Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Depoliticizing Democracy? Opinion Polls Instead of Multiparty System and Democratic Elections

Imagine a system where state power is in the hands of a technocratic elite, where political parties do not exist, where executive power is confided to experts and where the government tries, as much as possible to reflect the expectations of its citizens (by conducting opinion polls on most of the issues regarding governmental policies). This system of government comes as close as it can get to a sort of high-tech government of the wise. Such a system would potentially present an alternative to standard forms of representative democracy, where the battle between different political options, combined by demagogic populism, almost fully obscures real issues at stake, meaning that the people are invited to make political choices without knowing, in most of the cases which policies would these policies produce at the end of the day. Having said that, direct democracy might be an answer but in most of the states in the world application of such a system would be hardly workable, people living in the contemporary society do not bother to vote in the elections even once every for years, not to mention the hypothetical situation where they would have to participate in the decision making process for most governmental decisions, thus, possibly every week. If they would have to vote so often would they have time to work, would they have time to go shopping?

There are several problems when thinking of the aforementioned technocratic government, ruling with the help of public opinion surveys. First, the government would have to sincerely reflect the needs and wants of the majority of the population, (1) meaning that the opinion polls would have to be conducted professionally trying to find out a position of the population on certain governmental policy (trying to capture even the most subtle positions on a certain matter), (2) meaning that it would have to respect and fight for the application of the results of these opinion polls as much as technically possible.

At first sight it might seem that in contemporary world such a system does not exist. True enough, democratic governments do conduct public opinion surveys once in a while. Nevertheless, they do so mainly as part of the election campaign trying to find out what the population wants and to construct their electoral program accordingly. They also sometimes consult the public opinion in the process of policy making by means of opinion polls. Yet, the power of democratic legitimacy, acquired at the elections, allows the liberal democratic politicians to go against the findings of these opinion polls or not to conduct them at first place. The role of these is therefore, mainly to help politicians to come to power, not to help them to govern better.

There are, however, countries where opinion polls are conducted for a different reason. In still formally Communist China, government often resorts to opinion polls as means of facilitating the decision making process. Communist elite, concerned by protecting stability in the country uses opinion polls as a way to countenance/avoid outbursts of public discontent as that of Tienanmen 1989. The Chinese government wants to know in advance the level of satisfaction of the population in order to avoid having to use unpopular repressive measures like sending the tanks against the students. In this way the Communist government uses public opinion surveys to find out whether the population is content with appointed local community leaders, whether certain policy or the other is preferred and so on.

It is no news that authoritarian (undemocratic power), historical examples demonstrate, remains highly concerned with what the population thinks and desires. Having such findings highly facilitates their rule and provides for political stability. They do so for pragmatic reasons to retain the stability in the country, but also, in this way, to secure their power. One could argue extremely provocatively that democratic politicians also (usually) respect democratic rules of the game as means to come to power. The difference between a classical system of representative democracy and a model of technocratic depoliticized government of the wise (reigning through help of public opinion surveys) is purely technical not normative. This is, however, a highly provocative statement, one is not to forget the maxim “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Such social perfectionism (historical examples demonstrate, e.g. communism) where power is given to a closed circuit of people might prove extremely dangerous.

In China, on the other hand, introducing democracy, political liberties, is considered as dangerous and potentially leading to territorial dismemberment of the country and serious social unrest, possibly war. To illustrate that the main concern of the Chinese ruling elite is to maintain a depoliticized notion of public order and stability of the country, not so much to maintain the ideological primacy of Communism, one should consider a following anecdote. When asked by an ex-Yugoslav diplomat to justify the violent suppression of demonstrations at Tienanmen, high ranking Chinese decision maker said that the rulers of the bourgeois post-Imperial China where imprudent enough not to nip in the bud the communist uprising, as a result Mao came to power and the country became increasingly weaker vis-à-vis the Japanese, he emphasized that communists, this time around, were not to make a same mistake, be sentimental, allow democracy and become and easy pray to other great powers.

Introducing a depoliticized notion of public control of governmental policies (although not mandatory) goes hand in hand with the revolutionary transformation of the Chinese economic system. There are indeed certain indicators that suggest that Chinese Communists take this issue seriously. First, Chinese ruling elite tried to conduct these opinion polls through a specialized organ of the Party, called The Control Commission. When they realized that the results of the public opinion surveys of the commission remain unreliable they decided to commission such very important activity to independent profit-based agencies. Several questions, however, continue to burden the activity of such agencies: the findings are not always made public (in this way the people does not have the impression that their voice is really being taken into account), questions such as the popularity of the Fallun Gong sect or Taiwanese independence remain a taboo and outside of the area of investigation of such agencies.

This model might seem both unrealistic, in terms of its efficiency, and dystopian, however, as long as current trends of democratic participation in Western democracies continue to decrease, their governments would have to consider seriously reforming the techniques of governance. Maybe they could learn something from the Chinese and their ability to get to grips with revolutionary transformations of their system, in this way they might in time prevent serious revolutionary outbursts of violence by the discontent population. Genova 1999 and numerous anti-globalization riots are merely a small indicator of boiling social discontent in the West and the inability of the democratic process to capture such discontent in an adequate manner.

Maybe depoliticizing democracy in the way suggested in this deliberately provocative piece is not possible nor desirable but it should serve as an instrument to make as think about improving our system of representative democracy.

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