I'd agree to an extent with your views on political culture amongst both our politicians and the electorate. They remind of a talk by the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair; the first half of that talk was fairly scathing regarding how politics works here (a transcript of that talk can still be found here). Mair coined the term "amoral localism" to cover this (his Irish counterpart to the term "amoral familism" previously coined by others for Italian politics):
Much of this talk is a diagnosis of what's wrong with Irish politics, e.g.What he meant by that is that if you look at the ordinary Italian, the ordinary Italian will do anything he or she can possibly do to benefit his or her family. And you forget about everything else, even if it is at a cost to the State. The primary thing is to benefit your family, to advance your family and for your family to do well. You are family orientated but you have no morality in anything else you do. Now we have a bit of that in Ireland, too, but what we have also in this electoral system of ours is something you might call ‘amoral localism’ which means that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else.
However, he proposed a number of remedies also. He described a three fold strategy:We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest and we have lost sight of it a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs but we have never sought to exert any control over our governments. And the result was a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies. We were too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.
- Create meaningful local government:We need to give real power to local government. We need to properly resource local government and we need to require and demand strong local engagement in local government and citizen engagement in local government.
- Dáil reform:we need to change the Dáil and engage in Dáil reform. We need to put an end to the quiescence and the deference of TDs to their governments. We need to end the quiescence and the deference of the Dáil to the Government itself and to the Executive. We need to end Executive domination. We need much more dialogue and much more sharing of powers between the Executive and the Legislature.
- Change the electoral system:I am more and more convinced of this, we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multi-seat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to ‘amoral localism’ and this aggregates our voices. Michael D. Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor. It doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests. It encourages us to look at the trees and to forget about the forest. We need to change that system.
The third point is the most controversial, but I think there's something to it. Personally, I'd add as a fourth point a citizens initiative mechanism with safeguards to allow constitutional change. Irish politics is deeply moribund and resistant to change. Incumbents benefiting from a system (no matter how many problems it might have) are unlikely to want to change the system. Political systems in general have too much inbuilt inertia. Even if for no other reason, allowing some system where voters can occasionally shake up the rules of the game is no bad idea.
But at this point in time we probably need to put in constraints on mass sentiment and peasants with pitchforks. Even, we may need to go somewhat towards dictatorship, and away from democracy.
That may sound counter-intuitive and scary, but as someone thoroughly imbued with twentieth century history, I have little doubt that more "democracy" of the type we're recently seeing, will lead us eventually to outright and unrestrained dictatorship and totalitarianism. - It will become a necessity due to the economic disaster that "democracy" will have lead us to, as per my previous post above, and as per the current anti-austerity, self-centred, short-term, peasant-minded "democracy", on the rise in a different manifestation today.
Mature self-reflection and introspection. That's wise rule (-kratia). Not this. Not this blaming of everyone else as long as it is not ourselves.
Democracy is a political sacred calf. We elevated it to mythical status in the aftermath of World War II, but it has now become a prison, a dictatorship of ignorance which is manipulated by the rich and powerful to give credibility to their greed.
People tend to rule out alternatives because they think that the only alternatives are involve totalitarianism, when in fact, there are viable alternatives to democracy. Technocracy is a frequently seen alteration to democracy. We had a spell of it here when the Troika were setting the agenda, and probably made more progress in terms of reform than we had in the previous 20 years.
On the other end of the scale, you have sortition, where Government is chosen by lottery.
If you accept the principle that the people you need to keep away from power are the people who want it most, then democracy will never be a good idea.
Certainly there was "mass hysteria" in 1930s Germany. However, the Nazis never had majority support. A citizens initiative mechanism actually existed in the Weimar constitution, which played no part in their rise to power. In essence, it was an inadvisable deal by bourgeois elements of German society (and by many standards Germany would have been considered one of the most cultured and civilized countries in the world at that time) with the devil that eventually allowed the Weimar constitution to be suspended by a super-majority in parliament. Maybe that part of society thought it could preserve its privileges (under threat from communist factions). Or maybe it wanted to reimpose order (not thinking too closely about or caring about implications down the line). The bourgeoisie readily collaborated/supported fascism in Italy and Vichy France too.
There are dark elements in human nature. These are not absent in elites either (despite education or privilege). While it might be comforting by some to believe that there are wiser and more benign sections of society more fit to rule that can save the peasants from themselves, I'm not sure that history bears that out. The two primary historical examples of direct democracy, Ancient Athens and Switzerland, are not exactly cautionary tales. Athens, depending as much on sortition as on votes in the citizens assembly, had its flaws. Ordinary citizens seemed to be just as enthusiastic as its leaders in its policy of imperialist expansion (because, I guess, they tended to share in the benefits too). And voting was never extended to women or slaves. There were a lot worse places to live in the Ancient world though! Someone historians actually calculated the Athenian wealth GINI (wealth distribution) from ancient property/tax records. This actually was very close to current levels in Western Europe. There were rich citizens and many poor citizens. However, inequality levels were very benign compared to other societies in the ancient world. Switzerland certainly isn't perfect either; it does seem to be a relatively well run place though. You might, of course, say that citizens initiatives are well and good for some place like Switzerland but that in the hands of an irresponsible electorate here they would be a disaster.
My view is that our current system infantilizes the electorate. De Valera's 1937 constitution, which borrowed heavily from both Weimar and the Free State constitutions, is solid enough in many ways. It had some glaring deficiencies though. The Weimar constitution and its German successor had well-developed local government and parliamentary structures. A substantial portion of the German basic law is devoted to the structures of federal government (its exclusive and shared competences, its powers etc.). Germany has a mechanism for financial redistribution from richer to poorer Lander that's essentially free from federal government interference. Granted we are a much smaller country, but there was essentially no provision for local government at all in the 1937 constitution. Similarly, for parliamentary structures. There's one or two aspiration clauses alright, but essentially we have a bare-bones Westminster framework in there. I think all German Lander have citizen initiative mechanisms in their constitutions.
My strong feeling is that if we had had a strong local government constitutional framework, with explicit competences, explicit tax raising powers (local government able to pick from a suite of taxation choices to fund themselves, e.g. property taxes, a small percentage on income tax, higher or lower rates etc.) all together with direct democracy/citizen initiatives at a local level, then voters might have learned self-responsibility. There seems to be a correlation between federal structures, direct democracy and fiscal responsibility. Canadian provinces have a lot of financial autonomy. In theory, a Canadian province can run up huge debts. However, in practice, because of this danger, provinces keep an eye on each other. Canada avoided much of the recent financial meltdown due to its conservative fiscal and banking practices. Something similar can be said for Switzerland. There's a longstanding "no bailout" policy there with regards to local government. One or two regions have gone bankrupt (on a sub-cantonal level) in the past and central government or cantons have not stepped in to bail them out. Cantons have huge financial autonomy. It's unsurprising that all have had various kinds of debt breaks in their constitution for a long time (Germany borrowed the idea of a debt break from the Swiss).
This goes back to Peter Mair's three points. I also eventually came to the conclusion that Dev might have been better off with some kind of PR list system rather than PR-STV (though I'm sure he would have preferred FPTP if he could have gotten away with it). In theory, PR-STV has some nice properties. One succeeds in PR-STV, though, by being inoffensive to as many people as possible; lower transfers are crucial in getting elected. Every party, in practice, gravitates to an innocuous middle ground (though their policy rhetoric may differ). PR list systems force voters to choose a single party. There's a mutual exclusiveness to the choice. Parties have to target a particular sector of the electorate (all parties cannot crowd into the middle ground). In principle, PR-STV offers voters a very fine-grained system of choice. In practice, particularly in combination with unnecessarily small constituency sizes, we get even less of a choice. I suspect PR-STV compounds the gombeen factor.
All of this (excessive centralization, non-existent local government, the electoral system) infantilizes the voter. Direct democracy at a local level here might indeed lead to one or two disasters. Voters would quickly learn though. As with child rearing, there are different philosophies. I'd tend to the school of entrusting children with as much responsibility as I think they can handle (eventually letting them make their own mistakes; sink or swim). Wrapping them in cotton wool too long is a mistake. My attitude to direct democracy would be similar. I think the electorate would learn responsibility soon enough. Particularly, if coupled with a strong local government constitutional framework, citizens initiatives at the local government level might be an excellent, if perhaps at times harsh, democratic learning experience. Even on the national level, I'd be prepared to take the risk. I suspect that the electorate if actually give the ultimate choice on some crucial issues would come to the correct decision. Whatever about quoting the half-baked ideas of fringe groups, voters here tend to be conservative. I'd be very surprised if citizens initiatives here at a national level led to anything too wild or chaotic.
Complete unhindered democracy is essentially like letting the production line workers in Mercedes Benz run the company. Recipe for catastrophe. Which is what we get regularly as a result. Most skilled jobs require certain qualifications or educational background. You wouldn't put your medical diagnosis in the ads of the public vote. Or the design of an passenger jet. But we let every hillbilly or closing time polemicist have an equal say in how to run a vastly complex conundrum called a state! Madness.
Mondragon corporation (a worker cooperative) in the Basque country? That's an interesting example of a successful attempt in this regards! Maybe such things would often work quite well if actually tried?
Last edited by Finbar10; 14th February 2016 at 09:34 PM.