Participatory democracy

I had originally written this article for Canadian Atheist as a way to start branching out beyond atheism, but given that I’ve already scheduled two posts for tomorrow and already have one up today, I’m going to post this here.

I want to comment today on a political movement that I watched start to emerge in Alberta just before I left, which has since begun to really take off, but also put it in perspective with a post that I read at POGGE.

The latter frames it as “participatory democracy,” and outlines a system where traditional top-down political parties and decision making is replaced with a bottom-up approach that calls for individuals to contribute ideas to the system and to suggest multiple alternatives, and shuns simple yes-no dichotomous voting.

I’m not sure if a subscription is required, but this paper in the European Political Science journal looks like it also tackles a portion of the problem.

In Alberta, as with most of Canada, citizens are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with existing political parties, and especially the young are eschewing the entire process. Even the upstart Wildrose Alliance is only appealing more to the rich and elderly-curmudgeon crowd. Voter turnouts are drastically down.

But some smart people started getting together in Alberta a couple years ago, first for Reboot Alberta unconferences, and soon for Renew Alberta unconferences. At the same time, an unconference called ChangeCamp was held in Calgary, which began the path to the mayor’s office in Calgary for Naheed Nenshi.

For those who don’t know, an “unconference” is a participant-driven conference where the barrier to admission is set extremely low (the events are typically free), and average attendees provide most of the content in short, interactive presentations.

Each of these events focussed on slightly different areas, but they all had in common a commitment to bringing progressive values back to politics in Alberta. Of course definitions on progressivism range from socialism to soft-conservativism (i.e. fiscal, not social conservativism), but nearly all participants agreed that the present model in Alberta wasn’t working.

Renew Alberta moved quickly after its first couple events and merged with the remaining shell of the Alberta Party (which was a right-wing fringe party) and gutted the existing infrastructure. The rebuilt Alberta Party ejected all its policy and set out on a quest to do something revolutionary in politics – listen to the public.

With their “Big Listen” project they held small meetings in kitchens, community centres, or wherever was comfortable and simply listened to what mattered to Albertans and what they thought should be done about it. The party took no positions and simply compiled notes.

They then compiled all these notes and presented them at their policy conference a few months ago, which resulted in a policy document that they are using not as a final say, but more as a first step toward further consultation and idea generation.

And I must admit, I was quite skeptical initially that the wisdom of crowds wouldn’t be all that much and that what they generated would be a vague and vacuous document. Instead, I’m quite impressed that what exists is a relatively forward thinking position that balances many competing interests.

Add to this, the electoral win of Naheed Nenshi who is actually given credit for running “the campaign in full sentences,” and I think there may actually be a chance for this sort of system to succeed.

I think that’s enough for today, but I do also want to explore the concept of non-partisan politics (and why I’m warming to the concept but hate that phrase) and how these systems can be incorporated into an evidenced-based party like Reason Vancouver.