Like millions of people around the world, I spent most of the day, October 1, 2017, horrified by the political violence and intimidation inflicted by the Spanish government on unarmed Spanish citizens trying to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a referendum asking whether they supported the political independence of the Catalan region where they live.
Nearly 900 people are reported to have been injured by police who physically attacked voters congregating around local schools in the Catalan region. Heavily armed police did everything possible to prevent people from voting, including breaking into locked schools and seizing ballot boxes before and after votes were cast.
Frankly, I’ve never witnessed anything remotely resembling the Spanish government’s well-planned and coordinated political violence and intimidation against citizens attempting to hold a peaceful referendum. These acts included declaring the referendum illegal and ordering Google to take down an online voting application.
What is extremely unusual and highly significant, in my view as a Swiss-American political scientist, is the fact that the targeted victims of the Spanish government’s political violence are ordinary Spanish citizens — teachers, families with school age children, and retirees, who belong to a quasi-autonomous and culturally distinct region and no longer want to be part of Spain. They are not extremists, political radicals or even “populists” (to use a pejorative term widely applied in Europe to ultra-right nationalists).
The stated goal of these Spanish citizens living in the Catalan, like the citizens of Scotland who recently voted in large numbers to secede from the United Kingdom, is to govern themselves free of the perceived constraints of the government to which they have been bound for centuries. From what I read, they do not want to be subject to the actions and laws of Spain’s current government, which is controlled by a minority political party, the People’s Party, which received only a third of the votes cast in the last election.
What I also think is highly significant, generally speaking, is that ruling minority parties that have received a minority of eligible votes govern not only Spain, but the UK, Israel, and the U.S., just to name a few countries that used to be considered well-established democracies in which majority rule is a fundamental precept. The control by these minority parties, and the other minority parties with which they align, is part and parcel of the decline of democracy worldwide, made possible by their undermining of democratic principles and processes in order to gain control of the governing apparatuses of whole countries.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, government has become “the least trusted institution globally.” 2015 witnessed a ‘plunge of trust in government due to stalemate and perceived incapacity.’ Lack of trust in government is particularly evident in the U.S.
“Nine in 10 Americans lack confidence in the country’s political system … there are few partisan differences in the public’s lack of faith in the political parties, the nomination process, and the branches of government.” AP-NORC.
“The number of ‘full democracies’ is low, at only 20 countries, comprising only 8.9% of the world population. 59 countries are rated as ‘flawed democracies’, comprising 39.5% of the world population. Of the remaining 88 countries … 51 are ‘authoritarian’, comprising 34.1% of the world population; and 37 are considered to be ‘hybrid regimes’, comprising 17.5% of the world population.”
I think this global decline in democratic self-governance may help explain the frustration felt by many of the 7.5 million Catalans, who live in a country that was long ruled by a dictatorial monarchy. Specifically, an underlying thorn in the side of many Catalans may well be the Spanish version of fossilized 21st century forms of deeply undemocratic political parties that make a mockery of the essential ingredients of democracy.
Just as the German sociologist Robert Michels observed in his analyses of political parties at the turn of the 19th century, contrary to parties’ claims to represent the people, they tend to be highly centralized and controlled from the “top down” by political elites.
They manipulate electoral and legislative processes to create highly centralized, “top down” governments that they control through undemocratic means. By the 21st century, these parties, and the special interests that maintain them in power, have contrived so many devious ways of polarizing and corralling confused voters into their camp that they can win elections. By so doing, they can obtain governmental control over vast populations and state-controlled wealth — especially through the collection and expenditure of tax revenues.
How do they manage to do so?
While there are many mechanisms, primary among them are the mechanisms that many political parties use to prevent voters and supporters from determining who runs for office, who gets elected, and what laws are passed.
They do not allow voters and supporters to set parties’ legislative priorities and agendas.
They do not allow them to determine which candidates will run for office on party ballot lines.
In essence, they re-engineer electoral institutions and processes in ways that compel voters to choose among candidates running on agendas over which voters have little influence.
Once party candidates are elected to public office, they enact legislation over which voters have virtually no control. These lawmakers remain virtually unaccountable to voters at the ballot box in the next election — for the same reasons they obtained office in the first place.
In essence, what most elections actually do in practice, as opposed to theory, is compel voters to transfer their political sovereignty to unaccountable political parties and their elected representatives, on a de facto basis. Once in office, these lawmakers ignore the needs and priorities of the voters who elected them, and instead favor of the demands of the special interests to which they are financially beholden as the result of their contributions to lawmakers’ election campaigns.
Political parties’ mechanisms and maneuvers designed to disempower voters have been increasing in number and effectiveness for decades. In many countries, including the U.S., they include outright vote rigging and vote suppression. Unsurprisingly, the result is mushrooming worldwide anti-government resistance expressed in electoral upsets (such as Brexit), protests, confrontations, extra-legal actions — and rapidly spreading political violence. These signs of the failure of democratic electoral and legislative processes to build consensus around widely supported legislation are becoming the norm, eclipsing proven methods of consensus-building and conflict resolution.
The “democratic deficits” that result from political parties’ disempowerment of voters have now become so numerous, pervasive and deeply embedded in electoral and legislative processes that it is virtually impossible for opposing parties and candidates to dislodge them. Not even the most optimistic citizens, voters and reform groups can be confident of ever rolling back the myriad deficits that have now crippled entire governments, even if they devote themselves to decades of piecemeal reform efforts that may well fail to bear fruit in the face of entrenched political parties.
As a case in point, the Democratic and Republican parties that form the U.S. political “duopoly” are a formidable obstacle to reforming the failed U.S. democracy. But they are not alone. Insurgent candidates and anti-establishment parties have attempted without success to rise to the fore, for example, the Green Party in Europe and the U.S., and newly formed political parties in Spain, Italy, Iceland, India, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
Yet they have been largely unable to overcome all the various mechanisms that traditional parties and undemocratic governments have put in place to prevent opposition parties and candidates from winning elections. Increasingly, these impediments are setting the stage for overwhelming popular resistance and, in pre-emptive retaliation, the government-perpetrated political violence that took place in Spain last week-end during the Catalan referendum.
The seriousness of the embedded causes of such confrontations, and the global democratic decline from which they stem, must not be underestimated. Most of them can be attributed directly and indirectly to the machinations of traditional political parties. To share my views of the depth and breadth of such causes, widely referred to as “democratic deficits,” here’s a list that I recently compiled.
- Political parties, politicians, and elected representatives that subordinate their constituents’ needs and demands to those of special interests that finance their electoral campaigns in order to sway their legislative priorities and votes.
- Interference by political parties that restrict voters’ roles in determining: a) the legislative agendas of parties and their candidates, b) parties’ slates of candidates placed on party election ballots, and c) how elected party representatives vote once they are in office. Voters are compelled to choose among electoral candidates who run on platforms and agendas over which voters have little influence, and who are unaccountable to voters for their legislative actions once they are in office.
- Efforts by election officials, political parties and special interests to deny and suppress voting rights, especially by a) refusing to provide authentication documents to eligible voters and by requiring voters to submit authentication documents that are difficult to obtain, and b) through electronic voting technology that i) tampers with voter registration files in order to prevent eligible voters from voting; ii) falsifies the tallies of votes cast; and iii) uses falsified tallies of votes cast to legitimize the election of officials who did not actually win elections.
- Political parties, candidates and elected representatives that engage in divisive political controversies and conflicts, often of an ideological nature, in order to increase their political influence and divide voters into hostile camps in order to win elections — including inciting conflicts within and between diverse groups inside and outside the country.
- Deliberate distortion of facts and issues by political parties, special interests and the media in order to mislead and confuse the public and prevent voters from framing debates and legislative priorities to reflect their actual needs, priorities, and demands.
- Large corporate-controlled social media platforms that permit anonymous posting of political fake news and propaganda that confuse and mislead social media user-voters to inflame and polarize voters and influence the outcomes of elections.
- Growing overall disconnect between voters’ needs and demands and the priorities and actions of legislative, executive, and judicial decision-makers, especially decisions that favor the priorities of special interests instead of the priorities of their constituents.
- Political parties and their elected representatives that do not take action to provide their constituents access to their written legislative proposals or solicit their input and approval. Such parties and representatives tend to use complicated, obscure and often incomprehensible processes to enact legislation, and do not systematically inform their constituents of their actions for and against proposals and final votes on enacted legislation that affects their constituents.
- Lack of effective and scalable consensus-building and conflict-resolving mechanisms that are available to voters and government decision-makers and facilitate efforts to reconcile political disagreements and conflicts into workable legislation and public policies.
- Increasing legislative gridlocks and paralysis resulting from unresolved disagreements and conflicts between political parties and their elected representatives, many of which are contrived by political parties and politicians to obtain political and electoral advantages.
- Political parties, party-backed candidates, and elected party representatives that do not receive a majority of votes cast in elections but nonetheless proceed to form minority governments without eliciting majority support, and then proceed to adopt and enact legislative agendas that diverge from the priorities, needs, and demands of mainstream voters.
- “Managed democracies” in which government officials attempt to censor, undermine and suppress anti-government protests and confrontations between the public and police, in violation of universal rights to freedom of speech and assembly, etc.; clandestine interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and surreptitious support aimed at mobilizing internal groups working to undermine existing governments.
- Increasing extra-legal actions and political violence that arise from democratic governance failures, including a) voters’ inability to use electoral and legislative processes to meet their needs and demands, b) unresponsive, democratically unaccountable government decision-makers, c) the propensity of undemocratic governments to use violent methods to resolve conflicts.
- Governments that refuse to use proven non-violent conflict resolution methods, such as diplomacy and third-party mediation techniques, to halt the escalation and global spread of violent transnational conflicts among nation-states, and between nation-states and non-state groups, which trap innocent civilians in their crossfire; heads of state and government officials who use intimidation tactics and threats to use military force to silence and defeat real and imagined adversaries.
- Failure of unresponsive and democratically unaccountable governments beholden to special interests to devise effective policies to surmount the life-threatening risks posed by climate destruction.
I invite you to read more about these democratic deficits and a global plan for overcoming them, which you can access at my website reinventdemocracy.ch.
The plan is a voter-owned Global Social Network for Voters that empowers voters worldwide to democratize, decentralize and disintermediate political parties and the governing institutions and processes they have corrupted.
The network’s agenda setting, political organizing and consensus-building tools and services enable voters to control their governments government, in place of undemocratic political parties, special interests and elected officials beholden to special interests. These unique tools and services connect voters across the ideological and partisan spectrum and enable them to join forces online to build their own voting blocs, political parties and electoral coalitions. Their members can collectively set transpartisan legislative agendas online. They can easily create transpartisan electoral bases large enough to elect candidates of their choice to enact their agendas, and hold them accountable in future elections.
Most lawmakers refuse to overturn undemocratic laws and regulations they use to get elected. Most voters lack of internal levers by which they can reform undemocratic political parties, and the failed and failing democracies they are creating. In contrast, the Global Social Network for Voters provides a universal, near-term solution by which voters can technologically re-invent failed and failing democracies so they can control their governments.
The network’s 21st century web-based technology, which enables voters worldwide to blend direct and representative forms of democracy as Swiss voters do, can be implemented by citizens and voters without changing existing laws or passing new laws at the outset, at least in most cases.
Significantly, this technology replaces outmoded forms of democratic decision-making by making it possible for large numbers of well-informed, consensus-building citizens to replace the small numbers of ill-informed, conflict-producing lawmakersthat typically ignore voters’ priorities in favor of their personal preferences and the preferences of the special interests that finance their electoral campaigns.
This technology, in my view, is the next step in the technological evolution of government “by and for the people”.
Voluminous research has demonstrated unequivocally that large numbers of people make better decisions than small numbers of people, especially in large complex systems such as governments. The Global Social Network for Voters empowers virtually unlimited numbers of citizens to collectively devise more intelligent and effective policies, programs and laws than the small numbers of undemocratic political parties and party-backed lawmakers that make ill-conceived decisions and enact laws opposed to the needs, priorities and demands of their constituents.
If the citizens of Spain and residents of Catalan had been able to use the consensus-building and conflict-resolving tools and services of the Global Social Network for Voters to devise alternative paths for charting their future, the turmoil and political violence we witnessed in Catalan last week-end would probably not have occurred.