IN LAST YEAR’S election Roslyn Fuller ran for the Dáil on a platform of digital democracy. Her studies in international law had revealed major structural shortcomings in modern democracy.
Fuller made a compelling case for the timeliness of updating our democracy. In the year of political upsets since, that case has become even stronger. A lot of what we have seen is the escalation of processes that have been at work for years, not an aberration in otherwise functional democracies.
The media made Brexit and Trump inevitable
I won’t try to claim outcomes like Brexit and President Donald Trump were inevitable like so many hindsight commentators have. But however improbable they may have been deemed, they each make sense as the outcomes of their respective media environments.
Decades of the British press demonising the EU and dehumanising immigrants was bound to have some sort of impact. American news media becoming commercialised to the point of emulating reality TV’s sensationalism could enable a reality TV star to steal the show.
Both outcomes were also the result of blunt binary choices dictated by current political systems. In Britain’s case, the multi-faceted complications of EU membership were expected to be decided on through a two-option referendum. In America’s case, the political opinions of hundreds of millions of people are expected to fit happily into one of two political factions.
Campaigning without offering alternatives
And in each case, their opponents accused them of bringing about doom without effectively communicating an appealing alternative themselves. They ran campaigns on a sense of entitlement, with Hillary Clinton’s complacency leading her to neglect key groups in her voter base.
We also saw that David Cameron thought a referendum gamble could fob off political rivals he went to college with and an invigorated Eurosceptic movement.
Of course, it is no argument to say that someone only won because their competition was weak; it was the competition’s responsibility to be stronger.
Limitations of electoral democracy
A question that should perhaps be asked, when such sweeping political changes are caused by so few people, is why do these people have so much power? What role is the government meant to play?
If democracy is meant to bring about harmonious decision-making that broadly satisfies the public, why is it currently built around personalities clashing? Elections encourage contentiousness towards ideas other than your own, towards other people, even towards facts themselves.
When different political factions are competing for winner-takes-all, resentment will build between citizens and instability will follow. This is not “the messy work of democracy”; this is the limitations of electoral democracy.
You don’t always get who you vote for
We have become so used to the idea that if you have elections and freedom of speech, you will have a democratically-governed society. Elections are held regularly so all you have to do is use your freedom of speech to influence other voters.
“If voters made better decisions, we’d have better government” is the conclusion to draw from this train of thought. You can’t fault the logic of valuing informed voters but we must acknowledge the faults of elections as a method of distributing power.
First of all, voters don’t always get the government they vote for. Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, got elected through a mathematical fluke of America’s electoral college.
Ireland’s policy is in the hands of a few
In Ireland, we currently have a Minority Government holding power, after months of negotiations between party members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. A Government without a Dáil majority can have its advantages; their policies must appeal to more parties in order to get passed. In theory, the opposition could get things passed instead of being rendered impotent.
However this still leaves policy affecting millions of people in the hands of a few hundred people. And these few hundred people need media coverage and money to get elected.
And if they get elected, these few hundred people are easily pressurised by media coverage and financial interests.
Digital democracy opens up democracy
Digital democracy provides secure online voting for the public to vote on major policy issues on a case-by-case basis. This could be workable with good enough Internet coverage since voters are more educated and broadly-informed than ever before. The impact of “post-truth” on the flow of information will be an issue but it’s always been.
Consider how we already take to social media to voice our opinion on whatever’s happening. Consider historical precedents for democracy by public assembly, like the Ecclesia of ancient Athens or the local governments of modern Switzerland.
And consider the contradiction in trusting voters to appoint people to govern policy but not trusting them to judge individual policies.
The reason to consider ideas such as digital democracy is the sweeping political change now facing us. A power vacuum is being filled by the far-right. If other compelling ideas don’t emerge to challenge them, society will continue to be steered by the whims of a small minority.
My hope is that greater expansion of democracy would be a compelling idea across the conceit of the political spectrum. If Marxists want people-power, are they developing mechanisms to let people decide things? If libertarians want small government, wouldn’t government power be diffused by having more decisions open to the public?
Modern democracy emerged in a time when people demanded change following a social revolution in Enlightenment thought and a technological revolution in the printing press. Centuries later we have human rights and the Internet. It’s time for an upgrade.
Jonathan Victory is a writer and filmmaker living in Dublin. He is co-host of the Quantum of Friendship podcast and has written for The Journal, Headstuff and Film Ireland. He has made a short documentary about Fuller’s election campaign and it can be viewed online. More information about Roslyn Fuller’s campaign is available at fullerdemocracy.com.