It is hard to disagree with some of the lacerating criticisms of the British political system made this week by Dominic Cummings. A democracy that forces voters to choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister is one that has gone “extremely badly wrong”, the former Downing Street aide said. Such a poor binary choice is the political equivalent of a cookie tick-box on a website, offering voters the illusion of consent but giving them no option but to accept non-negotiable terms and conditions.
Can we imagine a better democracy on Mars? The great virtue of thought experiments is they expand the realm of debate. For that reason, Hélène Landemore, a professor of political science at Yale University, recently challenged her students to write a constitution for Mars (her previous assignments to reimagine the US constitution had occasionally resulted in unbridgeable disputes). Not only might Mars-fixated voyagers such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk be intrigued by the exercise, but politicians should be, too. Rather than replicating the standard template of an elected parliament and representative government, the students sketched out a far more participative form of politics.
Unsurprisingly, with its focus on universal values, the imaginary Martian bill of rights echoed the US constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the students’ 31-page constitution also reflected more contemporary concerns, enshrining the rights of bodily and psychological integrity, of privacy and non-interference by government and of sole ownership of personal data, for example. Moreover, it explicitly extended constitutional protections to animals and the environment.
But its most distinctive feature was that it implicitly rejected the electoral model of democratic politics, establishing six standing “mini-publics” of 250 randomly selected Martian citizens to legislate in areas of economic, social and environmental policy, civil rights, government oversight and interstellar relations. Fifty representatives from each of these mini-publics would then sit in the overarching central chamber, which would approve the government’s budget and have veto powers over legislation.
The students have clearly been staying awake in class because Landemore is one of the most compelling advocates for this kind of “open democracy”. Her argument is that traditional electoral politics has all too often been captured by the rich and networked and dominated by narrow elites who fail to deliver. “At some point you have to be honest and say there is not much that can be salvaged from this electoral model,” she says.
Her idea is to build on longstanding ideas of citizens’ assemblies that include a random sample of the population to ensure that as many different views as possible are respected in setting a political agenda. “The best way is to diversify the composition of your group rather than try to maximise its competence. That seems counter-intuitive but when you have to solve hard problems you are better off with diverse-thinking people rather than very, very smart people who think the same way,” she says.
A good illustration of the failings of traditional politics, as well as the promises and pitfalls of citizen assemblies, came in France after the gilets jaunes protests of 2018. Poor, car-dependent voters protested that an out-of-touch Parisian political class had rammed through fuel price increases, ignoring their concerns. In response, President Emmanuel Macron launched a national debate that led to a citizens’ convention on climate.
The French example highlights the difficulties of translating fine-sounding theories into practical policies. Some convention members felt betrayed because parliament did not adopt all of their suggestions, although Landemore insists they significantly moved the dial on the public debate. Her contention is that demand for democracy remains almost universally high but its supply has been overly restricted.
That argument would certainly have resonated among the participants of a political conference in Moscow this week marking the centenary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov, the late Soviet-era human rights campaigner. Their fear was that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was a “messenger from the future”, showing how it was possible for an authoritarian regime to reject universal moral values and international rules and build a “managed democracy” behind the facade of an electoral system.
That danger is real in many other countries, too. We should not wait until astronauts reach Mars before we experiment more with participatory politics to strengthen democracy.