Many on both the right and the left are frustrated with the representative democracy that delegates pivotal decision-making to professional politicians. Given the technological transformation of most fields of human activity, it is only a matter of time before the face of politics is changed by the digital tools that allow netizens to express their opinions and vote on vital political issues without the intermediary vested interests of complacent representatives. In this digital age, every person who has the right to vote should be able to participate in the continuous political process that is made possible by technological advances. To make this disruption of representation productive, technology should become both more powerful and more accountable to the public.
We need to introduce open democratic engagement into modern politics. Conventional representative democracy is on its way out. Around the globe, we can expect either regressive turns to authoritarian government and political machinations—see Russia and especially China—or the emergence of robustly democratic networks of governance, supported by digital technology and decentralized policy-making. The status quo in the west and elsewhere, which rests on the idea of democratic representation, cannot go unchallenged. Representative democracy has not been an efficient system of government—it has led to the present series of political crises. In this, politics contrasts starkly with other areas of human endeavor, which have undergone rapid technological change and opened up to the public. The process of distributing power remains problematic because politics is still conducted in accordance with out-dated principles of representation and the subsequent exclusive delegation of decision-making rights to competent institutions.
The time has come for an open digital democracy, which engages citizens and empowers them to make choices about healthcare, transport, education and other major domains of governance, both locally and globally. Thanks to online technology, the citizen’s autonomy and political power can be channeled to shape our common future. People no longer need to be merely represented: there are tools that allow us to turn to the wisdom of crowds for guidance on issues that affect the larger body politic. We now have the means not only to hear the voices of the people but also to let them decide what steps should be taken to ensure responsible governance.
Pundits, political scientists, journalists and conservative and liberal elites of various cultural stripes feel disappointed and helpless in the face of the popular vote. Politicians cannot understand or connect with the multitude of voices that they claim to represent. Brexit and the election of strongmen around the world appear to indicate that a more open and direct democracy would be a terrible idea. The scared elites hope to keep their privileges and keep the people away from the delicate issues of governance. Politicians on opposite sides of the spectrum pretend to know what benefits the people—but their voters are mature enough to decide for themselves.
The crisis of representation has been brought to the fore by digitalization. Technology has given everyone with access to the internet an opportunity to participate in public debate, without being able to influence the political process, which remains relatively isolated from the latest developments in social networking and knowledge dissemination. While political representatives are forced to react to public sentiment, decisions about policy are still made by the powers that be.
The institutional insulation of politics through representation is no longer tenable because online technology allows the government to consult the public directly on most matters with political implications.
In my neck of the woods, the overwhelming vote for the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine horrified our conservative elites. They feel that the people are a danger and that they do not know what is best for them: they are in need of wise representatives and of the tutelage of those who know better. During the election campaign, Zelensky relied heavily on social networking and digital technology to reach out to the public. Now it is only natural for him to suggest that some critical foreign policy issues be solved by consulting the public via a referendum. The Ukrainian political establishment is afraid of the populist tools of direct democracy, because they make representation potentially redundant and superfluous.
In conservative and liberal circles, there is nostalgia for the true leaders of yore, who actually led the nation instead of blindly following the short-sighted mandate of the electorate. Both conservatives and liberals often feel that direct democracy would be a disaster because people are unenlightened and misguided. This is an unfortunate delusion.
What we need is the delegation of sovereignty and power to the people. Rather than an aberration, elections, referenda and popular votes should become common practice. Most problems can be solved locally, so the government and other political bodies should be ready to open their decision-making up to democratic levers, mechanisms which can now be nimble and effective thanks to digital technology and decentralization.
Granted, certain areas of political life call for professional judgment and technical expertise, and these should be entrusted to scientists and educated specialists. The limits of these technocratic domains can be debated and should be open to revision. However, we can draw some reasonable lines, while still leaving most political issues subject to public decision-making. Politics and governance are not rocket science, and draw their power from the people. This power can be returned to the people through technology. That way, the institutions that have lost public trust can refashion themselves to serve us better. There will be less demand for political servants if people are empowered to become masters of their destiny.
Today, democracy might either recede under the pressure of authoritarian rule or reinvent itself by exposing politics to multiple viewpoints and popular change. Smartphones and social networks can be used to create a surveillance state and to control citizens, or they can become the tools of a more open democracy. Representation through rigid political structures is going to suffer defeat either way—it is up to us to embrace a new vision, if we want to tackle global challenges and local concerns.
The world needs to pay more respect to the wisdom of citizens, not to the pretentious representatives of that wisdom.
We may not want to face it, but life is unpredictable. People topple conventional power structures as they become more educated and see that the elites are offering political smoke-and-mirrors instead of fair governance. The future of good politics lies in responsible decision-making by the public, not in blind allegiance to authorities and the mindless delegation of power.
Technology has revolutionized industries and social relations, but there is still strong resistance to the disruption of politics. This aversion to change usually takes the form of moral panic and diatribes against digitalization. Facebook and Twitter are accused of meddling in politics, as if people were against the idea of using social networks for political ends. This is absurd. Digital tools are a medium for political action and should expand their ambit, including empowering people to come together and decide for themselves what good governance ought to be. The use of technology can thus lead to broader engagement in political activities.
Only the privileged elites can afford to stay offline, to keep their power out of the reach of technology. This has to change.
Online voting is usually seen as entertainment or a marketing tool, informing us about our private likes and dislikes or commercial preferences, but online plebiscites on the things that matter might be the future of politics.
Digital technology has more public trust than the political institutions that claim to serve the public. There is an argument to be made for digitalizing the government and political decision-making and engaging the public through online technology. The public are already online: but they lack the power to solve political issues that centrally concern them.
Authoritarians might use this moment of disillusionment to do away with democracy and impose rigid government structures to prop up their egos. The task of those who stand for a free society is to open democracy up to the individual and give her the tools to decide how she wants to shape the world. Modern technology can enable the general public to change the world, or it can be employed to police people and control their decisions. It is essential for the advocates of democratic governance to acknowledge that the public should wield more power, and technology can help achieve this transition away from old-fashioned representation.
Nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake. One road leads to the harsh embrace of authoritarian technocracy, while the other could take us to a more open, digitally mediated democracy. The elites should recognize that the current state of affairs is unsustainable. The contradictions of the system have led to a crucial bifurcation point. It might be tempting to insulate government from alleged popular idiocy, but this fear is highly toxic to the well-being of humanity.
There is a rift between the narrow view of the elites and the multiple voices of the public. It is not rationally defensible to claim that a diverse range of opinions can be easily generalized and politically represented in conventional ways. Many feel disempowered because they now have the ability to follow events and develop strong opinions on important policies, but there is no direct way for them to make their voices count because traditional representation creates a protective barrier between political decision-making and the public.
Neither governance nor representative democracy can remain as they have been. Popular votes will continue to exasperate the elites, hence we need more direct democracy and participatory governance if we want to forestall authoritarian trends.
Once we realize that other people matter and that their decisions can shape our lives, societies will find a new cohesion. We should unite around modern political and social concepts—rather than around traditional cultural and religious creeds and allegiances. The latter are in retreat, which has led to social tensions and resentments. Empowering people online can resolve the contradiction between the yearning for solidarity and belonging and the dissolution of conservative social bonds. Digital technology and online networks need more political power, not less.
Instead of private and corporate control, global and local digital tools and networks should serve and be accountable to the public. Otherwise, monopolist and capitalist interests will continue to exploit the political and social relationships that are being outsourced online.
There is nothing wrong with democracy, except when it is based on representation. Representation is like a shadow in Plato’s cave. People should take matters in their own hands and come out of the cave and into the light.