Something interesting is going on over at United Minds.ie. Ross O’Mullane, a candidate with no previous political experience, is running in the Dublin South constituency on a direct democracy ticket. With only two days to the June 5th elections, a candidate is standing in an Irish by election, on a platform radically opposed to representative democracy – and the mainstream media are largely ignoring him.
I ran into Mr O’Mullane at last weeks Blasphemy Ireland meeting, and he was nice enough to buy me a drink while I sat him down and quizzed him on his take on ‘direct’ or ‘pure’ democracy.
Background – What on Earth is DD ? (Other than a tasty evening for everyone)
Direct democracy has existed in a variety of forms – from the Swis ‘Canton‘ system, to Athenian Democracy, and differentiates itself from representative democracy by providing the citizenry with a direct involvement in the formation and passage of legislation.
It is in practice, a radically enabling political philosophy. Rather than providing, as a friend put it, ‘the right to unseat your king’, direct democracy offers the voter a genuine say – an active engagement with decision making. MP’s, TD’s and the like may exist under such a system, but are compelled to carry out the will of their constituents – freeing them from the necessity of unrealistic campaign positions and the undemocratic influences of party whips. The public sphere becomes enervated by individual engagement with personally relevant debates, and citizens are for the first time rationally motivated to vote, not only to influence marginal elections, but to partake in the political process on an issue by issue basis, at the local and national level. Like adolescents encountering responsibility and consequence for the first time, the electorate grows up.
With the development of open-source software and the internet, the potential now exists to effectively implement direct democracy in a populous nation with mass enfranchisement. Nonetheless, despite its intrinsically more democratic character, difficulties exist with such an open system.
Potential Problems with Direct Democracy
At once the most philosophically insignificant and practically important difficulty with the establishment of direct democracy, whatever its form; is the challenge it poses to incumbent political interests, entrenched corporate powers, international financial institutions and transnational non-state actors. These organisations, whatever their diverse motivations and organisational structures, exist to facilitate their own interests, and possess, under Western capitalist liberal-democracy, enormous soft power. Power to influence trade negotiations, power to affect the implementation of copyright treaties and human rights laws, and power to – as wikipedia puts it – establish and modify the ‘structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behaviour of…. individuals’. Establishing a system under which power transfers from national and local institutions to the citizenry, seems all but impossible. Impossible – except for the actions of individual candidates like Mr. O’Mullane, who if elected would be under no more compulsion than any other politicians, to carry out their stated electoral promises.
A deeper ideological challenge, but one which in practice doesn’t affect the implementation of direct democracy, is the notion of the ‘Tyranny of the majority‘, the fear the capricious mob will abrogate the rights of unpopular minorities, abolish unpopular human and civil rights, introduce populist ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments, or merely hamper the fair and reasonable treatment of minority groups from the very well off to asylum seekers.
The best response to such arguments is perhaps a recourse to the dimensions of culture as defined by the political scientist Gerrt Hofstede. Historically, societies with the greatest power distance – the most unequal distribution of power – have exhibited some of the most unfair and wilfully malicious treatment of minority groups. It is important to differentiate power distribution from income distribution in this regard, since under certain communist systems such as Mao’s China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, relative social equality has existed hand in hand with enormous power differentials. In examining contemporary societies we can see a link between power distance, and poverty, corruption, and mistreatment of minority groups. Essentially I am arguing that tolerance emerges naturally from an active engagement in the political process, just as it has been show to emerge from interpersonal interactions with ‘othered’ groups. This is an issue that cannot be confounded so easily however – and any directly democratic society would need to consider in its organising principles how to enshrine the basic and emerging civil and human rights of minorities.
In one sense however, the risk of such tyranny is greatly overblown – as in a direct democratic system, citizens are primarily motivated to vote in issues that affect them directly. It is important to note that moral panics would be even more damaging to political discourse under such a system. Hence the regulation of media ownership would be of even greater importance, as would, in the context of new media, open and fair access to information.
Finally, specially in relation to technological systems for direct democratic engagement, like the ones favoured Mr. O’Mullane, the potential for the hacking and gaming electoral instruments has to be countered. As Ireland has so recently discovered, electronic voting provides new opportunities for electronic voter fraud. In the United States, widespread use of electronic voting at the 2000, and 2004 elections, created huge damage to public confidence in the electoral process, after allegations of electronic vote fraud by the (largely republican owned) manufacturers of demonstrably flawed and ‘game-able’ electronic voting machines emerged. Although each individual decision in a direct democratic system would have less importance than the zero sum game of representative democratic elections; voter confidence in the systems used to assess the public will (whether electronic or mechanical) would be even more important.
As Time magazine recently discovered, it can be extremely difficult to protect fair, anonymous electronic voting against the wilful actions of a committed minority of hackers. Nonetheless, secure electronic voting is not an unobtainable goal. We have pretty good systems for protecting the privacy of secure communications, and assuring data integrity; and with work, and open implementation, such technologies could restore public confidence in computerised voting systems.
Where does Ross O’Mullane stand?
[Note, this was a brief and very informal conversation, and Mr. O’Mullane was not aware that Jesus would, one short week later, commit it to the public record for all eternity]
When asked about the difficulties of preventing electoral fraud (in relation to issue specific votes), Mr. O’Mullane stated that he hadn’t had time to consider the details of his proposal – and that this would be something investigated after his election.
When asked about the potential threat to existing political interests, Mr. O’Mullane indicated a disdain for the existing political parties, and expressed the importance of the involvement of individuals outside the party machines.
When asked about potential minority disenfranchisement, Mr. O’Mullane conceded that although he considered the contemporary Irish population tolerant, if the popular vote on a given issue usurped minority protections, then he would follow the will of the voters.
Four Proposals listed on O’Mullane’s website
1. Citizens have a direct voice on all issues. Passionate experts will be making decisions on issues rather than self-serving politicians. The United Minds Forum is open to for all people to discuss any issue.
2. Constituents of Dublin South elect a representative to Dail Eireann, and then vote on all key issues on the United Minds website. (a secure voting platform will be developed once the representative is elected.)
3. The elected representative in parliament actions the results of these votes, and maintains regular communication with the forum users.
4. It’s an efficient system that will see us effectively tackle the massive challenges facing our towns, our country and our planet.
So, what does Jesus think?
Direct democracy is a stunningly wonderful idea, that might just work in practise. It’s great to see an unknown and articulate candidate embrace democracy in it’s purist form – literally, rule by the people. That said, Ross O’Mullane is fuzzy on the details, and when it comes to determining the underlying structure of a political system, details matter. Mr O’Mullane’s aversion to existing political institutions is understandable, even admirable in the context of the failure of the PD’s on the right, the surrender of the Greens on the left, and the moribund, special interest owned ‘pragmatism’ of the’ cumman parties. However Mr. O’Mullane’s apparent disinterest in organising a movement – beyond this local election, and his specific candidacy; limits the potential influence of his ideas. As a candidate outside the political mainstream, it is actually more important that he bone up on the political science. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, if I have to have a TD at all, I want my TD to be smarter than me, to know more than I do about national and local issues, and should he suggest a radical ideology, I bloody well want him to know more about how it might work in practise than I do. Despite his background in ‘branding and marketing’, and despite the fact that he works for a gambling company, Mr. O’Mullane seems like a nice guy. A nice guy, with a nice idea. Perhaps he’s just not the right guy to create in Dublin South a ‘beacon of genuine democracy’. Still, Jesus would probably vote for him, because the devil – be he known, or indeed unfamiliar, is never better.
Neither Marshmallow Ladyboy Jesus, Jackdaw Fool, nor the author of this article is affiliated with any political candidate, party, or organisation.
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