Petitions are not democracy
February 23, 2011 13 Comments
Just lately I seem to have received a series of increasingly hysterical requests to sign petitions. I can’t easily reply to these emails other than to sign their petition, so since I’m sure that the entire world listens to every word I say from my little soapbox here, I thought I’d use it to tell these people that I really wish they’d think of a better solution. I don’t mind writing letters that put forward actual arguments, or even occasionally showing solidarity towards people who otherwise might think they’re acting alone, but in general petitions are pretty meaningless.
So fifty thousand people think X. But so what? How many think the opposite to X? It doesn’t say. It could be millions. And why should anyone suppose that a popular idea is a good idea, on the basis of its popularity alone? What’s more, if you’re going to form petitions, for heaven’s sake save them for Big Deal matters, or you’ll end up crying wolf too often. The latest petition request in my inbox concerns a Republican deputy attorney general who apparently Tweeted an opinion that the protesters in Madison, WI, should be shot. The petition is to call for his resignation. The claim seems legit (although this is Twitter we’re talking about), so it’s pretty pathetic and reprehensible behavior for a lawyer, but even so. Next I’ll be getting a request to sign a petition because somebody tweeted to say someone else stole their lunch money.
Demonstrations are important. Petitions are sometimes important but don’t constitute good evidence, not least because signing one costs and risks nothing. Compared to walking into Tahrir Square and facing up to mercenaries, let alone Green Square in Tripoli, they’re a bit embarrassing. And petitioning about absolutely everything is going to get us nowhere.
The scary thing is, democracy in the US is completely broken. Utterly destroyed. Made a mockery of. And petitions seem to be about the best anyone can think of to do about it (you’ll already have noted that I don’t have a solution either). But petitions are not democracy. Democracy has to involve debate and simultaneous representation from both (or all) sides. And the logic behind it is that We the People shouldn’t have to go around making decisions about every single issue under the Sun – we employ representatives to do that and then we vote for them.
That clearly doesn’t work any more – the representatives on one side of the US political scene think they have a mandate to do just about anything they please (entirely in their own interests or the interests of those who, thanks to the Citizens United judgment, can simply pay them to do it), while those on the other side are wandering around in stunned and numbed circles, like some of the poor citizens of Christchurch, New Zealand, not knowing what the hell to do next as the buildings of government fall about their ears.
The right wing is hell-bent on oligarchy, and the only antidote currently seems to be mob rule. That’s an unhealthy situation. International politics is now being decided by Wikileaks and flash mobs, which is completely understandable, given the level of corruption and self-interest in high places. It’s even quite admirable, up to a point, just as long as it’s being done for the right reasons and with due care by people who understand the potential consequences. But there has to be a better way.
The Internet and mobile communications are dramatically altering the political landscape. For the first time ever, “The People” is a truly meaningful concept. Intermediaries to act on our behalf and “incorporate” the voices of many, are no longer the only way for people to be heard. Democracy is changing. Decisions are being devolved. But let’s try not to descend into pettiness or anarchy en route. There may come a day when almost everything is decided by referendum, but if that happens then we’d better make sure we’re educated enough to make sensible decisions on complex issues, and we’d better make sure that we have methods in place to guarantee an adequate quality of debate and trust, because we human beings are pretty closely related to lemmings.
Time will tell what the current unrest around the world is going to crystallize into. But in the meantime, just cool it with the petitions, will you? They’re a bit, well, adolescent. They don’t really mean much, and they mean less and less as they get used more and more.
Please sign the comments section if you agree…