Beyond the Vote: Political Meta-narratives & Asking the People What They Think

In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.

I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li

Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?

VoteButton_Dallas Observer

Your vote counts… Or does it? | via The Dallas Observer

I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.

The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.

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