have heard me speak, know that I have a tendency to look at things through the lens of four distinct categories of human motivation.

Three of these are active. One is passive. The first active motivation is the hierarchical. It is the domain of authority, strategy, expertise, rules, and regulations. Second is the solidaristic. This is a mode comprised of belonging, values and ideas of fairness and responsibility. The third, the individualistic is driven by competition, freedom, enterprise, and self-interest. I also talk about a fourth (passive) category. This is rather different from the others: fatalism. Fatalism is the domain of scepticism, disengagement, and pessimism.

These are built on considerable evidence from a variety of disciplines. For one of these, positive psychology, the three active modes form its underlying framework. The core motivations emphasised by the discipline are ‘competence’ (the hierarchical drive), ‘relatedness’ (the solidaristic drive) and ‘autonomy’ (the individualistic drive). This is just one of many examples.

I argue – and this is a 30 minute speech in two sentences – that the most dynamic organisations and interventions are those combining the three active categories (while acknowledging the fourth), but that this combination is difficult to achieve. First, this is because the motivations are inherently in tension with each other and, second, because even when a balance is found, external forces favouring or disfavouring one or other category are liable to upset that balance.

Having this framework always close to mind, I leapt on a point made by my RSA colleague Tony Greenham. We were talking while waiting to brief Bank of England Deputy Governor Andy Haldane on the work of our Citizens Economic Council. The prompt was not only that our own work used deliberative methods, but also that it was situated in a growing sense of pessimism about democracy. As many people – including the great and sadly missed Bernard Crick - have argued, democracy has the bicycle-like quality that it needs to be advancing to work effectively. At the moment it feels like we are going backwards, fatalism is strong.

Recently, democratic institutions and the politicians who occupy them have become even less trusted and more unpopular than usual. This reflects, among other things, both the failure of leadership and policy, and a succession of exposés about misbehaviour. Democracies have also generated outcomes – particularly Trump and Brexit – which seem to go beyond the normal swings of party politics and into acts of collective self-harm.  Of similar significance are the capacity of Putin’s Russia to get away with aggression, dishonesty and sabotage as well as, more profoundly, the economic performance and apparent political effectiveness of Chinese leadership. These final two have led many to question whether or not representative democracy is the most resilient basis for political authority, or even for social progress in the 21st century. A recent study by academics from Harvard and the University of Melbourne suggests that even in democratic systems, compared to older generations, millenials see elections as unimportant and that a larger proportion would even be willing to support military takeover.

We need not only to defend democracy (David Runciman is fascinating on how not to do this) but also to have a plan about how to advance it. Much debate about democratic claims (like the debate around a second Brexit referendum) depends on the competing virtues of representative and direct democracy. Going back to my three (active) categories, representative democracy can be seen as the hierarchical form in that it ultimately delegates decisions to those in elected authority, even if this authority is based on a flawed electoral system. Direct democracy, in which authority lies in the aggregated choices of every person, can be seen as the individualist method. But there is a third model – the one that aligns with solidarity, its emphasis on collaboration and the pursuit of consensus. This is deliberative democracy. 

This is what we have been practicing in the Citizens Economic Council. And, as most experiments in patient, properly structured participation show, there are many benign outcomes. People feel a greater agency, opinions develop and change, the distance between experts and citizens closes as each learns from the other. Both new ideas and new grounds for agreement emerge. Most ordinary folk who enters a deliberative process for the first time worry that they will be baffled, bored or both. Nearly everyone emerging from such processes says they contributed fully, enjoyed it and grew from the experience.

Deliberation is demanding. It has technical challenges, like getting a good cross section of citizens involved and getting a fair balance of different witnesses. The intensity of the process also makes it expensive. But as someone who, when I was in government, pushed hard and ultimately unsuccessfully for greater use of deliberative techniques, I know these aren’t the most profound objections. Processes like the Big Conversation, which I helped design for Tony Blair, and the ‘citizen’s juries’ organised by Gordon Brown ended up being little more than managed consultations. The principal reason was that the politicians could not be guaranteed that a proper process wouldn’t end up reaching uncomfortable conclusion. As one minister put it to me: ‘if we do this properly and the citizens agree with us the media will say it was rigged, and if it reaches conclusions we don’t like we’ll be crucified if we don’t act on them’. I responded, in vain, that the purpose of deliberation is to guide decision makers, not to mandate them, and that all forms of democracy have unpredictable and messy elements to them.

When I talk about approaches that combine the three categories of active motivation I describe them as ‘fully engaged’. The theory my ideas are derived from uses the phrase ‘clumsy solutions’. Such a dynamic and adaptive approach contrasts starkly with the neatness that policy makers too often prefer. To renew democracy, we need to think about how we can combine the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of direct, representative and participative methods. It won’t be easy: it won’t be neat, but right now, the defenders of democracy need a clumsy solution. 

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  • I totally agree!neat solutions - the sort that are common in dictatorships like China. It's the nature of the beast; we only need to get our act together, and more efficiently, to better manage the mess we are in. Think of democracy like an old rope. As the Duke of Marlborough reminded Napoleon before the battle of Waterloo, that the English soldiers were like an old rope, if they break here or there, all he had to do to was to tie up both ends and lo and behold he still had an army. The same may be said of democracy. It's broken at the moment, but we can mend it; all we need to do is to work out how to clear up the mess...and we shall have our good old democracy back in fine fettle...