Democracy: Who Has Power Now?

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Chalice lighting

Let this light be for those who came before us
They who insisted on freedom of thought
They who spoke out for liberty
They who trusted the human mind and heart
They who risked their lives for the right to choose
Let this light shine for those who illuminated the path to today
And may we shine at least as bright for the journey onward

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

We are nearing the end of our focus on power. Each theme is three months long and this is the last of the three months. Just a few weeks left.

We haven’t talked yet about democracy in this theme and it’s an important one as we talk about power. It’s also something particularly on our mind with a vote not long behind us and a selection of a Prime Minister coming up that we don’t get a say in. So, democracy is where we’re going today.

Our tradition here has always held democracy as a central value. Going back centuries, the churches that begat the churches that begat New Unity objected to hierarchy – the rule from above. They were certain that people needed to have the power – not cardinals or bishops or popes. And their views about government matched their views about religious organisation. The people should have the ultimate power over the shape of their government and society. And, of course, that’s not always the way it’s been here and it’s not the way it is in many places in the world.

We all know there need to be laws. Laws should be there to protect us and to ensure civility and fairness. If there’s going to be a law, though, it should not come from a king or queen. It should come from the people – or, more practically, from people elected to do that work.

In our tradition, democracy is so important that in the US, where our cousins the Unitarian Universalists saw fit to write up their seven principles, one of them is about democracy: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”

And this is how New Unity works too. At our Annual General Meeting on the last Sunday of this month, anyone who is a member by virtue of pledging a financial contribution for the coming year can be nominated and run to become an elected trustee. And everyone who is a member can vote.

Ministers are also chosen by the congregation. It took a supermajority vote to put me in post and – while there is no term-limit – the members can also vote to remove me. The trustees and I are empowered only by the fact that you have chosen us.

I thought it might be a bit of fun to play with democracy a bit today.

As I mentioned, we’re nearing the end of the theme of power. A new theme will start in July. As an experiment in pure democracy, what should that theme be? Go. Be democratic…

[Discussion]

OK, you probably noticed that there are some challenges with pure democracy. First of all – and this is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s messy. There are lots of options.

Secondly, it’s tough because you don’t have a set of options to choose from – you’re trying to create those on the spot. If I had given you three choices, you could have voted.

Third, you don’t have much experience or expertise in choosing themes. What makes for a good theme? What themes have we used before? What themes might best fit what we know about the congregation at this point in time?

And fourth, democracy – and pure democracy in particular – can trample the needs of minorities within the electorate. You might have come up with a theme about “the joys and sorrows of approaching midlife”.  And of course, that theme would leave out anyone who has passed that stage of life.

You would need to be an incredibly enlightened electorate with very specialist education and extremely effective processes and facilitators to manage this well – much unlike a certain referendum held in June 2016, where very few people knew what Brexit would really mean when they voted.

So, for all but the most transformative of decisions, New Unity works on the basis of representative democracy. You elect the trustees and they do what you want to the best of their ability. You choose me and I consult with you, and I bring together teams of you who specialise and educate yourselves in particular areas of the life of New Unity and also represent you.

Oh, and not to leave you wondering, the theme for the next three months – chosen collaboratively by me and the Sunday Gatherings team – is “Despair and Hope”.

I also want to say one more thing about my role. Ministers in our tradition have traditionally had “freedom of the pulpit.” OK – no pulpit – but what it reflects is that a minister doesn’t just do what the congregation says. I do what my searching and study and consultation and discernment leads me to believe is right for this community in the present and future and for the larger world around us. Sometimes that’s what you want right now, and sometimes it’s not.

Had I done exactly what the members wanted when I first came here, we would still be saying The Lord’s Prayer every week and the Mary Wollstonecraft Room would still be exclusively a storage area covered almost entirely with stuff that “someone might want” someday. Junk and clutter.

Early in my ministry education, a colleague told me: “You don’t report to the people who are sitting in the pews today. You report to God.” I had to reinterpret that, of course, but to me that means I am responsible to a broader view – a greater vision. I am responsible to you, but also to the people who are not here – to the people who didn’t feel welcome here, to the people who are afraid to visit, to the people who could be here, to the future of this community after we are all gone. And I am responsible to the people who are not here and will never be – oppressed and downtrodden people we are called to help through easing suffering and combating injustice.

But you can still get rid of me if you think I’m headed in the wrong direction.

Now suppose one of you came up to me and said “I’ll donate £20K to New Unity if the next theme can be ‘The importance of donkeys.’”

£20K… I could work with the theme and use it in a variety of ways. But would it be right?

What if they said: “I’ll give £1 million if you change the mission from love and justice to ‘caring for donkeys.’”

A million is a lot of money. Should we take it?

It hasn’t happened here, but it does happen in congregations. People with more money can have more influence.

Suppose a group of you had loads of money and set up a Cambridge Analytica-style, micro-targeted social media campaign to convince the others that we should sell our Upper Street building and use the money to support a donkey sanctuary. Would it be right? Would it be democratic?

The trustees and I work to make democracy work here. We work to ensure that no one has more of a say because of their wealth, their skin colour, their class, or where they come from. We commit ourselves to ensuring that we prevent the needs and wishes of the minority from being ignored. There may be democracy without doing so, but there is no justice.

Reading: The Guardian view on the 1%: democracy or oligarchy?, editorial, 17th Dec 2017

What happens to society where economic power is becoming concentrated in the hands of the few? The present might provide an unsettling answer. A tiny global elite is experiencing a great flourishing; the masses below them are, at varying rates, being left behind. [T]he [2017] landmark World Inequality Report, a data-rich project maintained by more than 100 researchers in more than 70 countries, found that the richest 1% reaped 27% of the world’s income between 1980 and 2016. The bottom half of humanity, by contrast, got 12%. While the very poorest people have benefited in the last 40 years, it is the extremely rich who’ve emerged as the big winners. [...] Such has been the concentration of wealth in India and Russia that inequality not seen since the time of the Raj and the tsar has reappeared. By 2030, the report warns, just 250 people could own 1.5% of all the wealth in the world.

In the west the prevailing ideology of the last 40 years has been of privatisation, deregulation and most recently austerity. This was grounded in rules that served to hold in check the collective power of electorates. The result was higher profits and dividends, lower personal taxes and – for the richest – a higher share of national income. A culture has embedded the perpetual making and lavish expenditure of wealth. However, this came at the expense of almost everyone else: the age of globalisation has seen the pay of lower- and middle-income groups in North America and Europe stagnate.

The toxic afterburn of these policies – moulded by domestic choices as much as global pressures – has poisoned politics. Support for anti-establishment parties is now at its highest level since the 1930s. At the same time, mainstream parties have either been radicalised or considerably weakened.

The US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once correctly observed: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

As you know, democracy is imperfect everywhere. It has been said that: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” That was a line made popular by Winston Churchill, although he did not originate it.

Democracy at its best is messy. It is often confrontational. It can be divisive and slow and it can be very hard to get anything done.

But we have to believe that any system of government must ultimately empower the regular people. They must be able to influence the way they are led and the structure of the society in which we live.

That is democracy at its best. Some of you may believe that other systems may be better, and that may be true. Democracy is our current system here and in the US and, today, democracy faces deep challenges.

As the reading reminds us, the richest control an increasingly large proportion of all wealth. The wealth gap continues to grow.

And the wealthy have a disproportionate influence on politics.

A 2014 study at Princeton University showed this very clearly for the US.

The study found that typical policy change with low support from the economic elites in the US has only an 18% chance of happening. If the rich support it though, the odds increase by almost two and a half to 45%.

And the influence of regular Americans? When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites, the regular people generally lose. Even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.

And let’s not forget that billionaires and corporations also have other ways of influencing policy – they can change our minds. The more they control the media and can use sophisticated social media targeting, the more they can alter the opinions of the voting public.

Brexit and the Trump election were two cases where disinformation was used to increase fear of strangers and suspicion about progressive leaders. This propaganda and media manipulation may have tipped the balance and led to reactionary and xenophobic choices coming out on top.

I am proud that we here are a community that believes in democracy and that aims to ensure that all voices are heard, and that the needs of minorities are never given short shrift by the majority.

We can do better, of course, and I hope that we will do that. It is not only important for ourselves but as a model of what democracy can be.

As we look to our nations, there is much cause for dismay. We have also learned more about the dangers that face us. We have learned about the corrosive effects of growing wealth inequality. We have learned how huge corporations are stealing the public’s place in the democratic process. We have learned how media control and manipulation can poison the minds of the populace. We have learned how very important our involvement and participation in the political process is.

Things have gone terribly wrong before and the great efforts of those before us brought back civility and humanity. Now it is our time to act. It is our responsibility to restore healthy democracy for those who come after.

May it be so.

Closing words

Our lives are filled with joy and with pain
In the end, nothing matters but how we have touched those who remain
Deeds of kindness
Words of love
A broken heart healed
An emptiness filled
An attentive ear
Hostility turned to friendship
A move toward justice
These are the steps along the path to a better tomorrow
Let them be ours