Politics, Democracy and Iceland
Iceland is renowned for its mesmerizing scenery, punctuated by geysers, hot springs, and waterfalls. But for Delia Popescu, Ph.D., there may be no place more majestic than Thingvellir. Set on the ridge that separates two tectonic plates, in one of the few places on Earth where the Mid-Atlantic ridge is above the sea, it is believed to be the site upon which the world’s first legislative assembly met – from about 930 until 1798. To Popescu, an associate professor of political science at Le Moyne, the opportunity to visit this place was truly special. It was a treat for her to imagine the early people of Iceland coming together to establish the law of the land, in one of the earliest efforts to reach a common understanding and curtail the power of one group over another. Thingvellir is the start of the Icelandic nation, the fount of its common values and the cradle of its national identity. It is not often that one nation is so clearly embodied by one majestic place.
Popescu found herself in Iceland – and at Thingvellir – for a conference that brought together politicians, artists, academics, and members of various civil society groups to discuss a topic that is both critical and timely: the future of democracy. Organizers described the event – held in the midst of a presidential election in the U.S. and a campaign in Britain that eventually led to that nation’s decision to exit from the European Union – as a three-day “citizen-led investigation into the ways in which a democracy can be stronger and led by its people not its problems.” It was a unique collaboration between citizens from Iceland as well as Greece, France, Spain, England, the U.S., and other countries. The keynote speaker was Larry Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and former U.S. presidential candidate
Popescu’s first trip to the Nordic island nation informed her work both as a teacher and a researcher. The discussions about the ways in which a transparent process allows every voice to be heard prompted her to think about how the lesson of open dialogue applies to teaching, learning, and the practice of creating political communities. She reflected that, “Freedom and inclusiveness are the foundation of a healthy democracy, but these two aspects do not always live comfortably together in the foundational laws of modern nation states, which generally protect some groups over others.” For Popescu, the project for the new Icelandic constitution contains broadly inclusive laws that name no religion above others, demand high legal protections for children, forbid mandatory military service, legislate a decent standard of living for every person in the country (including the right to fresh water and a healthy environment), require open information from the governing bodies, make the natural environment a legacy for the people of Iceland, and empower a mere two percent of the Icelandic people to bring a bill in front of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament.
There is much to learn from what the people of Iceland put down as constitutional rights and Popescu seeks to impart these lessons in courses such as International Law, Democracy and Its Critics, International Courts, Power and Justice, and War, Peace, and Violence. Popescu believes that the value of an open discussion is to set the stage for difference. Democracy thrives on variety, and a good open discussions can allow the sharing of divergent views without polemic and denigrating speech. Popescu strives to teach her students how to consider the views and perspectives of others, and especially those of the disempowered, in an effort to reimagine how we live in our own communities and the rights we do or should enjoy. “Ultimately,” Popescu says, “politics is about creativity; it a creative endeavor to reimagine ourselves living better with one another, in our family, our community, and in the global society.”
The discussions Popescu took part in over the course of her trip also had a profound impact on her understanding of constitutions and constitutionalism. She firmly believes that constitutions should be “the creative outcome of grassroots deliberation, about the needs and wants of the people – they should come from the people.” Among the people she discussed this with was Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the president of Iceland from 1980 until 1996 who also holds the distinction of being the first democratically elected female president in the world. Popescu noted that Iceland’s own experience “is a lesson in democracy for the entire world.” Following a massive financial crisis in 2008, there was a citizen-led movement to redraft the Icelandic constitution, in effect crowdsourcing it. The conference was a chance “to seriously propose a new way of looking at a nation’s foundational laws … in the hope of finding the true will of the people,” Popescu said.
Shortly after Popescu returned from Iceland, the nation’s football team dealt a stunning defeat to England, knocking it out of the Euro 2016 championships. Approximately 8 percent of Iceland’s population (or about 26,000 people) turned out to cheer on the team, reminding Popescu of the small nation’s “incredible ability to mobilize, include and support.” It also called to her mind a lesson that author Franklin Foer considered in "How Soccer Explains the World": solidarity makes for greatness, and it seems to be the time of one small nation - Iceland.