Direct and representative democracies (and their competition)

If you head a few blocks south from my office in Toronto, you’ll get to City Hall. If you head a few blocks west, you’ll get to Queen’s Park. For those of you from out of town, the former’s obviously home to my municipal representatives, and the latter’s home to my provincial representatives.

The missing piece of the puzzle is Parliament Hill, the seat of our federal government. And instead of being at my office today, I’m in Ottawa, sitting right outside Parliament on an extraordinarily hot day.

This is it, guys! The place where good things are theoretically supposed to happen for Canada and its citizens! Where the bells ring constantly, and you’d better not walk on the grass!

“Democracy in modern nation-states almost always takes the form of ‘representative’ democracy,” James Laxer writes in the first chapter of Democracy: A Groundwork Guide. “That is to say, the citizens elect officeholders at various levels (municipal, state or provincial, federal or national), and those elected serve as the representatives of the people.”

When we talk about the history of democracy, we tend to look back to ancient Athens, where the whole idea is said to have been introduced. But the Athenian system of government was one of “direct” democracy, and it was much different from what the West practices today.

“In Athens,” Laxer says, “the Assembly, attended by all citizens who were in the city and able to be present, met ten times a year and held additional meetings when necessary… Thousands of citizens took part in these meetings, and for certain types of decisions a quorum of six thousand citizens had to be in attendance.”

The Assembly was supplemented by a Council of Five Hundred, who were chosen by lottery every year from among the citizens who were at least thirty years of age. They prepared draft legislation for the Assembly, and in some cases they put it into effect. There was also an early court system featuring juries but no judges.

The long and the short of it was that there were no middlemen in the Athenian system. Each and every citizen of Athens was encouraged – hell, required – to participate in shaping his own society.

Now, when I say “his,” I mean “his.” When we talk about these few thousand citizens, we’re talking about “perhaps 20 percent of adults,” because slaves, women, children and non-citizens weren’t allowed to get involved. And even if we were to include all of those people, we’d be talking about a much smaller population than Canada’s, or even Toronto’s, for which such a system would arguably be far too unwieldy.

“To the Athenian citizens of those times,” Laxer stresses nonetheless, “the system of democracy that exists in nation-states today would seem highly undemocratic. They would be deeply suspicious of a system in which millions of citizens living in a large territory elect professional politicians from competing political parties to represent them. How can you trust such politicians? they would lament. And how can you entrust them with so much power for such long periods of time?

“To the practitioners of direct democracy (a system that could work in theory in a small city-state today, with all citizens having the right to participate), representative democracy appears to permit the citizen to do little more than vote every few years, while leaving the actual passing of legislation up to the professionals.”

If you’ve ever felt powerless to do something about an issue that means something to you, and you’ve felt like your representatives aren’t doing enough on your behalf, then Laxer isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know here. It’s all to common for citizens of representative democracies to feel like their government doesn’t actually represent them. And in Canada in 2010, where we’re ruled by a minority government elected by the lowest voter turnout in our country’s history, it’s safe to say that most of us feel that way to some degree.

To be fair, there are other ways to get involved and do your part. Laxer goes on to describe a number of democracy’s other tenets, and in doing so he paints a broader picture of civic engagement than the limited role of voting every now and then.

“Democracy includes the rights of wage and salary earners to organize unions to represent them and to go on strike to bargain with their employers for higher salaries and better working conditions. It involves as well the rights of citizens, not only to elect governments and to run for office, but to petition those in power, to hold mass demonstrations to make their views known, and to organize themselves into the many bodies and institutions that comprise ‘civil society,’ which are neither a part of the state nor of the marketplace.”

And by the way, here’s one for the backers of measures like Proposition 8 in California and SB 1070 in Arizona: “While democracy encompasses the rights of majorities to do many important things, it does not encompass the right to discriminate against or to abuse minorities.” That, to paraphrase Vincent Vega, is a right the citizens in a democracy don’t have.

At any rate, the representative form of democracy that we enjoy – or rail against, or what have you – may not be as “democratic” as the direct systems of democracy practiced in early city-states. But one could just as easily argue that those systems just aren’t practical when it comes to, say, a nation of thirty-four million people spread across one of the largest land masses in the world.

Perhaps it’s best to say that we could learn a lot, and even take a few cues, from the direct democracies of old. Call me an idealist, but I say there’s no such thing as a finished product when it comes to politics and government, and we can always do more to make our systems more representative, just and efficient.

It’s also got to be said – and it has been said by many during the past couple of decades – that even our representative democratic system is just a contender for power in our country and others like it. But let’s call that a conversation for another day. After all, I’m on vacation.

Posted in Democracy

2 Responses to “Direct and representative democracies (and their competition)”

  1. jason says:

    I’ve always thought of jury duty as being a form of direct democracy. A friend of mine just got summoned for it today, and is a little miffed at the inconvenience. As much as people make fun of it, though… I secretly sorta want to be called for it. (Apparently they generally don’t like teachers as jurors, though, because we’re very judgmental.)

  2. Matt says:

    Interesting! I wonder where that whole notion comes from. I mean, I’ve had some judgmental teachers, sure, but as a profession?