Tag Archives: democracy

Transforming talk of politics


Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh – originator of “Engaged Buddhism”

The last few months – be it via the UK’s Brexit vote, in US presidential campaigning or the Hungarian government’s demonising of refugees – have all made clear how badly our societies communicate their politics.

We don’t hear, let alone understand what other people are trying to say and they, in turn, are deaf to us and our ideas. The result is mutual incomprehension, mistrust and all the dangers of both. It’s hardly surprising so many people withdraw from political talk, or blank out politics completely.  This is a huge mistake, albeit an understandable one.

I am busy imagining a political project to campaign for radically better government systems supported by positive, or constructive, journalism. It is wildly ambitious but then it has to be with stakes so high – not least in terms of rampant social exclusion and the urgent need for radical climate-change action. The project whole will be an evolution of conclusions I drew in Fraudcast News – recast as calls to action. It will make the case for innovations requiring root-and-branch transformations to conventional politics. One would be to replace elected politicians as our main decision makers with juries of randomly selected groups of citizens. More of that in posts to come – today’s concern is communication.

To transform our politics – we need radically better ways of talking and listening to one another. Efforts to communicate better will be a guiding principle for both the project’s creation and its realisation.

That’s where the bald dude in the brown robes comes in – an extraordinary man called Thich Nhat Hanh. This Zen Buddhist Master has much to say about communication in his lifetime’s work in “Engaged Buddhism”. He coined the term in the 1950s, a time when his native Vietnamese stood confused and divided between Communism in the North and Capitalism in the South.

Nhat Hanh described Engaged Buddhism at length in 2008, during a rare return from exile to visit Hanoi and elsewhere. A major element concerns communication.

“When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions.

Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed.

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions.

Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions.

But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

I have been hugely lucky to come across Nhat Hanh’s teachings over the last few years at his French monastery and in broadcast talks online. He has profoundly influenced the ways I consider both politics and journalism – very much for the better, I think.

Combining talk of politics and religion may not seem the smartest thing to do right now, not least in France, where I live. Yet I do it deliberately. Furthermore, Nhat Hanh explains in a recent book The Mindfulness Survival Kit that jiao, the Chinese and Vietnamese word for religion, means a tradition of teachings. In Eastern cultures, religion does not imply belief in God.

So why take a monk’s advice on politics? Thich Nhat Hanh is no ordinary monk.

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Flatpack Democracy’s DIY independence


Frome ex-mayor Peter Macfadyen (not the current mayor, as incorrectly stated in the interview) talks in this audio interview of how a group of ordinary people in southwest England took control of their local government by standing as non-party, independent candidates.

His story involves a group of local residents – meeting in a pub, of course – who took control of their town council at their first attempt then swept all the seats on their second.

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Greenwald nails state of US “democracy”

Screenshot from 2016-05-04 13:09:58I’m a big admirer of the work done by Glenn Greenwald, not just in his efforts with the US whistleblower Edward Snowden but also for his ongoing work in exposing and commenting on the realities of US foreign policy. He and Jeremy Scahill have just come out with a new book on the US drone wars called “The Assassination Complex”, previewed here on the indefatigable Democracy Now! Looks like a must-read to me.

Greenwald’s withering assessment of the ongoing US primaries, Democrat and Republican, which he made during the same programme, bears repeating in full.

The “they” he is referring to are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though both he and Scahill are justifiably critical of Bernie Sanders too.

Well, I mean, I just think it’s—in some sense, Washington, D.C.—not the United States, but Washington, D.C.—is getting exactly the election they deserve. These are the two most unpopular presidential candidates ever to run, I think, in 30 years. They have the highest unfavorable ratings of any nominees in decades. The only thing they’re able to do to one another is try and be as toxic and nasty and destructive as possible, because everybody has already decided, more or less, that they’re so unlikable. And so, it’s going to be the opposite of an inspiring election. It’s just going to be two extremely unpopular people trying to destroy the other on both a personal level, backed by huge amounts of money and serving more or less the same interests. And I think the two parties and the establishment leaders in Washington, and the people who support and run that whole system, have gotten exactly the election that they deserve. Unfortunately, Americans are going to have to suffer along with them.

It really is that bad.

So the most powerful nation on the planet – thereby the most powerful government in history given the weaponry at its disposal – shows no imminent signs of substantive political change at the top.

That makes the work of finding better ways of political decision-making, such as sortition and participatory budgets, all the more critical. If that link seems obscure think of it as the difference between government by the people – “democracy” – versus government by a wealthy few – “oligarchy“.

That’s why I’m planning on ramping up Democracy Talk – an as-yet experimental audio and video reporting series focused on innovations in our political decision-making processes and accompanying commentary on the quality of existing ones.

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Where next for Anywhere but Westminster?

I love what John Harris and John Domokos have been doing with their ad hoc video journalism project “Anywhere but Westminster” for the Guardian. Theirs was an inspired decision four years ago: to travel around the UK to cover national politics rather than stagnate among the self-absorbed and self-obsessed of London’s media and political pools.

Their coverage has been refreshing and realistic – far closer to the dynamics of what’s happening on the ground than what you could learn from watching the national broadcasters – the BBC, ITV or Sky and the first twos’ regional offshoots.

Now they’re asking for ideas for what to do next. My answer would be to focus on the various experiments in political innovation that are popping up around the UK’s four member countries – things like Frome’s Flatpack Democracy – which John Harris himself wrote about last year.

The Sortition Foundation is another interesting initiative. On the 10th and 11th of June it will host Harm van Dijk and Jerphaas Donner, the founders of the G1000 in the Netherlands, to help launch the G1000 in the UK. The G1000’s aim is to assemble a representative, random selection of people from a selected community to deliberate their areas political priorities.

I hope to be there myself to start gathering material for a follow-up series of articles to my book Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies.


For six years, John Harris and John Domokos have travelled the UK to get a sense of British politics away from the Westminster bubble. Meanwhile, old-fashioned two-party politics has crumbled amid a rising sense of discontent with the status quo. For their new series, the pair are back on the road, hunting down radical new politics in some unlikely places

Where do you think they should go? Send them your suggestions


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Doing democracy differently in Oz

Democracy Talk meets Iain Walker, Executive Director of the Australian charity newDEMOCRACY, which aims to innovate in how we do democracy. Iain goes beyond conventional ideas about why Western representative democracies are suffering a collapse of public trust.

He sees the problem as much deeper than one of money’s outsize influence on elections – it’s the voting itself that’s at fault. Elected officials are in permanent election mode, making thoughtful, long-term decision-making impossible. The solution newDEMOCRACY favours is sortition – randomly selected samples of the public who then ponder a policy question with help from all the evidence they can gather.

This is the first part of a two-part interview.

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Democracy reloaded – radical reform of our broken governments

Bolivian students in one a Democracy in Practice project administer a lottery to select their student government representatives

Bolivian students in a Democracy in Practice project administer a lottery to select their student government representatives

I’ve spent enough time beefing about our failed government systems – now it’s time to go on the offensive with some positive proposals.

Below is my reworked list of the 10 things I’d do to fix our dysfunctional representative democracies.

So it’s not perfect? What’s yours then?

“10 Steps to heal our broken democracies”

1. Recognising the problem

Representative democracy is broken on its most basic measure – it fails to represent citizens’ wishes. We need radically better alternatives.

2. Setting the bar high

Democracy campaigners should champion the ideals embedded in the original Greek term demokratia. That means the power to govern lies with all citizens.

3. Talking about better democracy

We need media who are fiercely loyal to citizens’ interests and no one else’s. Journalists must understand the systemic failures underlying day-to-day political stories.

4. Democracy as a global issue

Real democracy cannot exist only at nation-state levels – issues like climate change and financial crises extend to the whole planet.

5. Democracy innovations

Even though the perfect democracy doesn’t yet exist and maybe never will we need multiple experiments to explore how best citizens can govern themselves.

6. Making democratic excellence everyday

Excellent governance involves learnable skills. We need an all-of-life learning programme, at home, in schools, in workplaces, in our communities and at all levels up to global.

7. Sharing best practices

We need journalism and social media to share stories about democracy experiments that work and how to do them elsewhere.

8. Taking a look at ourselves

Most people have entrenched ideas about democracy. We need to examine our own prejudices to see just how truly “democratic” we are so that we can all become better democrats.

9. Democracy as a universal right

Democracy champions should respect all people’s different religions, spiritual practices or ethical and moral codes. They should avoid dogmatism and help others renounce fanaticism.

10. Establishing democracy measures

Some representative democracies are better than others but none is good. We need measures to compare different versions so as to identify priority areas for reform.

@PatrickChalmers 23 September 2015                                                                          CC licence image

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Ten Steps to Improve Our Governance Systems

A Landsgemeinde (in 2009) of the Canton of Glarus, an example of direct democracy in Switzerland. CC BY-SA 3.0

A Landsgemeinde (in 2009) of the Canton of Glarus, an example of direct democracy in Switzerland. CC BY-SA 3.0

I was asked this week by Harald Schendera, an editor, web designer, and internet marketer, what were my 10 Steps to Improve Our Governance Systems. He put the question out of personal interest and also to help me clarify what I’m trying to do in re-designing my various web presences.

I was intrigued. No one had ever asked that before. So I decided to write up an answer.

A quick web search turned up this piece –  a very useful, if US-focused, list of 10 ways to democratize the economy by Gar Alperovitz and Keane Bhatt. I didn’t want to rip off their thought-provoking ideas, which include more use of participatory budgets, so I put it aside to draw up my own. The difference between the various search results I found and what I had in mind is that I’m trying to imagine a process that encompasses the local everywhere to the global, passing via nation statehood on the way.

The following is what I came up with. The order’s maybe a bit out of whack, but some of the essentials are there. Though the list will probably be a perpetual work in progress, it’s a start. What do you think?

1. To detail and make clear to as wide a possible public the problems of our current governance systems, prinicipally at nation-state level but also at higher and lower levels.

2. To promote a basic governance credo inspired by demokratia – from the original Greek notion of “demos” and “kratos” – the Greek words for “people” and “power” respectively.

“Democracy” would therefore mean something more like real power in the hands of a majority of the people living in any particular geographic area of government. “Representative democracy” – which drastically reduces the ambitions of Ancient Greece’s demokratia – has proved predictably liable to capture by narrow, self-interested parties.

3. To nurture, and join, independent media operations that understand the problems of our current governance systems and champion the cause of reform and root-and-branch innovation.

4. To encourage, and take part in, multiple experiments with governance mechanisms that go beyond representative democracy’s periodic elections, political parties and party candidates.

5. To document the experimentation processes, both for research purposes and to spread information about results, including the context of why they are happening, what they’re finding, how they might apply elsewhere.

6. To encourage people to learn about, engage with and become active in the scrutiny and holding to account of their local governance systems, the lowest level of government to which they are exposed.

7. To develop governance innovation toolkits, describing the range of possible governance innovations available and “how to” manuals of applying them locally, and making them free to use and share.

8. To encourage people to consider their own preconceived ideas about “democracy”, not just what it means and where it came from but also to consider just how “democratic” they are as individuals (a vote for me, but not my neighbour)

9. To encourage the use of, and to adopt oneself, inclusive language and thinking, the notion that any solution to the current problems in our governance systems must ultimately take a whole-planet approach. That approach would take into account not only every human on the planet, and future generations, but also all the animals, plants and the biosphere itself.

10. To be open to the respective religions, spiritual practices, or lack of the same, in all other people on the planet. At the same time, to be clear about the fundamental goals of mutual respect for, and non-violence towards, all other people. While violent self defence might be legitimate in certain circumstances, a well-functioning governance system would include mechanisms, and potentially societal penalties, to prevent its misuse.

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