Our family

Entries in Democracy (19)


Why Judges should not be elected

In many ways, America has a democracy-deficit, the absurd electoral college comes to mind, as does the 5 million Americans who are blocked from voting based on where they live (not to mention the anti-democratic tactics used to suppress the vote all over the country).

In other ways, however, America has too much democracy, with many positions such as sheriffs and judges being directly elected. This study shows why election of judges is bad in one figure:

In summary, punishment is not only dependent on the crime, it is dependent on the time. Criminals receive 10% harsher sentences in the lead up to a judicial election. How is that fair or just?


Pseudo-democracy: Greek edition

I give the USA a lot of grief over being a pseudo-democracy, as well I should considering there are 10 million adult citizens barred from voting and nearly a 100-fold difference in voting power based on residency. But the home of democracy is hardly much better, and in the latest elections it has certainly declined to the status of a pseudo-democracy.

Consider this: the large right-wing parties gained only 44% of the vote, while the large left-wing parties gained 50%. Yet the new Prime Minister is from the right-wing ND party. Ah, but this election was not about the traditional left-right issues, it was on the question of austerity. Well here, the pro-austerity parties only won 42% of the vote compared to the 46% of the anti-austerity parties, and yet the new government is pro-austerity! In the May election, which was negated because there was "no clear winner", the result was even more striking, with the anti-austerity parties winning 60% of the vote.

So how is it that a majority of the electorate voted left-wing and anti-austerity, but ND - a pro-austerity right-wing party - is the winner of the election? Well, prior to these elections ND passed a new electoral law that gives the largest individual party a 50 seat "bonus", which is sizeable in a parliament of only 250 elected seats. This law was explicitly designed to give the two largest parties, ND and PASOK, a workable majority even if they only won 40% of the vote. In other words, the large pro-austerity parties were basically guaranteed to win the election, because they would pick up the bonus seats. The anti-austerity parties, by contrast, were fractured, so none would be able to get the bonus seats. The system is so skewed towards the pro-austerity parties that the 32%:60% May result gave a hung parliament, while the 42%:46% June result gives a win to the pro-austerity coalition!

This result can certainly not be considered anything other than anti-democractic. And worse than the US situation, where the abuses of democracy are archaic holdovers, this law was only engineered in 2008.


Astroturfing, the biggest danger to democracy today

There was a very interesting discussion recently on Background Briefing about "astroturfing". Astroturfing is the attempt to create a false image of a grass-roots movement, which can then be used for political or business gain. So for example a business lobby could either directly lobby government for favourable legislation, or they could create an image in the media of many small business owners demanding that piece of legislation. More and more the second option is looking like the most effective, as politicians risk alienating the public if they ignore the small business owners - regardless of whether the image in the media is representative or not. 

While astroturfing is a relatively new phenomenon, rising with the advent of social media, it is one which I find very scary for the future of our democracy, and especially dangerous for the left-wing of politics. Democracy is based on the idea of one person, one vote. The corrupt millionaire may be able to buy politicians and spend millions of dollars on advertising, but once in the booth their vote counts for no more than mine. No matter the power and advantage of a single person, there are limits to how blatantly they can rig the system in their favour. To some extent, the power of the financial elite will always be countered by populism. Astroturfing changes this, because it allows the financial elite to create a false image of populism.

There are some interesting examples of astroturfing that have come to light recently. For example, Newt Gingrich bought hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to make his feed look popular: the aim was to create a buzz around his candidacy and make him look like a popular choice. Or another example is that of the company Solaris. They were being successfully campaigned against by Greenpeace, and responded by flooding the social media with fake commentators posting virulent anti-Greenpeace comments, to try to create the perception that the general public was with Solaris, not Greenpeace. 

Of course, the two examples above are notable because they were clumsily done, and actually caused damage to the astroturfer after the scam was caught. Much more dangerous is when astroturfing is done well, and there is no better example of this than the Tea Party. Creating the Tea Party must be the most successful use of astroturfing the political world has seen. From the very beginning the Tea Party was generated generated by Fox News. Fox News even marketed the rallies for the first few months as "Fox News Channel Tea Parties". In those early days, Fox News reporters would cover a gathering of ten individuals (always claiming that it had been hundreds just hours earlier) while ignoring demonstrations of thousands in favour of issues they did not agree with (such as gay rights). By hammering away and creating the appearance of a grass-roots movement, Fox News eventually made the movement self-sustaining, dropped the "Fox News Channel" branding and claimed that it had arisen years earlier under Bush, rewriting history.

The integration of astroturfing and the Tea Party goes much deeper than its foundation. Tea Party activists now run seminars teaching local groups about astroturfing, giving lists of websites to go onto and give bad ratings to any liberal books or movies (without actually reading or watching them, of course) so they drop below conservative books and movies in recommendation algorithms. And in turn the Tea Party has been massively exploited by the Republican party through astroturfing. As a political movement, the Tea Party has been almost entirely incoherent from the beginning, united mainly by anger ("we want our country back"), but if there has been any common ground it is in the call for more jobs. Yet the Republicans who rode the Tea Party label to Congress have not supported any job creation legislation, and in fact have been entirely committed to tax changes that drain money from the middle class to give to the rich. Not one in a thousand of those original activists would have ever thought about the Debt Ceiling, yet once they were organised and told that this is what the Tea Party was about they followed the line. It is using human psychology as a weapon, creating a popular impetus behind movements to advantage the financial elite.

The potential of astroturfing is so powerful that the US military has recently tendered a contract to create software for manipulating social media. The publically stated aim of the software is to allow a single user to control hundreds of fake personas across multiple social media sites. It goes far beyond normal "trolling" not just in the quantity but in the quality, as the personas will create networks, feed off each other and appear to be normal members of the public with consistent background stories and supporting details. Of course the US military sees this as an entirely innocent endeavour, as they will use these system to counter "anti-American propaganda".

The implications of political parties, multinational companies and the military running high-level astroturfing campaigns are scary beyond normal conspiracy theories. It will soon be legitimate to question whether the popular opinion of your favourite web forum is genuine, or merely astroturfing. The military could use astroturfing to create a tide of popular opinion in favour of a particular war, before it has been publically debated. Businesses have already been successfully poisoning public opinion in the US, Canada and Australia against climate change science, by funnelling money to "independent" think tanks and for-hire activists. Political parties will no longer need to assassinate opponents by convincing the public, when they can simply buy the appearance of public opinion and let the media finish it off. The end of modern democracies will not come through a military coup or an elected dictatorship, but rather through the perfection of astroturfing, allowing a small group of financial elites to suck all the resources of the world into their hands - and trick the public into supporting their vampirism


Saudi women gain right to vote in meaningless elections

From the headlines you would imagine a huge leap forward in women's rights in Saudi Arabia - from the New York Times "Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right to Vote" or from the Guardian "Getting the vote could herald real change for Saudi women". 

Really? Because as great as it is that Saudi Arabia has joined the rest of the world in allowing women to vote (except of course the Vatican City, as the last bastion of male exclucivity), those elections are not going to be worth a dime. In the last 50 years there has only been one election that anyone could vote in, and it was a local council election where the monarchy determined eligibility to stand for election and directly appointed half the members. So at some point in the future there will be another local council election with the result pre-ordained by the Monarch, but a few women will be allowed to vote for the remaining window dressing. Whoop-e-bloody-do.

It is hard to imagine this move as anything other than a (successfull) attempt to give the illusion of progress and democracy where none exist. The King of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarch, who bloody cares who can "vote"? What is a vote without democracy! Progress would be the women of Saudi Arabia getting rights that they can actually use, such as the right to marry who they want and travel where they want. Anything else is just PR.


The Tea Party should move to Fiji

If you thought the Tea Party was anti-Union, with an almost single minded focus on destroying workers' rights, spare a thought for workers in Fiji. The democratically elected government in Fiji was overthrown 5 years ago by Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Despite frequently promising new elections, Bainimarama has kept an increasingly tight grip over power in the country and has now passed the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree 2011. This nasty thing is even worse than the Wisconsin "Budget Repair" Bill:

  • All existing trade unions must re-register in order to continue their activities (art.6);
  • "All existing collective agreements" between employees and their employers are voided 60 days after the commencement of the decree (art.8);
  • Elections of trade union representatives are subject to government approval (art.10);
  • An employer may appeal to the government to cancel a representative's election if he or she at any time has "reliable objective information and evidence" that "at least 35% of workers" no longer support that representative (art.15); this enables the employer to cancel any "existing or current collective agreement" (art.17);
  • "If an employer has suffered operating losses for two consecutive fiscal years, or two years of actual or expected operating losses in a three year period, it shall have the immediate right to renegotiate all its existing collective agreements". If no agreement can be reached with employees, the employer then sends a proposal to the government, which may approve it as binding upon employees, replacing any necessity for an agreement (art.23);
  • Within "designated corporations", employees have no entitlement to overtime pay on Saturdays, Sundays or public holidays, unless granted by the employer (art.24);
  • Art.24 also abolishes the Wages Council's jurisdiction over "any 'designated corporation' or essential national indsutry";
  • "Disputes over discipline and discharge" are to be settled within the company, or by the government if ultimately unresolved, with no recourse to any court of law or any judicial institution (art.26);
  • "No job actions, strikes, sick outs, slowdowns or other financially or operationally harmful activities shall be permitted at any time for any reason". Strikes are permitted only if employees have been negotiating unsuccessfully for at least three years for a collective agreement with their employer, and if they thereupon provide twenty-eight days' advance notice of the strike to their employer and to the government, and if the government approves the requested strike. The employer may then lock out any striking workers and "unilaterally impose terms and conditions of employment". Any worker taking part in an unauthorised strike may face a sentence of up to five years' imprisonment, combined with a fine of up to $50,000. The government may order the end of any strike (or lockout) in "any essential national industry" at any time (art.27);
  • The decree prevails over any inconsistency with any existing law (art.28);
  • No court of law, tribunal or commission has any jurisdiction to examine the legality or validity of the decree or of any decision made by the government or by any employer in application thereof (art.30).

Every right that workers have ever successfully won is eliminated, strikes and negotiation are essentially impossible and employers have the right to impose any conditions they want on the Unions. That, dear Teabaggers, is a direct challenge - can you up the ante and completely destroy the working class before Fiji?


Evolution prevents revolution, political edition

I was thinking today about the diminishing effect of democracy as a progressive force. Democracy is (or at least, should be) entirely a numbers game, so it is very effective in creating change when the majority are denied a right. When, however, it is a minority that is denied a right, democracy is often found lacking. When the vast majority of the population were below the poverty line it was straightforward to petition for welfare, education and social mobility. Now that we have pulled a majority over the poverty line, that same majority tends to look with contempt on those remaining underneath.

One of the most interesting examples to me is the diverging history between England and France. Prior to 1214, both countries were absolute monarchies, yet in 1214 King Philip II of France decisively crushed the armies of King John of England at the Battle of Bouvines. From that year on, the fate of the monarchies of two countries seperated. King John, weakened by defeat, was forced to slowly capitulate on the absolute rights of the monarch, signing the Magna Carta in 1215. King Philip II, by contrast, passed on the crown to his son, Louis VIII, who ruled with even more authority. For 500 years, the influence of the Magna Carta led to a slow erosion of the monarchy and a strengthening of the rights of the people, with limited elections in 1265 and a slow progression to the English Bill of Rights in 1689. The writers of the Magna Carta certainly did not want the common people to have independent rights, but the effect was to provide a release valve, where social pressure for equality could boil over and produce minor changes. In France, by contrast, the iron first of the King prevented any social change, with the French Revolution of 1789 the final result. Now, 800 years after the Battle of Bouvines, France is a modern Republic, while in the UK the monarchy has still been able to hang on, by just giving up drips of power every hundred years or so. Evolution prevents revolution.

Another interesting comparison is between South Africa and Switzerland. Switzerland was one of the cradles of equality, considered to be a functional democracy since 1848, and yet women did not achieve the right to vote until 1971 - a 123 year wait! South Africa, by contrast, was the posterchild of injustice until 1994, when Nelson Mandela won the first multiracial elections, with the jump in equality occuring simultaneously in men and women. And this is not just true on gender equality, South Africa now has a more liberal constitution with regards to sexuality than Switzerland. I would hazard a guess that among the population, Switzerland is less homophobic than South Africa, but at the constitutional level the polarity is reversed. By becoming a democracy earlier Switzerland locked in some profoundly regressive policies, while South Africa, writing its constitution in 1997, does not have these archaic notions of the 19th century engraved in stone.

Or look at democracy in the United States. While it was not the first democracy, the democratic movement in the US was one of the earliest and among the most significant. America, in principle, became a democracy in 1776, yet women only gained the vote in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964. Today among the functioning democracies, the United States has among the most unrepresentative Congress, with 5 million citizens denied the vote due to geographic location (Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the other territories), another ~5 million with voting rights removed due to criminal records. And don't get me started on the Senate, where a resident of Wyoming has a vote >65 times more powerful than a voter in California, or the two party first-past-the-post system which essentially locks out independents and third-party candidates.

The point I am trying to make is not that the US has a bad democracy (although it does), it is that when the democratic revolution occured in a country early, the revolution locked in some very undemocratic ideals. Countries that had later democratic revolutions were more able to learn from the mistakes of others, and the pressure-cooker of social inequality had longer to boil before it exploded - creating a greater leap forward.

I've given a handful of examples, but of course it is easy to come up with counter-factual examples. Does the principle hold true in general? What would you see if you plot the year that a country became a functioning democracy versus the number of years women had to wait to participate in that democracy? The graph below shows an inverse relationship - indicating that the earlier a country became a democracy, the longer on average women had to wait to gain equal voting rights. The first stirrings of democracy gave rights exclusively to rich white men, who (once they gained power) were happy to keep power exclusive to themselves. Countries that had to fight longer for democracy were more likely to grant it simultaneously to all.

Description of graph: A scatterplot of the year a country first became a democracy, versus the number of years that female suffrage was delayed. The year of first democracy was taken to be the year that the country first achieved a Polity score of 6 or above, indicating basic functioning democracy. The data of female suffrage was taken from wikipedia. All countries for which both data points were available were included. Countries are colour-coded by region - red indicates the Americas, blue Europe, orange Pacific, green Africa and purple Asia. The trendline is calculated across all countries as a linear regression, and has a r2 value of 0.803.


What are the political implications of the observation that incremental change can actually be a detriment to reaching the destination? Could the message be to insist on total equality in a single step, as partial equality may simply entrench the remaining inequality? In sexuality rights I can imagine this as a real risk. I would have preferred to see a bill before the US Congress granting full equality based on sexual and gender equality, rather than the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" alone. To me, if we could have kept same-sex marriage and gay military rights as a single cohesive issue we may have reached the destination of equality faster. Likewise the idea of "civil union" may undermine the push for marriage equality. Denmark was the first country to pass civil union rights, with the registreret partnerskab in 1989, ten years later France passed the pacte civil de solidarité, before any country in the world had legislated for same-sex marriage. Today the LGBT communities in Denmark and France are still living with second class rights, with the social conservatives using civil unions as a shield against same-sex marriage.


Eurovision voting

People in Azerbaijan must be estatic today, even if we all know Moldova was robbed. I think it is a nice touch that Europe gave the prize to Azerbaijan, a majority Islamic country at the very edge of Europe. Am I the only one who thinks that the Prize for winning Eurovision should be membership to the EU?

My favourite part of the night is, of course, the voting. The Eurovision voting system is a rare example of a positional voting system, so many psephologists use it as an opportunity to study the outcomes. While there are obvious flaws to the system (France and Monaco having an equal number of votes is the most obvious), there are also some interesting aspects which would really shake up politics if implemented in legislative elections. For example, the inability to vote for your own region may be expected to end pork-barrelling. 

One of the common complaints on Eurovision voting is that it is politically biased, with neighbouring countries (Italy, San Marino) or cultural cousins (Serbia, Russia) typically voting for each other. There is some merit to this observation, even if the groupings are not always what might be expected. But it might be too cynical to call this clustering "political", since the point has been made that songs popular in one region are also likely to be popular in countries sharing similar cultural tastes and the same media distribution, regardless of political alligience.

Less known Eurovision facts:

  1. The UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy buy their way into the finals every year, without having to win any semi-finals
  2. Despite what you hear from the British about the contest being rigged against them, the UK is equal second in the number of Eurovision wins, behind Ireland (7 wins) and equal to France and Luxembourg (5 wins)
  3. Prior to 1999, Eurovision songs had to be sung in an official language of the presenting country. Since 1999, the winning song has been sung in English every year except 2007 (when Serbia won). In 2003 Belgium came second with an entry in an artificial language.
  4. The countries bordering the Mediterranean in North Africa and the Middle East are eligible to enter Eurovision, but the only ones to have done so are Morocco and Israel

The risk of democracy - when the majority are religious fundamentalists 

No, I am not talking about a potential future risk of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but instead the current proven risk of Christian fundamentalists in America. In the most extreme anti-abortion law yet proposed in America, South Dakota has proposed law HB1171, a law which will make it legal to kill doctors and nurses who provide abortion facitilies.

No kidding, the proposed law will make murder to prevent harm to an unborn foetus "justifiable homicide", thus removing any prospect of a prison sentence to the murderers. This is not an abstract threat, Christian terrorism against abortion providers is very real in the US. Over the last three decades in the US there have been at least 25 murders or attempted murders, 558 violent attacks or attempted attacks (including assault, kidnapping, bombing and arson), 1657 bomb threats or death threats and 2894 "minor" incidents such as trespassing or vandalism.

One of the more bizzare and archaic aspects of the proposed law is that murder of abortion providers is only considered justifiable homicide if the murder is done by a first-degree relative (spouse, parent or child) of the woman having the abortion, or by the master of the woman, if she is a servant. Huh? Are they living in the 18th century where the master of the house has control over his servants bodies, and has the right to hunt down and kill her doctors if they provide medical servies he doesn't agree with? The whole law is completely unethical, but the master/servant bit is just plain weird.

Here is the text of the proposed law:

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED, An Act to expand the definition of justifiable homicide to provide for the protection of certain unborn children.
Section 1. That § 22-16-34 be amended to read as follows:
22-16-34. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.
Section 2. That § 22-16-35 be amended to read as follows:
22-16-35. Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

If this makes you angry, here is the place to take action - donate to Planned Parenthood.


This is an article well worth reading on the effects of the 2010 US election on the Israel-Palestine situation.


Wikileaks has the right attitude to secrecy

The attitude of Wikileaks towards secrecy is that it is the last resort, every document should be public unless there is an overwhelming reason for it to be kept secret. This is, in fact, the democratic attitude towards secrecy, as a democracy requires citizens to be informed when making their choice of goverments. The secrecy provisions are not in place to keep governments from embarrassment, they should only be used when there is no reasonable choice to the contrary.

So consider the actions of Julian Assange from Wikileaks. He was leaked vast quantities of information and then presented them to the US government first, offering them the chance to redact any information which is actually critical. The US government refused, claiming that each and every piece of information in each and every document absolutely had to be kept out of the public domain. This was blatantly false, most of the documents are in fact trivial. Even the Whitehouse admits this, as the neo-con hawk Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

Is that so, Mr Gates? In that case the documents should have been released to the US public directly by the government. Embarrassment is not a sufficient reason to invoke secrecy in a democracy. The US government did not wish to release the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate papers or the Abu Ghraib images either - they have a track record of keeping information out of the public domain simply for political reasons. Someone needs to keep them to account and ensure that secrecy is used as the last resort. Wikileaks made the correct decision, released information to the public and caused no damage except embarrassing the US government. Bravo I say.

Instead, what is the response to Wikileaks? The US government has heavied Paypal and Amazon.com to shut down payment to Wikileaks and stop hosting their servers. Julian Assange is bizzarely being hunted down by the Swedish authorities for sexual harrassment charges. No one knows if the charges are valid or not, but it is extremely unusual for such mild evidence to warrant an international man-hunt, especially considering the Swedish police refuse to meet with Assange at the Swedish Embassy in the UK. Republican Presidental hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have gone so far as to demand that the leak source should be executed and that Julian Assange should be hunted down like Al Quaeda. Who is the true threat to democracy? Not Julian Assange, that is for sure.