Ever since Brexit and Trump, we have seen thousands of real-time analyses and commentaries. We could read all about what was wrong with politicians, parties and even people – but surprisingly very little on what was wrong with procedures. It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.
Since the Great Regression has many different origins, it will inevitably require many different remedies. But in my letter, I want to focus on one dimension I find extremely important: the way we do democracy. I am interested in the practical procedures and the mundane interfaces we use to make democracy happen. To be sure, this has to do with my background. I am an archaeologist by training: I believe that the practical conditions of the material world are not just of secondary importance, but constitute the world. Instruments shape results. Or, as Churchill remarked when debating the question in which shape the House of Commons should be rebuild after it had been destroyed by German bombs: »We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.« In order to let people have their say, the instruments we typically have at our disposal are elections and referendums.
Yet are these tools the best available? Are citizens who are invited to take major decisions on the future of their society at their best in the penumbra of the voting booth, behind a closed curtain, without any obligation to inform themselves or any formal chance to deliberate with others first? Is this old ritual of voting really the best we can come up with in the early twenty-first century in terms of collective decision making? Are these the most adequate means to let people express their dreams and policy preferences?