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January 20, 2005

Democratic Malaise in US?

Archon Fung: January 20, 2005

In his second inaugural address, our President proclaimed his commitment to spreading democracy abroad,

Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

But when I look out in the world, I see many who recognize that their own democratic institutions fall short of the ideal of self government. They take pains and embark on bold experiments to discover more workable forms of self-government for themselves, rather than attempting to create self-government for others. When I look here, in my own country, I see substantial democratic innovation in civil society organizations at the state and local level, but very little is initiated or even sponsored by government, and almost none of it by the federal government. Why is that?

Why don’t Americans--despite all that has happened--have a palpable sense that our democracy is deficient?

I recently travelled to the Canadian province of British Columbia. There, a randomly selected “citizens assembly” of 160 British Columbians have been deliberating for a year about whether the province should abandon its first-past-the-post winner-take-all election rules in favor of some sort of proportional representation. This group decided that their electoral system should serve three important values -- fairness understood as proportionality; voter choice; and local representation. They decided that the voting system best advancing these values is a version of the Single Transferrable Vote. Their proposal will be subject to a popular referendum in May. If it is wins, it will become the law of the province. Many other Canadian provinces are undergoing similar democratic soul-searching.

To the south, dozens of cities in Latin America have created directly-democratic institutions to make decisions over their public budgets. This so-called “Participatory Budgeting” was made famous by the fifteen year experience of the Workers' Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil. More generally, almost everyone working in the field of development has to include words about participation if they hope to gain the support of international donor agencies.

Across the Atlantic, our European cousins are much concerned about democracy deficits not only at the supra-national level, but also inside nations and in regions as well. These concerns have prompted substantial official and civic experimentation with complex structures of regulatory committees, as well as with more popular devices such as consensus conferences, planning cells, citizen juries, and deliberative polls.

Do you agree that the democratic imagination is much more vital abroad than at home? How have we in the U.S. escaped the impulse for democratic renewal?