Distrust of elites is fueling a new type of democracy


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

“In the regions where it is more deeply rooted — the Americas and Europe — representative democracy is in crisis,” former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote in The WorldPost.

“At the core of this crisis,” he continued, “is the widening gap between people’s aspirations and the capacity of political institutions to respond to the demands of society. It is one of the ironies of our age that this deficit of trust in political institutions coexists with the rise of citizens capable of making the choices that shape their lives and influence the future of their societies.”

Sprouting in that gap is a burgeoning movement toward direct democracy in which voters bypass elected elites and make laws themselves through citizen ballot initiatives, referendums and other tools.

“Two trends — the rise of populist authoritarianism in some nations and the rise of local and direct democracy in some areas — are related,” Bruno Kaufmann and Joe Mathews write. “Frustration is growing with democratic systems at national levels, and yes, some people become more attracted to populism. But some of that frustration is channeled into positive energy — into making local democracy more democratic and direct.”

They report: “Cities from Seoul to San Francisco are hungry for new and innovative tools that bring citizens into processes of deliberation that allow the people themselves to make decisions and feel invested in government actions. We’ve seen local governments embrace participatory budgeting, participatory planning, citizens’ juries and a host of experimental digital tools in service of that desired mix of greater public deliberation and more direct public action.”

“There seems little doubt that direct democracy will become a more dominant feature of self-government,” the authors argue. “The key challenge ahead will be to design new practices and institutions to ensure that this form of governance is properly mediated so that it enhances the public good, is not captured by organized special interests or does not merely express the prejudices or immediate wash of voters’ emotions.”

The debilitated integrity of the democratic process — so damaged lately by the social media influence of polarizing hate speech, fake news and alternative facts — is no less a concern in developing nations than in the core Western countries. “Developing and newer democracies are much more susceptible to the tactics of populists and demagogues — they often do not have strong institutions, free press or the infrastructure required to defend their nascent democracies,” says former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel laureate Kofi Annan in an interview.

“That is why we need to safeguard the institutions that have been built to prevent blatant twisting of truths that erode trust in our elections and ultimately in democracy itself. My primary focus these days is promoting the legitimacy of democracy by ensuring the integrity of elections, whether from traditional threats, such as too much money in politics, or newer threats arising with the digital age.

If citizens do not believe they can change their leaders through the ballot box, they will find other ways, even at the risk of destabilizing their countries.”

During a recent tour of Silicon Valley, Annan offered some practical ideas. “When I spoke before an audience at Facebook,” he recounts, “I suggested they should organize a sort of a rapid response team to be called into a situation when it is clear that bots, trolls or fake news are evident. The team could alert electoral commissions or other authorities to offer advice on how to stop the problem before it gets out of control.”

The paradox of governance in the age of social networks is that, precisely because there is more participation than ever before entwined with peer-driven media unchecked by factual observation, never has the need been greater for countervailing constraints. That means protecting the integrity of representative government, as Kofi Annan pleads. But it also requires, as Kaufmann and Mathews point out, new impartial practices and institutions that can establish facts, deliberate wise choices, mediate fair trade-offs and forge consensus as direct democracy finds ever greater favor among disillusioned electorates everywhere.

Trump is out to demolish NAFTA

This week, negotiations among the United States, Mexico and Canada resumed over how to modernize the North America Free Trade Agreement. Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo believes the United States is negotiating in bad faith and pleads for Mexico and Canada not to cave to a bad deal. “It’s clear that what the U.S. government seeks is not to modernize the old NAFTA but rather to get an agreement that would destroy trade and investment among the three North American partners,” he writes. “It perversely aims to get Mexico and Canada’s seal of approval to carry out the demolition of the most successful undertaking ever of mutually beneficial economic cooperation in the Americas.”

He concludes: “Unless the U.S. government seriously reconsiders its proposed self-damaging trade policy, its two partners should move forward to protect and lean on another line of defense — the World Trade Organization multilateral system — and leave the U.S. government to assume alone full responsibility for killing NAFTA.”

Give Kim Jong Un the benefit of the doubt

Hong Seok-Hyun, a former special envoy of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Washington, sees light at the end of the long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. “I harbor cautious optimism for the road ahead because I discern a sincerity in Kim. To test that sincerity, we need to give Kim the benefit of the doubt,” he writes from Seoul.

“Kim’s change of heart,” he continues, “likely resulted from his realization that as long as he holds on to nuclear weapons, economic development will be difficult. Just last month, Kim shifted policy from simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development to focusing solely on advancing the economy. … Kim may have come to the conclusion that it will not be possible to suppress the desires and grievances of his people if the current ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against North Korea continues.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.