Democracy on Mars: ‘Your country needs you’

Mission control: Researchers have been asked to create a constitution for the Red Planet.

Should democracy on Mars be different? As Earthling politics seems to be tottering, many are hoping outer space could teach us an important lesson in how to save ourselves.

Today is Memorial Day in the USA. Ceremonies will take place across the country as millions of Americans pay tribute to those who have died defending the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy”.

Hundreds of thousands of US troops have lost their lives since the first Memorial Day in 1868. But they make up just a fraction of the millions to die worldwide in the name of democracy. The truth is that ever since the Ancient Greeks developed the idea, it has rarely been easy to uphold.

Experts have long recognised the fragile nature of a democratic state – and how quickly it can all fall apart. Last month, President Biden said: “This generation is going to be marked by the competition between democracies and autocracies.” Many agree with him. Whether it is Brazil or India, Myanmar or Hungary, democracy seems to have struggled more and more in recent years.

But that is only when it is tested on Earth. What if we tried it on a different planet? The dusty red plains of Mars, for instance. This is the question that Professor Hélène Landemore of Yale University recently put to a group of her political science students.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already predicted that human trips to Mars could be accomplished as early as 2026. If this happens, any colony on Mars will need to build a governing system.

Landemore challenged her class to create their own version of democracy by becoming extra-terrestrials for the day and writing a “Martian Bill of Rights”. Rather than remodel an existing system, they were encouraged to start completely from scratch.

They came up with the idea of “mini-publics”. While most human politicians must win elections in order to govern, on Mars there would instead be groups of randomly chosen citizens in power. It would not matter if you were a politics expert or not interested at all – if you got the call, you would have to sit in the Martian chamber and make the crucial decisions with your fellow leaders.

Back on Earth, Landemore herself has celebrated the use of so-called “citizen assemblies” as a way to make political decisions. Members would be tasked with coming up with policies. Members of the public could vote on their proposals in referendums, without any need for politicians.

The theory suggests that by allowing a randomly chosen group of people to come up with ideas, a greater variety of viewpoints are ultimately respected. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron brought an assembly together to propose new laws to deal with climate change.

Initially, the assemblies appeared to work well. Macron accepted virtually all of their proposals. But by December of last year, the President seemed to lose patience, saying: “You can't say that just because 150 citizens wrote something, it’s the Bible or the Quran.”

Should democracy on Mars be different?

Space oddity

Yes, it should, say some. Professor Landemore believes her students are onto something. If Mars were to follow Earth’s example then democracy would be in trouble – The Economist recently found that worldwide democracy has weakened every year since 2014. Landemore herself says: “At some point, you have to be honest and say there is not much that can be salvaged from this electoral model.”

No, it shouldn’t, say others. A “citizen assembly” may sound like a great idea, but it simply wouldn’t work in practice. Whatever planet you’re on, regular people will always argue just as much as politicians do. And while the current system may not be perfect, it is better to be governed by people who have at least expressed an interest in decision-making – rather than a group of people who have no idea what they are deciding.

You Decide

  1. Is flying humans to Mars important?
  2. Would it be better to have randomly chosen people in power?

Activities

  1. In pairs, come up with three things that you think are important to include in the Mars Constitution.
  2. In groups, work on a presentation about an example of a democracy that became a dictatorship. Explain the factors that contributed in each case.

Some People Say...

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), former UK Prime Minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that democracy is in danger. Earlier this month, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, warned of a “clear and worrying degree of democratic backsliding”. Another concern is that one recent poll found citizens in democratic countries rate their governments’ handling of the coronavirus crisis less well than people in less democratic countries.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is about what represents the biggest threat to democracy. A recent poll commissioned by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation found that the US is seen around the world as more of a threat to democracy than Russia and China. Some would argue that Silicon Valley tech companies are even more dangerous than Russian-backed hackers, given the extent of their influence.

Word Watch

Memorial Day
A public holiday held in the USA on the last Monday of every May. It became a national institution partly due to the 600,000 Americans who died during the Civil War.
Ancient Greeks
Many experts believe democractic societies of various forms existed before its famous origins in Athens.
Myanmar
Last week, the country’s former leader Aung San Suu Kyi was seen in public for the first time since her forcible removal by the army.
SpaceX
Elon Musk’s stated goal with SpaceX is the “colonization of Mars”.
Bill of Rights
The name given to the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. It includes the controversial right to bear arms.
Citizen assemblies
One French citizen who said he was previously “uninterested and disillusioned” has registered as a candidate for next year’s elections after participating in an assembly.
Emmanuel Macron
The President was heavily criticised during the Gilets Jaunes (yellow-vest) protests, which were triggered by increasing fuel prices.

Subjects

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