What Iceland can teach us about making democracy more inclusive

The Democracy Agenda is a joint TVO/Toronto Star initiative exploring Western society’s commitment to the democratic process.

Half a century ago, Ontarians held an election and sent 117 of their fellow citizens to Queen’s Park to represent them.

Yes, being the premier or a cabinet minister was very much a full-time job. But for the other 90-plus MPPs, being a politician was only a part-time gig. For most of the year, farmers farmed, lawyers lawyered, and businesspeople ran their businesses. But for part of the year, they also went to the legislature to do the people’s business. They didn’t have teams of assistants. Heck, back then — believe it or not — most of them didn’t even have offices or phones.

I’d argue that, as a result, these politicians were grounded in the everyday concerns of their neighbours. They had not yet become a political class, as it were.

Nowadays, of course, politics is a full-time job for every elected person — and, in a strange sort of way, we’ve created a class of political representatives who tend to be more articulate and more educated but also brasher and more ambitious than most of the people they purport to represent.

Hélène Landemore spends a lot of time worrying about this. The French-born Yale University political scientist thinks this model of organizing our democracies has gone as far as it can go — that it’s time for us to come up with something much more, dare we say it, democratic.

Our current system might have worked when the rising tide lifted all boats. But increasing income inequality, burgeoning culture wars, and louder demands for social justice over the past two decades have many calling for something different.

Landemore refers to it as “open democracy” (also the title of her new book) — a system in which the power of the people isn’t limited to, in her words, merely electing a new group of elites to represent us every few years. At the moment, she says, we invest far too much money and energy in campaigns and toxic partisanship. What if we tried something different?

Enter: Iceland.

After the financial meltdown of 2008, Icelanders mutinied against the elites who had run their economy into the ground. They decided to randomly select 950 citizens to rewrite their constitution. That group essentially crowdsourced the operation. They consulted experts, reflected on their own values, put drafts of their work on the internet, got feedback from other citizens, and rewrote their drafts accordingly.

Suddenly, the powers of the president and judiciary were less central to Iceland’s purpose. The rights of average citizens (including the right to clean air and water) stood front and centre.

When they put their final draft to the country in a referendum, two-thirds of the population supported it. It seemed like a highly successful exercise in genuine, citizen-driven democracy.

But there was no Disney ending to the story, Landemore says. By the time the new constitution was written, the economy had recovered, the government had changed, and the new guys weren’t interested in any of this. Parliament rejected the new constitution — and, even worse, there were no political consequences.

(For a neat, fictionalized telling of how Iceland opened up its democracy, watch The Minister on TVO; it’s been my favourite pandemic binge-watch so far.)

Nevertheless, it gave the world a sense of what was possible and got more people asking whether there were other things we could do to open up our democracy further.

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While Landemore comes at things from the left of the political spectrum, she says Brexit and Trumpism might have been necessary to show the traditional governing elites that those she calls the shy, the inarticulate, the uneducated, and the invisible also need to have a say in shaping our collective destinies.

Could a much more open democracy work? More referendums? More citizen assemblies writing our laws or rethinking how we elect our politicians? We’ll discuss all this with Hélène Landemore tonight on our Democracy Agenda.