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What Ireland’s Pro-Choice Referendum Teaches Us About Democracy

When future historians write about 2018, what will stand out? Some might say the midterm elections that repudiated of the policies of Donald Trump and saw the ascendency of some pretty progressive figures – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who might potentially save our two-party system from the dreaded scourge of centrism.  But to me one of the most important stories of the year is also one of the least understood.

In May, the people of Ireland affirmed what has long been understood to be a basic tenet of human rights law: a woman’s body is her own. No one – no relative, spouse or government – has the right to prohibit a woman’s access to her sexual and reproductive rights. That includes her choice to end a pregnancy. Yes there are certain parameters within which she may do so, and there is room for further improvement. But in general this is a huge step forward for women’s rights.

That’s great for the people of Ireland, but the really interesting thing is about how that referendum took place. Unlike in other referenda (one involving Ireland’s neighbor to the North and East), the referendum wasn’t the first step. Rather it was the end of a process that was started essentially by politicians who didn’t want to touch a potentially explosive issue. The middle class in Ireland – the perhaps 30% of the population who live in the cities and visit relatives in the large Irish diaspora – have long been ready for changes to Ireland’s repressive anti-abortion laws. But fear of a backlash prevented mainstream political parties from actually taking forward a proposal through the usual channels.

Instead, the government convened a Citizens’ Assembly. This assembly consisted of 100 people. Apart from the chair, who was a member of the Irish Supreme Court – these 100 people were all randomly selected. They didn’t have to run for anything; their names were basically pulled out of a hat. This is the ancient Greek practice of sortition and in Athens, considered by many to be the birthplace of democracy, it was the prefered method of choosing leaders. Representative government by sortition was seen as preferable by the democrats; voting for leaders was the prefered mode of government for another political group in Greece – the Oligarchs.

Aside from its echoes of ancient democracies, the Citizens’ Assembly essentially allowed politicians to kick the can. They were too nervous to touch what could be a political hot potato, so they passed it off to this new system, a system which had already proved useful in the Irish constitutional convention of 2012.

The process had its critics but in the end the referendum results serve to validate the process. The Irish public were ready for a change; both the Citizens’ Assembly and the referendum proved it.

The process is remarkable for what it achieved but it’s also remarkable for what it shows us. As poll after poll after poll demonstrates, most people in the USA don’t believe that our democracy is working. Yet nearly all of us believe that democracy is the best form of government. How do we reconcile these two statements?

One way to reconcile those statements is to say that our current system – a two-party system that operates within a fairly narrow political spectrum and where a person needs a lot of money if she wants to run for elected office – is not a democracy. As the ancient Greeks understood, this kind of system favors an oligarchy – the rule of the elite.

Given that the current system is so broken that defenders of Citizens United deliberately conflate money with speech, we need to take drastic steps to reclaim democracy. Some of these – term limits or audits, for example – are being debated. But more radical proposals such as sortition must be on the table given the scale of the failure and the need to come up with processes that are really democratic and not just pandering to one set oligarchs or another. Ireland’s experiments with sortition in 2018 offer a potential model for more fundamental change.

 

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