Representative Democracy is a Waste of Time

Euro Unemployment copyGreece is, in many ways, representative of the world right now. Its economy is floundering due to, among other things, bad loans taken out by self-interested ruling parties aided and abetted by Goldman Sachs. Greek unemployment has reached record highs despite employed Greeks working longer hours than any other members of the Eurozone. The German response to this is austerity: including having Greece cut pensions, and sell its utilities and airports. Even the IMF has determined these measures to be counter-productive, preferring debt-relief.

The Greek people clearly agree with the IMF, and have eschewed allegiance to established political parties by voting for any party willing to reject austerity. The Greek Syriza Party rapidly rose from obscurity to ruling party by adopting anti-austerity rhetoric. It has proven, however, to be just that: rhetoric. Even after a popular referendum that rejected austerity by a 61:39 margin, Greece’s Prime Minister Alex Tsipras agreed to Germany’s terms; Greece’s Parliament—the political body that supposedly represents the Greek people—promptly did the same by a 229:71 margin.

PonyExpressPosterThis failure by political parties to represent the will of the Greek people should shock nobody. Our prevailing hodgepodge of elected and appointed judges, juries, politicians, parties, legislators, and executives have never truly represented the will of the billions of people alive. At its inception, however, representative democracy was the best approximation of such. Representational democracy came about at a time when horses (and later trains) were the fastest way to transport not just people, but communiqués. Regular popular referendums on a global, national, regional, and even local scale were simply infeasible due to time constraints. The logical countermovement to expansive representational democracy was one that advocated a return to local, participatory governance despite the anarchy that would result in humans across the world not coordinating what they were doing with one another.

In the twenty-first century, however, participatory democracy is not just desirable, but feasible. Digital, electronic communication is essentially instantaneous, recorded in abundance, and easily searchable. In a society of billions, nobody will never have time to vote on everything, even if he or she was interested in doing so. Nevertheless, all social decisions can now be made democratically and voluntarily, rather than professionally and exclusively. If governments today are to claim to be “democratic,” they must not only submit to democratic processes that already exist—such as referendums—but must establish new democratic processes to the best of humanity’s capabilities. A society that possesses the technical and social capacity to conduct digital banking and endless online polls, but has yet to establish electronic voting mechanisms that allow everybody to have a say in governmental policy can no longer claim to be democratic.

Anti-austerity protesters lift a Greek flag in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens, Greece July 15, 2015.  REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Anti-austerity protesters lift a Greek flag in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens, Greece July 15, 2015. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

The Greek people not only have to work harder than any other people in the Eurozone, nor can they occasionally elect parties to represent their interests. Now they have to take time out of their busy days to hold popular referendums—in which people must vote in person—to hold their elected representatives accountable to their promises. And when that doesn’t work, they must sacrifice even further by taking to the streets to show their uncooperative ‘representatives’ that they can be removed by means other than the ballot box. If the Greek people manage to manifest the will of the majority in spite of these myriad obstacles, they may once again find themselves at the epicenter of European democracy.

– Fritz Tucker, Zeteo Contributor

(A more complete explanation of digital democracy can be found in the author’s Master’s thesis.)


  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    I am not qualified, by virtue of my ignorance, to comment on current events in Greece, although I followed news reports with interest. And this is why I think representational democracy is not a waste of time. If you leave decisions to majorities responding to referenda, how well informed will those majorities be? And how rational will the results of the referenda be? It’s true that a majority of Greeks expressed disdain (rightly, I think) for austerity; but a large majority also expressed a desire to remain within the eurozone, and you can’t have it both ways. It seems to me that Syriza was faced with the problem of staying in the eurozone and getting the least disgraceful deal they could get from the shameless Germans.

    Popular majorities cannot do the work of governing. Imagine, if you will, a team of negotiators sitting down to work out an arms deal–for example, the deal just hammered out after how many years in Vienna between Iran on one side and a group of six(?) nations on the other side–while responding to contradictory referenda from the benighted American people. Impossible.

    It’s true that the people’s representatives are a woefully bad lot, but they are elected (usually) by majorities. So much for the intelligence of the electorate. And then those representatives, who are supposed to do the job of governing, turn to lobbyists to write legislation and (how often have we heard this) lament the fact that implementation of a piece of legislation weighs in at over a thousand pages. Or a committee report is a thousand pages long. “I haven’t read it,” they wail. Fuck them. It’s their job to read it. If you feel bad about people waving flags in the street, imagine how the same people would feel about wading through the actual stuff of governance.

    Maybe Bill Clinton was just an overly ambitious student leader, but he was also a wonk and paid attention to the details. Barack Obama is another wonk, as he showed in his press conference on the Vienna Plan. Wonkiness is at least one virtue of some representatives that you won’t find in the man or woman on the street. We could, hypothetically, put the entire Vienna Plan on the Internet and then ask the American people to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Give them 60 days to study and think about it. The great American people are actually going to do that (not).

    I was born and raised in California, where the state legislature implemented a huge, decades-long experiment in government by referendum, which nearly bankrupted the state (voters were asked if they should pay property tax and they said no thank you) and also, more recently, gave us Proposition 8 barring same-sex marriage. If you ask Americans what government should do, they haven’t got a clue, because they haven’t the least interest in government nor any understanding of what it does.

    I say, Two cheers for representative democracy.


  2. Daniel,

    I appreciate your comments. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I find your skepticism regarding uninformed people being involved in important matters to be valid. If all social decisions were made openly and democratically, however, I imagine it would end up looking more like Wikipedia than California. People educated and interested in a particular subject would likely tend to take part in the discussion and vote surrounding it, while people who don’t care would be busy taking part in deliberative democracy regarding subjects they do care about. There are thousands of knowledgable, well-meaning people in every sector of society that regularly get shut out of important decisions because they are born to lower social castes, or aren’t good at climbing the success ladder, and thus don’t find themselves in positions of authority.

    As for popular majorities not being able to do the work of governing… Almost every poll I’ve seen suggests that even the citizens of countries with nuclear weapons are for their reduction or abolition. I imagine that if it were put to a global popular vote, humanity would quickly declare nuclear weapons illegal. This might mean that crowds would take to the streets and torch nuclear armories and facilities. More likely, however, it would probably entail wonks methodically working to safely dismantle existing weapons and transform enrichment centers into nuclear power plants, or dismantle them altogether (depending on how society votes with regard to nuclear power).

    Lastly, you are correct that California’s experience with popular referenda has been disastrous. On the other hand, humanity’s history of deliberative, democratic decision making is rich, and now includes a growing participatory budgeting movement that effectively and relatively justly allocates hundreds of millions of dollars to infrastructure projects in over 1,000 cities across the globe. California’s referenda process is guided very much by short-sighted, self-interested, competing political parties and their get-out-the-vote machines, and thus is more a reflection of representative democracy than of participatory democracy, in my opinion.



  3. Tim McCollum

    I’ve spent my entire adult life in California. When proposition 13 was presented to the populace there were no voices telling how beneficial this would be to business (for state that is consistently criticized for its business insensitivity). However, it did reach the populace at a time of widespread losses of homes (and equity) for taxes. I will explain. In California properties were reassessed every few years. In California, other than during the Bush depression, property values rose dramatically. Consequently taxes went up every few years. In our particular situation taxes or more per month than the payment on our first mortgage. Many people had lost their homes, tens of thousands were on the cusp, and millions were worried. I suspect you would’ve voted the same way.


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