A More Open Digital Democracy Could Help Overcome the Crisis of Representation

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.

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  1. The mistake you’re making is that a referendum as a proper form of direct democracy, that would only be the case if the people were involved in deciding what questions should be asked, and they have the ability to do it all over again if they choose. There cannot be any time restraints unless it is absolutely a necessity.

    I think you are aware that no one actually wants this to happen, especially intellectuals or elites.

    Can we discuss how to do it without permission from anyone? Like how Facebook and Twitter exists without anyone’s asking for it.

    I’ve been working on this for the past five years and I have some insight I would like to share.

    1. I partially agree that voters should be able to decide on the questions that need to be answered. Today this freedom to define the agenda can be seen in petitions, as those can be formulated by the public. They can be ignored and lead to nothing, though. I also think that it is sometimes necessary for experts to formulate the questions. I believe there is a need for expertise in some areas, but still people should have more freedom to decide for themselves. I am not against intellectualism or professionalism. I don’t think that individual people in power are necessarily evil. I think the structural and institutional organization of our societies leads to the elites being disconnected from the public because representation does not really work. The political establishment has the privilege of decision-making, while the people have to bear the burden of those choices made for them. I don’t blame individual people in this. I think it has to do with the way democratic representation works. Perhaps I agree with you in that Twitter and Facebook exist thanks to the demand they managed to create. They still act within the framework of the market. They are not public services and pursue their commercial and corporate interests. You might mean something else when you say that they exist without anyone asking for it. Since you have ideas to share, you can write down your vision and publish it for people to read. Areo or other magazines might be interested. Areo is a good place to find readers, and the editors are liberal and accept a variety of views. Otherwise, you could self-publish your ideas and share them this way. Thank you once again for your comments.

      1. I’m sorry I guess I misunderstood your article. I thought you were in favour of power to the people, or majority rule.

        What you really want to do is put a new elite class into power.

        Welcome to the new elites!

        1. Thank you for your comments. I don’t support elitism. I agree that it is good to return power to the people. An absolutist idea of majority rule, however, is not the same as democracy. It is not the same as empowering people if applied indiscriminately. It is just a narrow-minded principle if applied without consideration for the kind of questions we ask and who is going to answer them. There is no one single majority that could solve all the problems or political challenges. Majority rule could jeopardize minority rights and overlook the people who will be in opposition. If we delegate power back to the people, we allow for their voices to count and make a difference. Perhaps there will be multiple solutions and people will get behind several such options. There is no one-size-fits-all majority rule. If we fragment and decentralize the decision-making progress and delegate power to the local communities where those decisions have to be implemented, then majority rule will matter, but it is the power and decisions of each person that should count. I do not speak of a simple majority rule in the article as you can see, but in the end it underlies the idea of returning power to the people. Majority rule is an important notion when used in the right context. There is no single majority though. We are speaking of various communities and a multitude of voices. And, of course, some questions will have to be answered by experts and educated specialists.

          1. Please tell me who decides if someone is considered an expert? Have you thought very deeply about this?

            Where does this “truth” come from that the majority will make worst decisions?

            Perhaps this is the meme that holds back our society?

            Please show me an example of what you believe will happen with majority rule.

            Then I will explain to you how the only correction that has ever worked when a majority makes a bad decision, is a larger majority!

            1. Thank you. I guess there are no simple answers to your questions. I am not an expert to decide who should be considered an expert, I admit. It is usually people who have the skills and education to understand complex concepts that have to do with mathematics, statistics, physics, etc. That would be my answer, but it could be uninformed. For me, the wisdom of crowds means that people are wiser when acting together, so I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise that people do well when making communal decisions. If you have considered the questions you ask deeply and long enough, I think you should share your vision with the public. Let me try to give an example when a majority can make a harmful decision. For instance, a majority in a given country might say that they need death penalty, but if we agree (who are these “we” though?) to protect human life, then this popular opinion about the capital punishment should be disregarded. Our agreement though comes from outside the majority in the given country. To become a member of the Council of Europe every country has to abolish death penalty. I find this to be a wider agreement that takes precedence over any majority opinion in any individual country. In this case, just as you say, perhaps a wider majority overrules any local preference. I don’t know whether my example is pertinent here. I don’t know.

      2. “In this case, just as you say, perhaps a wider majority overrules any local preference. I don’t know whether my example is pertinent here. I don’t know.”

        This is a perfect example, in the same can be applied to the genocide in Rwanda, or Brexit, or any of the human rights, or anything else.

        A good example is Russia and there bad history on gay rights. They are a sovereign nation and the world has no power over them. But yet there is relentless pressure from the world community that I believe will eventually force their hand.

        Unfortunately I am not capable of being much more than playing the part off a troll, trolling for direct democracy done the right way.

        I believe I can present my arguments quite clearly in the verbal form, but I’m quite incapable of challenging intellectuals in a written format.

        1. I agree that we need a more direct democracy and to give power to the people. We disagree about majority rule and the role of experts. I feel that context matters. Sometimes a small minority of experts knows better. There has been research that suggests small groups can develop complex knowledge better than large groups, and hence we might have to delegate some of the power to a limited number of experts who can make informed decisions. They should still be accountable to the public. Your argument about the decisive role of majority is not something I actually want to refute and attack. I am unhappy about the fact that fewer and fewer decisions will soon be made by the public. The people who think that the public are stupid are the ones who make a self-fulfilling prophecy and infantilize and demonize the general public. These people are the ones with whom I strongly disagree. I appreciate your comments. The essay might be better than my replies, but I think this discussion can highlight the weak points in the text. Thank you.

  2. This is a remarkably black-and-white text sprinkled with extravagant statements. It seems more like an agenda for a movement than a balanced analysis. I’m not disputing that the democratic process requires updating – most things constantly do – and that a representative democracy does not represent the people as accurately as many believe. But this text needlessly pits “people” against “the elite” as if they are two different species, uses the word “elite” almost as a slur (it has a “narrow view”, is “privileged” and offers ” smoke-and-mirrors”) while “the people” are virtuous, selfless angels. The former group is in the political game only for the power and money, while the latter would solve all our problems without any obstacles if only they had increased opportunities for influence (“…but their voters are mature enough to decide for themselves”). This text is one long love song for digital democracy that teases us with vivid sentences, like “he future of good politics lies in responsible decision-making by the public”, but without specifying what they mean, while not even mentioning the possible pitfalls. Only a few sentences are reserved for mentioning that some decisions must be made by experts.

  3. Strong opinions don’t necessarily translate into informed decisions. Can you imagine voting on what type of surgery to get? Representative democracy allows our representatives to become informed on an issue prior to voting. I think the problem is more that the general public is no longer represented. I’ve heard it said that democracy is a wolf, a lion, and a sheep, deciding on what’s for dinner. I’ve participated in direct democracy via our “town halls” in the north east part of America.

    1. There should be areas that are reserved for experts who can make informed decisions, as I say in the essay. I don’t disagree about the need for professional judgment in some cases.

      If I am conscious and it is not an emergency after an accident where I cannot understand the options, I would indeed demand that I have to consent to any surgery before being operated, and would also want to consider what options I have.

      As for the representation of the public, I don’t think the general public has ever been fully represented, and this failure of representation is a problem. I think we need a more open democracy.

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