Democracy Rebooted: Participation for a digital age

By William Louch.

Representative democracies are in the midst of a crisis. The age of the party is over. Turnout at elections is declining across Europe with (almost) every passing election, whilst the disconnect between political parties and wider society is made increasingly apparent with every photograph tweeted by Emily Thornberry. As Peter Mair writes ‘the parties pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.’ The rise of populist politics confirms this trend.

In the last year an Italian stand-up comedian (yes, they do exist) has managed to secure 25% of the vote in a general election, UKIP have become the first political party apart from Labour and the Conservatives to win a national election in the UK in over 100 years and Podemos, a Spanish political party founded this year, managed to secure 8% of a national vote having been in existence less than 100 days. To misquote Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of (insert EU country) and in order to stop the rot, we must rethink how and why we interact and engage with the political system.

What we must ask ourselves is how in an increasingly connected world have we managed to become increasingly disconnected from the political process? The answer to this question lies in rebooting, quite literally, democracy.

People today are more vocal, opinionated and engaged than ever before. The internet is the 21st century’s soapbox and has the power to shape our political future. Where despots reign and people could not engage politically by traditional means, the internet has provided people with an organisational platform not previously available. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the revolution will not only be televised but it will be WhatsApped, tweeted, blogged, Facebooked, Instagrammed, liked and shared.

In the West, where people can, but increasingly don’t, participate in the democratic process, the power of social media has been harnessed to great effect on single-issue campaigns, such as banning the pickup artist Julien Blanc from entering the UK. These two examples, though very different in terms of political significance and context, both demonstrate technology’s potential to mobilise groups of people to achieve their political goals (the usual function of elections). Tapping technology’s potential is key to filling the void that Peter Mair has identified, reengaging the electorate by speaking to them on their own terms and allowing them to participate in their own homes and on their own phones.

The Net Democracy Foundation, an organisation dedicated to exploring how technology can improve civic participation, has a solution.

The foundation’s first project, Democracy OS, advocates a shift away from our representative democratic model to a version closer to Athenaeum democracy, something previously considered unsuitable for the modern nation state. The system would be more in line with a government ‘of, by and for the people’ with registered voters able to directly communicate with their representatives, telling them how to vote on any legislative proposals.

The software also provides a forum for public debate and helps representatives ascertain key voter concerns. When viewed in relation to the problems identified with representative democracy, the advantages become obvious. Firstly, it increases ease of access to the political process. Secondly, it will help elected bodies discern the issues the electorate really care about. Thirdly, it will provide motivation for the apathetic voter to become involved again. The refrain ‘what’s the point in voting as it won’t make any difference’ will no longer be relevant. Democracy OS can initiate a fundamental shift in power from the elected to the electorate. Politics will be for the people once more.

The birth of the internet has been nothing short of revolutionary. It has led to a profound change in the way in how we live, eat, date, shop and interact with society. So why should it not change the one thing that gives us the most power over our own collective destiny? There are obviously many potential problems that will have to be overcome to digitise democracy. However, the UK has, over centuries of democratic government, shown itself adept at adapting to changing societal circumstances. Participation in politics is an essential guarantor of justice, equality and opportunity and is demonstrably on the decline. Change is imperative, so let’s look to the future and reboot democracy.

William Louch is a Durham University graduate and is currently living and working in Lebanon.

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