If the politicians can’t find a solution, let the citizens. That is the call of a group of independent thinkers and doers. And they have prepared a detailed proposal: the G1000, a meeting in Brussels on 11 November 2011, gathering one thousand randomly selected citizens who will be given an opportunity to discuss, in all freedom, the future of this country. Because democracy is so much more than citizens who vote and politicians who negotiate.
More than a year ago the citizens of Belgium elected the people they wanted to be governed by. They waited a year - in hope, in despair, with shame, with humour, and, above all, with great patience. There was no government. Clearly the challenges that Belgium currently faces are too big to be dealt with by the normal procedures of party politics. That’s okay; fortunately democracy is more than merely a matter of political parties.
If the politicians do not manage to find a solution, let the citizens deliberate. The latter may not have the same expertise as the former, but they have more freedom. And in this context that is a huge advantage. Ordinary citizens, unlike politicians, do not have to find a balance between national interests and electoral strategies. Ordinary citizens do not constantly need to ask: will I be rewarded or punished? Will my opponent be able to score on this issue, or not? Ordinary citizens do not need to be elected or re-elected. That is an invaluable asset. Expertise is something you can gain quickly, but freedom is something you have, or do not have. Citizens are therefore in a better position to make impartial choices.
After months of thinking, the signatories of this manifesto have figured out a concrete model for giving new impetus to the process of eliminating the stalemate that now has plagued this country for many years: the G1000, a citizens’ summit of one thousand randomly selected residents of this country. It relies on recent scientific research, relevant examples from abroad and new technologies. The G1000 wants to revive democracy in this country.
- The Belgian crisis is not just a crisis for Belgium; it’s also a crisis of democracy. The current standstill is by no means simply a matter of tensions between linguistic communities. It is almost certain that the issues that in the past brought crisis to Belgium (such as the Royal Question after the war, the school pact, or the missile crisis) would today also block the process of government formation. There’s more to it. With its longest ever period of formation Belgium is not lagging behind other Western countries; it is in fact one of the first countries where the democratic crisis is so clearly manifest. In the Netherlands and Britain, too, government formation has recently been more difficult than before.
- In a democracy, citizens choose to govern themselves. They do this either directly (as in ancient Athens), or indirectly. In a pure, direct democracy, everyone is permanently closely involved in the political process. The system offers many opportunities for participation, works well for smaller units and when the matters at hand are relatively simple. For larger, more complex units the method is clumsy. Modern states are a lot more complicated and bigger than the Greek city-states. Because not everyone can or wants to deal with governing a country, the public chooses, once every few years, a series of individuals who will do this on their behalf. This ritual is called elections and those who are elected serve as representatives of the people. They form the parliament, which in turn appoints an executive branch that respects the balance of power: the government. The direct democracy of yesteryear has given way to indirect, representative democracy: democracy as delegation.
- Since its inception in 1830 Belgium has been a representative democracy (except for the war years). The first elections were held in 1831. Since then, there have been nearly seventy elections. Representative democracy has worked well for nearly two centuries. It was a method aiming at the right balance between giving the people a voice and making government work effectively.
- Today, however, we encounter the limits of representative democracy. Elections no longer enable governments to work; they seem rather to have become an obstacle to good governance. Political parties, once created in order to streamline the diverse interests in society, now keep each other in a permanent stranglehold. Politicians are reminiscent of what is known as a rat king, a nest of young rats whose tails are so intertwined that any attempt to pull the knot tightens it further. A rat king doesn’t live long: the animals, which cannot coordinate their actions (each one pulls in its own direction), die of hunger and deprivation. Representative democracy, that fresh system of yesteryear, has become a low-oxygen environment. No wonder the country is in respiratory distress.
- How could this be? Because something has fundamentally changed in the world in which we live. Being an elected representative in the year 1911 was much easier than being one in the year 2011. He who was elected then (it would not have been a she) could, for more or less four years, nestle into the plush parliamentary environment. Between elections, he was occasionally reminded of his electoral promises through newspaper articles or letters from citizens, but otherwise he could, for four years, engage undisturbed in doing exactly that for which he was elected: discussing policies, making laws and supervising the healthy organization of society. And when the elections approached, he could still count on a high level of party loyalty among his voters.
- What a difference today! Today, the elected (female) politician can no longer hide from sight in an area reserved for power holders; instead she has to expose herself to as much media attention as possible and reside in the public sphere where she can be questioned, attacked and criticized; after which she’ll be faced with online forums where she’ll be reviled, mocked, spat out, praised, worshipped and shot down. Gone are the noble ambitions. Politics has become a higher form of restlessness and politicians have to work like dogs. The reason is simple: elections occur more frequently than before. Moreover, the voter is more assertive and more critical than ever. Bye bye to party loyalty. That restlessness is also partly the politician’s own fault: in order to win a seat in the federal parliament she had to win votes in the regional elections. She knows she has made promises that sounded good during the campaign but are difficult to keep afterwards. No wonder there are tensions. She knows this: my constituents have been the dogs who pulled my sledge to where I am now, but they won’t hesitate to tear me pieces when they don’t get their food from me.
- In summary, in 1911 politicians were in power, in 2011 they are afraid. The former found themselves in a continuous state of post-election equanimity, the latter experience a permanent pre-election neurosis.
- What has not helped either is the disappearance of traditional civil society. Unions, mutual insurance funds and cooperatives once formed a channel between the masses and those in power. These organizations knew how to package the multitude of voices coming from the citizens and translate them into policy suggestions for the higher level. Conversely, they could persuade their members of the value of the hard-won compromises they made with the power holders. Such pillarisation had many drawbacks, but it did give structure to the tumult. Many of these civil society organizations still exist, but they hardly have an impact on linguistic community issues. And their militants are now increasingly seen simply as clients.
- And then there are the many technological developments. The arrival of a much more interactive Internet, called Web 2.0, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, changed things seriously. In the past, attentive citizens could only voice their opinions on a political initiative by means of isolated actions (a reader’s letter, a demonstration, a strike); now they can permanently and in an unlimited and unfiltered way show their dislike. At the end of 2006 Time Magazine nominated ‘you’ the person of the year. What we did on the internet was no longer merely freely consulting other people’s documents; we started actively contributing to the creation of entirely new documents. Millions of people helped to develop Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, Linux and Firefox. In late 2006 we were rewarded for this task, mid-2007 the Belgian crisis began. That was no accident. The Belgian public has never been more rapidly informed of political developments than today. Every second we can follow and comment on the complications, but only once every four years can we vote. Is it a surprise, then, that the online forums of our news channels are full of loud and frustrated messages? The sometimes violent contributions do not necessarily reveal a coarsening of public morality, but often the desire of the emancipated citizen to be heard.
- Never before have citizens been so articulate - and yet never so powerless. Never before has a politician been so visible, and yet so desperate. Should we find it normal to live in an information age with an electoral system that is essentially from the early nineteenth century?
- Representative democracy - our system of elections, parties and parliaments - has reached its limits. In the heyday of pillarisation, negotiators sought retreat in a spacious property (Val Duchesse, Egmont, Bouillon) to begin their discreet discussions. At the time of the “purple coalition” they experimented with the new political culture of public deliberation, which increasingly led to public fights. But in the current era of exaggerated focus on media they go one step further: leaders talk constantly with reporters, either off or on the record, with their Facebook friends, with their Twitter followers, with their faithful voters, with their future constituents, with swing voters (almost everyone), but strangely enough not with one group: with each other. How many months now have they not sat together around the negotiation table?
- Ecce homo: political power-holders in the year 2011 look alarmingly like a team of cardiac surgeons performing an extremely delicate operation, but in the very middle of a chock-full football stadium. Crowds cheer, fans run onto the field and, with every movement of one of the cardiologists, they shout their opinions about what the doctors should and should not do, if not ridicule them entirely. The surgeons are afraid to move. They fear they will be shot down, they fear the people, fear each other. Everyone waits. The clock is ticking; the health of the patient doesn’t count.
- Democracy has become the tyranny of elections.
But things can be different. Democracy is a living organism. Its forms are not fixed, but grow according to the needs of the time. Direct democracy was a perfect fit for the era of the spoken word. Representative democracy was a good solution at the time of the printed word, the newspaper, and later other ‘one-way media’ such as radio, television and the first phase of the Internet. But now we have ended up in the era of Web 2.0, the era of permanent interactivity, we still have not found a new and more appropriate democratic form. All we know is that we are in urgent need of renovation.
1. Innovation is key everywhere, except in democracy. Companies must innovate, scientists must cross boundaries, athletes must break records and artists have to reinvent themselves. But when it comes to the organisation of society, we are clearly still happy with the procedures of 1830, even if we live in the year 2011. (Voting rights were extended - to workers, to women, to non-Belgian residents - but representative democracy itself has remained unchanged.) But why should we have to stick to a formula that is almost two centuries old? If democracy is no longer facilitated by the elections, and even outright prevented by it, then citizens should gradually help to find democratic alternatives.
- Compare it to the music industry. The death of the industry has been repeatedly proclaimed over the last century. Radio would mean the end of music, so much was clear. No, they said later, the phonograph would be. Or maybe not. The tape recorder! The CD! The mp3! All deadly stabs, so to speak. But if today we still listen to exciting music, it is because the industry has reinvented itself time and again, from sheet music to iTunes. This holds a wise lesson for democracy: what was once the score for the music industry is the ballot for democracy. It is still useful, but not enough.
- A democracy that doesn’t renew itself will be doomed. A democracy that takes itself seriously, should invest in much-needed research and development. It can be done through, as well as besides, the existing parties.
- This is far from simply a Belgian problem. The British political scientist John Keane studied democracies worldwide and signalled “the birth of a new kind of democracy, a form of ‘post- representative’ democracy that is radically different from the parliamentary and representative democracies in earlier times.” Around the world he saw forms of citizen participation and ownership which “pause and silence the monologues of parties, politicians and parliaments.” [quotes: John Keane 2009: The Life and Death of Democracy. London. 688, 691.]
- In recent years various Western countries have experimented with different forms of deliberative democracy. In a deliberative democracy, citizens are invited to participate actively in discussions about the future of their society. In Canada, British Columbia and Ontario wanted to reform their election laws. This could not be done through traditional politics: the system as it functioned gave a lot of power to one of the two major parties (a system comparable to that in the UK), and it was clear that neither party would want to vote for a law reform that could potentially go against their own electoral interests. The citizens were called in. A random sample brought 104 people from all walks of life together in Ontario (158 in British Columbia). The group was balanced in terms of gender, age, education, income and origin. The participants were thoroughly briefed on the then current electoral law. Over the course of several meetings they built up their own expertise, asked questions, explored various models and deliberated over their preferential alternative electoral system. Because they were not bound by party interests they could make more rational choices than the professional politicians.
- Public forums, citizens’ assemblies and citizen panels have also been organized in other countries, always with the intention of launching a debate between people of diverging views. Often they led to richer insights and calmer decisions. Since 1986 Denmark has a Council for Technology that allows people to have a say on all developments in the field of genetics, brain research, climate change and biodiversity. Since 1995 an initiative in the US called the Peaks Inn has given more than 160 000 people an opportunity to speak on public matters. When the City of New York wanted to redevelop the site at Ground Zero it first gathered one thousand New Yorkers to talk about it. Since 2002, France has the Commission Nationale du Débat Public, the main consultative body for dealing with matters of infrastructure and sustainable development. In recent years the European Union has regularly encouraged the organization of civic participation events to explore complex issues, amongst which the Meeting of Minds (2006), Tomorrow’s Europe (2007), EuroPolis (2009). Last year in the UK, Power2010 took place, a deliberative meeting on the functioning of democracy. And in 2011 Iceland entrusted a group of citizens with the task of writing a new constitution
- The American researchers James Fishkin and Robert Luskin have convincingly demonstrated that people who are given a chance to talk to each other and can rely on sufficient information are capable of finding a rational compromise in a relatively short time. This has even worked in deeply divided societies like Northern Ireland! Catholics and Protestants who talked more about than to each other, have now managed to find solutions in very sensitive fields such as education.
- The Belgian government has as yet no tradition of deliberative democracy. The past half-century, politicians have been so preoccupied with state reform that they have forgotten all about the reform of democracy. Deliberative democracy, however, offers useful methods to overcome the limits of representative democracy. It doesn’t ignore the work of parliaments and parties; it rather seeks to complement it. Just as in a system of direct democracy, it aims at the large involvement of ordinary citizens, but through its careful sampling of diverse groups it also respects the spirit of representative democracy. The formula differs fundamentally from a referendum or plebiscite, because these systems require everyone to vote on a subject that few people really know well. In a deliberative democracy a few people are asked to discuss something they are thoroughly informed about. The results are usually more sensible and mature
- Deliberative democracy could well be the democracy of the future. It is a perfect match for this era of user-generated content and Web 2.0. It harnesses the wisdom of the crowd. It’s the Wikipedia of politics. It realizes that not all knowledge about the future of a society must come from the top. The reason for that is simple: there is no top anymore. There are different branches of knowledge. A society is a network. The masses today may know more than the elite.
Debate is the heart of democracy. When people talk, they can align their own private interests with the public interest more easily. Therefore, the voice of the many can help to enrich the decisions of the few.
And, so, if we bring together 1000 citizens of this country for a full day in Brussels in order to discuss the major challenges of our democracy;
And if we try to find a way to ensure that the composition of this group mirrors the composition of the national population;
And if we put one hundred tables of ten people in a conference hall in front of a centrally placed stage;
And if on that stage the great issues of our time were comprehensively explained and, as objectively as possible, the various policy options analyzed;
And if around those tables the various options would be discussed, under the guidance of expert facilitators who would give everyone a chance to speak, whatever their educational background, rhetorical talent or level of expertise;
And if we listen to what all those ordinary, free citizens have to say about their country;
And if we, after these consultations, were to vote on the various policy options and brainstorm how to improve things;
And if we could map the preparedness of ordinary citizens to find compromise - before, during and after the deliberation;
And if that would be democracy’s high noon, would we, citizens of a country in crisis, not be able to realize a large-scale experiment in democratic renewal?
Would we, then, not be able to inspire and advise the official negotiators on what the people of this country want and what they think is an acceptable compromise?
And would it not be easier for the political representatives to explain a compromise to the people if it was the people who had first suggested that same compromise?
Obviously, the decisions and recommendations of the G1000 cannot be binding and that’s a good thing (as a citizens initiative we do not want a formal mandate; we want to retain maximum freedom), but they do provide a meaningful framework for further negotiations. The G1000 is an interface between the masses and the power-holders and so it wants to show how democracy in this country can be improved. Just as informally as the G20, the group of the twenty richest industrial countries, just as committed to the future, but much more democratic. Where it is not those in power who speak, but those who are free.
The G1000 is designed as a three-stage plan. Prior to the citizens’ summit, we conduct a large-scale online survey to find out what it is that citizens are really concerned about. What problems do we find the most pressing? What worries us? This first phase begins in July and ends in November 2011. The second phase is the citizens’ summit itself: on November 11, participants from across the country will gather at Tour & Taxis in Brussels. It is there and then that we’ll establish an outline of possible solutions. How do we want to deal with each other? What principles do we consider fair? What priorities do we share with each other? After the citizens’ summit follows the third phase: as was the case in Iceland, a small group of citizens will elaborate on the results. Over the course of several weekends, they’ll meet to discuss the decisions of the citizens’ summit in order to translate them into specific solutions. The third phase starts late November 2011 and ends in April 2012.
Can citizens do this? No doubt. Recent small-scale experiments at the VUB and the University of Liege indicate that ordinary citizens with diverse opinions are prepared to discuss those opinions in a constructive manner and can find solutions to complex problems. A citizens’ summit such as the G1000 can be compared to a civilian jury in a court case. If average citizens, after they have been able to get acquainted with extensive evidence, can reach a substantiated verdict on the guilt of a person and are able to agree on what the consequences should be for that person’s freedom, then they are certainly capable of carefully assessing the blueprint for a country.
The G1000 is a citizens’ initiative that wants to provide new oxygen to the democratic functioning of the state. It is independent and relies on objective scientific research.
The outcome is not predetermined. There are no set preferences for any specific proposals. The G1000 only offers a procedure to talk about new proposals.
Participants of the G1000 recognize the fundamental legitimacy of everyone’s point of view. You do need to agree with someone’s ideas in order to have an open conversation with that person.
A citizens’ summit such as the G1000 recognizes the seriousness of the Belgian crisis, but breaks with any cynicism or defeatism. The initiative wants to foster positive and constructive thinking about solutions.
The G1000 is not a form of anti-politics; it rather believes that politics is too serious a matter to be left just to the politicians and political parties. Perhaps some politicians will worry that we want to eliminate their job, but that fear is totally unjustified. The G1000 is a generous gesture of the civilian population towards those engaged in party politics.
Besides the one thousand people who will participate in the actual discussions, there will be a multitude of volunteers collaborating in this project; they’ll do their share in welcoming and guiding the participants; they’ll provide translation, food and entertainment. We invite everyone to help thinking about this initiative. You can join us through our website.
Also in terms of funding, the G1000 is owned by citizens. Every donation of 1 euro is welcomed, but nobody is allowed to offer more than 5 percent of the total budget needed. The organizers have purposefully decided not to partner with any privileged sponsors or media; we believe in crowdfunding: individuals, companies, associations and governments are all invited to contribute a share.
The crisis is an opportunity. A chance for democracy to receive new impetus. For citizens to renew their democracy and to make politicians aware of their involvement and priorities.
As the largest ever deliberative process in Europe, the G1000 will kindle the interest and awe of the international community and provide the people with a new sense of historical momentum. A democracy that reinvents itself through the involvement of its own citizens – that is an exceptional process
The manifesto was first signed by the organizers of the G1000. They come from various walks of life and different parts of the country. None of them holds political office, but all are passionate defenders of democracy. In recent months they have met and studied. We invite everyone who wants to support this project with time, knowledge or money.