FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

 

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 23, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Notes on Inauthenticity in a Creeping Fascist Nuthouse
Rob Urie
Mr. Trump Goes to Kensington
Jeffrey St. Clair
Deep Time and the Green River, Floating
Robert Hunziker
Earth 4C Hotter
Kenneth Good
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa
Andrew Levine
Recession Now, Please
Pete Dolack
The Realism and Unrealism of the Green New Deals
David Rosen
The White-Nationalist Great Fear
Kenn Orphan
The War on Indigenous People is a War on the Biosphere Itself
L. Michael Hager
What Netanyahu’s Travel Ban Has Revealed
Ramzy Baroud
Jewish Settlers Rule the Roost in Israel, But at What Price?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Is Environmental Protection Possible?
Josue De Luna Navarro
What It’s Like to Grow Up Hunted
Ralph Nader
They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!
Gary Olson
Whither the Resistance to our Capitalist Overlords?
Dean Baker
On Those Downward Jobs Revisions
Rev. William Alberts
Beware of the Gun-Lover-in-Chief
Helder F. do Vale
Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Lapdog
Laura Finley
Educators Actually Do “Work” in the Summer
Jim Goodman
Farmers Need a Bill of Rights
Tom Clifford
What China’s Leadership is Really Worried About: Rising Debt
Daphne Wysham
Saving the Planet Means Fighting Bipartisan Corruption
Tierra Curry
Amazon Fires Put the Planet at Risk
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Decentralize Power and Revive Regional Political Institutions
John W. Whitehead
American Apocalypse
George Wuerthner
How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America
Daniel Murphy
Capital in the 21st Century
Jessicah Pierre
400 Years After Slavery’s Start, No More Band-Aids
Kim C. Domenico
Finding the Comrades: Maintaining Precarious Sanity In Insane Times
Gary Leupp
“Based on the Fact She Won’t Sell Me Greenland, I’m Staying Home”
John Kendall Hawkins
The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited
Rivera Sun
Tapping into People Power
Ted Rall
As Long as Enemies of the State Keep Dying Before Trial, No One Should Trust the State
Jesse Jackson
The Significance of the “1619 Project”
Thomas Knapp
“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No Thanks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and Endangered Species, Wildlife and Human
Mel Gurtov
China’s Hong Kong nightmare, and the US Response
Ron Forthofer
Sick of Being a Guinea Pig
Nicky Reid
Why I Stopped Being White (and You Should Too)
Jill Richardson
As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA
Seth Sandronsky
Rethinking the GDR
Adolf Alzuphar
Tears / Ayizan Velekete
Stephen Cooper
General Jah Mikey: “I Just Love That Microphone, Man”
Louis Proyect
Slaves to the Clock
August 22, 2019
George Ochenski
Breaking the Web of Life
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail