Let me vote in your country, and I’ll let you vote in mine. A proposal for transnational democracy

Too little, too late

By Sofia Näsström (Uppsala University)


Joachim Blatter’s proposal for a new transnational voting scheme to offset the legitimacy and efficacy deficits of national representative democracies is both sophisticated and sympathetic. In the effort to save representative democracy from being squeezed between technocratic forms of governance, on the one hand, and nationalistic and populist reactions to it, on the other, he draws on recent debates in democratic theory (notably on the all-affected principle) to advance a transnational voting scheme between countries on bilateral and multilateral grounds. Writing off the possibility of a supranational solution, he suggests that democratic will-formation and decision-making can be improved by letting citizens in countries which are most affected by decisions made in another country (or countries) be given the right to elect candidates for representing them in their parliament.

The constitutional innovativeness of this proposal notwithstanding, I think it suffers from two problems: it offers too little, and it comes too late. The disappointment with the way representative democracy works has today advanced to a state where the proposal to add yet another layer of representation on top of existing ones to all likelihood will be interpreted as a democratic decoy, a step towards more technocracy rather than more democracy. It will not impress the growing number of people who already are dissatisfied with the way national democracies work.[1]

Furthermore, it comes too late in the process. Today we witness how right-wing populist and nationalistic parties have enhanced their cooperation across Europe. They are operating according to a political logic which Habermas elsewhere has called a performative contradiction. What they say (“Back to the nation!”) contradicts what they do, which is to engage in European transnational debates in favour of nationalism. This is a clever political strategy. It means that every attempt to construct a more formal democratic cooperation between nations to counter aggressive nationalism only adds to their case: Europe is against “us”. And the biggest loser in this political game is not the European Union, but democracy itself.

I agree with the bottom-line of Blatter’s kick-off contribution: we need to transnationalise democracy and create channels and institutions for democratic cooperation across different classes of people. I also agree with his diagnosis when he writes that the problem is how “to deal with cross-border flows and the resulting political (inter)dependencies.” Migration, environment and capital are three examples of this that need to be addressed in transnational and global fora. However, I believe that the troubles confronting representative democracy run deeper than this. My worry is that unless we have an accurate description of what Blatter calls “the general problematique” we will be preoccupied with analysing the symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself. We will engage in debates on democratic self-defence instead of asking what kind of democracy is worth defending.

On that note, I would like to supplement this forum’s kick-off contribution by broadening first the description of the general problematique and then giving some pointers on what can be done. The suggestions I make below are not as sophisticated and institutionally detailed as the ones offered by Blatter. But hopefully they will assist in complementing his proposal by pointing out a different path to the same goal.

The problem we face today is not merely how to protect national representative democracies from technocratic governance and right-wing populism. National representative democracies have problems of their own, two of which are of particular importance if we wish to understand the growing dissatisfaction with the way representative democracy works in many European countries.

The first is the democratic deficit of national representative democracies. In representative democracies we govern indirectly, through the election of representatives who then represent us, or “make us present” in the governing of political affairs.[2] The trouble is that not all groups in society experience that they are being represented in this way. There are economically, socially and culturally marginalised groups whose voices, wishes and worries are not made present by parties gathering in the middle of the political spectrum.[3] The fact that Brexit (and the election of Trump) took many people by surprise illustrates this problem well. It indicates that some voices in society are not heard in normal times, or between elections.

The second problem is the accelerating economic inequalities within consolidated democracies. Aristotle once termed democracy the rule of the poor. He pointed out that while the poor are inferior in terms of income, they are numerically superior, and this is their strength. In a democracy governed by majority rule they can always outnumber the wealthy few. Ever since the birth of democracy, elites have feared that increasing democratisation would result in excessive demands of economic equality, or worse, the overthrow of private ownership. But as Thomas Piketty, Nancy Fraser, Rahel Jaeggi and others argue, this has not happened.[4] On the contrary, in many well-established democracies economic inequality has increased, and produced ratios that resemble those that existed in the nineteenth century. People with capital have used this economic advantage to create a kind of hereditary elite that now lives isolated from the rest of society. How, many people ask, is that possible? What kind of “democracy” is able to generate inequalities of this kind?

Taken together, these two problems—combined with the absence of realistic suggestions on how to deal with cross-border flows related to migration, environment and capital—have created what must be regarded as the most difficult problem of all: disbelief in democracy. Many people are disillusioned about the ability of democracy to cope with present-day problems, and this uncertainty is now exploited by groups seeking its demise. What to do?

“Pessimists are cowards, and optimists are fools”, Heinrich Blücher, husband of Hannah Arendt, used to tell his students.[5] Today the only ones that seem optimistic are the nationalists, whereas the rest suffer from disbelief. To restore faith in democracy, it is not enough to suggest new political procedures. We need to shift focus from procedures to parties and from the political to the social.

Nationalists and right-wing populists are optimists. But they are no fools. They know what they are doing, and what they are doing is what other parties, which have been too busy colliding in the middle,[6] have refrained from doing: offering optimistic visions of the future. Populism is defined differently in the literature, but two things about populists are clear if we look at nationalists and right-wing populists in Europe. They are often naïve and unrealistic in their demands (“Close the border!”), and they thrive on and perform crisis (“We are at war”).[7] The vision they offer is not focused on the future, but on the past. Instead of looking ahead, they propose what Zygmunt Bauman calls “retrotopias”; images of a bygone and golden era.

To counter this ostrich mentality, other parties should not be moderate, reasonable and compromising. They should copy the populists, and be as naïve and unrealistic as they are. They should exploit the uncertainty about the future to suggest large-scale political change, both at national and supranational level. They should learn from the past, and look at such “naïve” and “unrealistic” suggestions as the F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s. They should be pessimistic by acknowledging the worries that people have, and simultaneously be optimistic by proposing visions of the future that people may believe in, even if the horizon is a distant one.

Political institutions are essential to the working of democracy. But democracy is not merely a set of institutions. It is a political lifeform that affects people’s lives in more profound ways, notably through policies in fields such as education, citizenship, work and housing. Policy-making is often seen as a dry and technocratic arena beyond the drama of high politics. But this is where democracy becomes a life in the more concrete sense of the term. Close to home, day-to-day and material, social policies in these areas can either work to undermine or foster commitment to democracy.[8] The neoliberal rationality that has governed these areas since the 1980s is a Trojan horse: it has the capacity to undo democracy from within.[9] To counter this development, it is necessary for democratic parties across the board to put a stop to policies that encourage people to compete against each other for security and status. Instead they should propose means for increased social integration.

Is this too optimistic? Why should parties propose these ideas, and why should people listen to them? Pierre Bourdieu has said something important that is worth recalling in this context. Precarity, he says, is best understood as a generalised state of uncertainty that cuts across traditional social-status divisions. While it is objective and material, it is also subjective and emotional, and as such, it has a tendency to spread throughout society. Those who in objective terms live stable and materially secure lives may still worry about the future of their children, parents, grandchildren and friends.[10]

This is another way to interpret “the all-affected principle” that structures Blatter’s analysis of transnational democracy.[11] Today the uncertainty about the future affects people from different walks of life. To tame and channel that uncertainty in a democratic direction we have to think larger and in a longer-term perspective than suggested in the kick-off contribution to this debate.


References and notes:

[1] E.g. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yasha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect”, Journal of Democracy (2016), 27, 3: 5-17.

[2] Hanna Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (University of California Press, 1967) .

[3] Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (New York and London: Verso, 2000).

[4] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014); Branko Milanovic, A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard University Press, 2016); Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (New York: Polity, 2018).

[5] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt. For Love of the World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1982), 136.

[6] Katz, Richard S., and Mair, Peter, “Changing models of party organization and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party”. Party Politics (1995), 1 (1): 5–28

[7] Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation (Stanford University Press, 2016).

[8] Sofia Näsström & Sara Kalm, ”A Democratic Critique of Precarity”, Global Discourse (2015) 5, 4: 556-573.

[9] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos (MIT Press, 2015).

[10] Pierre Bourdieu, La précarité est aujourd’hui partout: Intervention lors des Rencontres européennes contre la précarité.  Grenoble, 12–3 December, 1997. Available from: www.gurn.info.

[11] On the all-affected principle, see Sofia Näsström, “The Challenge of the All-Affected Principle”, Political Studies (2011), 59, 1: 116-34.