How do you change the puppet show of democracy?
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Marshall Rosenberg invented Nonviolent Communication to bring about social change. Nonviolent Communication focuses primarily on how we communicate with others and ourselves, but also looks at the (political) system and culture in which we grew up. It looks at the cause of the difficult relationships we have with each other, and at the system of power in a society that makes social change difficult. For me, Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Practices are just a few of the paths I take as I search for more and even better ways to contribute to social change. I also look to the examples of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, to learn from and build on them.

Old patterns
Despite their example, we seem to continue to fall back into our old patterns. What is the cause of that? We want a democratic society where everyone is heard, seen, and valued, but it is not what we have. Despite the efforts of Gandhi, King, and Mandela, it is not what you see in India, America, or South Africa. I think we are also mistaken if we call what we now have in The Netherlands a democracy. You should not only look at the form but also at the content and the result.

Nothing wrong with democracy?
There’s nothing wrong with democracy but what we have is a poor imitation of it. Government leaders often talk about protecting democracy, but they are part and the result of the problem: the electoral system. In fact, we have no democracy. A system in which the outcome is deliberately non-democratic and the interests of the major players predominate cannot be called a democracy. If you don’t feel represented, it’s because you aren’t represented. The democracy we are aiming for will not come into its own through the system of elections that we have.

NOS News
On the TV news on Saturday, January 15 at 8 pm, Eva Rovers of the Burgerberaad bureau was asked by NOS journalist Gerri Eickhof what she thought of the growing dissatisfaction in the country. Rovers saw this not only as mounting tension over the past two years but as a result of how the government treats citizens. People suffer under this specific type of governance in which they feel neither represented, heard, nor protected by the government. This expresses itself in anger, but you will find that underneath the anger people care about what’s happening. These people are involved, have ideas, and want to contribute. Politicians say they want to listen to people and go on working visits, organize consultation evenings, but little is done with what people contribute.

Practical example
Eickhof himself gave the example of his own municipality’s proposal for the construction of a new bicycle path. In recent years, consultation evenings were organized and residents from the neighborhood also came up with several proposals. However, the municipality itself already indicated that it has its own preferred variant. The residents eventually received a letter in which the plan was canceled because the municipality did not believe it was worth the money. “Is this such an example?” he asked Eva Rovers. She then asked how Eickhof felt about this himself. He replied: “I grumble and I’ll never go to a public consultation again!”

Puppet show
This is the current situation. Our political system does not provide for the direct participation of citizens and does not really involve them in finding social solutions. Giving a say is more of a gesture politicians make towards the citizens. It’s a kind of puppet show that we play together, more like a charade. It only maintains the appearance of participation. But it is not the citizens, but the temporary coalition of political parties forming a government, who decide for all of us what will happen. It’s no wonder that people feel disengaged and lack confidence. But can we do something about this? I think that we must first get rid of the present electoral system because through it we sustain the current situation. It also requires all of us to be more involved in decision-making and to make an active contribution. Apparently outsourcing our interests to a small group of people who together form a government and parliament does not work well.

Citizens’ Councils
But is a democracy without elections possible? Yes!! And actually, the idea is very old. Instead of choosing an elite that represents our interests, it is important to actively participate in decision-making. You can call this Citizens Councils or Citizens Assemblies. The participants in an Assembly represent all layers of the population and are not chosen, but invited to participate by lottery. This prevents lobbyists and others from having an unintended influence on the democratic process.

The Netherlands
Bureau Burgerberaad provides information about this in the Netherlands, and we also know the G1000, which has organized Citizens Assemblies for various municipalities and on various topics. But it’s just a start. The present political system consists of people who have an interest in maintaining the current situation. If we want to see change, more people will have to ask for change and actively contribute.

One possibility is to better inform yourself about what a Citizens Assembly is and how it works. Train yourself and start to exert influence by talking about it with others and when you see an opportunity discuss the possibility of having a Citizens Assembly. A Citizens Assembly can also start on a small scale. Look at the possibilities in your own neighborhood or municipality. Do you work in education? Talk to students about it! We are part of keeping things as they are when we remain resigned in the situation as it is. You can safely assume that things will not get better of their own accord. Our social system is being reduced further and further and accrued rights are decoupled from economic growth until they are worth nothing in the long run. We need to stop a process through which we will lose what we, our parents, and ancestors have had to work so hard for. Let’s stop playing charades and ask and work for real social change!

More information about citizen assemblies:

  1. In February there is a very affordable online Citizens Assemblies training that you can sign up for
  2. Ireland is a successful example in this area Abortion was successfully discussed and decided on under the topic of Gender Equality. The organizer on behalf of the government in Ireland, Art O’Leary, can be heard discussing the process here
  3. Belgium is also active and the German-speaking part has already incorporated this into the decision-making process.

If you want to read more about social change read this: Spiral Dynamics

Govert van Ginkel

This article is written by Govert van Ginkel. Govert specializes in Nonviolent and Effective Communication and is active in this field as a trainer, speaker, coach, and mediator. More information about Govert can be found here. The current training offer can be found here


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