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Iceland: It’s different there

Iceland Map by Abraham Ortelius ca 1590 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Every four years, residents of New Hampshire (population 1.3 million) are the focus of media attention as every want-to-be presidential hopeful comes to their state for the first primary of the year. Voters have a chance to meet the candidates face to face.

For people living in Iceland it’s like New Hampshire all the time.

Iceland is an island roughly the size of Kentucky with less than 10% of the population of the Bluegrass State. In fact, if it was a US city, Iceland’s population of 318,452 would put it between Aurora and Toledo, down around 60th place. The least populated state, Wyoming, has 568,158 inhabitants, over 40% more than Iceland.

Iceland is one of the most cohesive societies on the planet. 94% of the current population are descended from the original settlers, a mix of Norse, Irish and Scots, 93% live in urban areas and 80% are members of the Lutheran Church of Iceland.  (There’s even a database where an Icelander can find out how closely related he/she is to someone before dating them.) This is a country where people are listed in the phone book alphabetically by first name.

So it is not a surprise to me at all that the government of Iceland has placed the interests of its people ahead of those of international bankers. The general population and the politicians know each other (and where they live and who their parents and grandparents were).

Iceland has recently embarked on an experimental form of constitution-making from below. Iceland is in this a rare – in distinct ways probably unique – example of a popular or citizen-driven constitutionalism. This participatory approach in many ways challenges core assumptions of mainstream, modernist understandings of constitutionalism, such as the idea of constitutionalism as a social phenomenon and practice dominated by legal professionals or that of constitutions as higher laws that are near to impossible to change. At the same time, the Icelandic experience brings to the fore many questions that popular or democratic constitutionalism raises as an alternative understanding and practice of constitutionalism, not least related to the modes and effectiveness of participation, the notion of representation in the constitution-making process, the role of deliberation, as well as the actual, substantive results of participatory constitution-making.

Iceland really is a place where all politics are local (and there’s an alignment of interests there that’s hard to achieve with our population of 311.6 million people).

(Note: this is not intended as a defense of what happened in this country. We should have seen the (mostly) men who wantonly wrecked the economy pay a public, personal price for their crimes.)

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