It’s time to rethink democracy


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

The rise of populism in the West, the rise of China in the East and the spread of peer-driven social media everywhere are prompting a deep rethinking of how democracy works — or doesn’t.

The election of Donald Trump realized the worst fears of the American Founding Fathers that democracy would empower reckless demagogues. Contrary to post-Cold War assumptions in the West, China has shown the path to prosperity is not incompatible with one-party authoritarian rule. Despite expectations that the Internet age would create an informed public more capable of self-government than ever before in history, fake news, hate speech and alternative facts have seriously degraded the civic discourse.

If contemporary democracies are going to compete with autocratic systems on the world stage while avoiding their own suicide through polarization and paralysis fueled by untrustworthy information, they need a radical renovation that responds to the forces undermining them. Above all, such a renovation must engage the participatory power of social media and the increasing preference of publics for direct democracy by designing new, impartial institutions and practices that interpose a deliberative check against the false claims, misinformation, intolerance and magical thinking that come along with the immediate wash of networked popular sentiment.

Such a renovation that embraces participation without populism would draw in the American experience from the wisdom of the Founders, who believed that institutions of delegated authority are necessary to “enlarge the public views.” It would draw as well from the later innovations of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century in the American states. The Progressives sought to combine the direct democracy of the ballot initiative — which they introduced so citizens could make laws directly — with smart government administered by non-partisan professionals and experts.

Similarly, a key innovation of democracy today would be to proactively solicit priority concerns from the public through open platforms, empower knowledgeable officials to process those concerns into effective and consensual policy responses on a non-partisan basis, and then go back to citizens directly for approval of those proposals at the ballot box before they become law. Studies show that citizens at large are less partisan and more open to pragmatic solutions than parties vying for power.

In the U.S., institutional innovation of this sort has always come from the bottom up in the states and will likely do so again. The citizen’s ballot initiative is so widely used as to be considered the fourth branch of government in California. It has recently been tempered along the lines above with new rules that require deliberative review of proposed measures before they can qualify for the ballot.

Such a revision in the way self-government works would complement representative democracy and at the same time compensate for its waning legitimacy in our age of distributed power. It would provide a robust avenue for citizens to initiate action outside legislatures that are most often locked up by the established parties and organized special interests that have the time and money to win elections and maintain a lobby-hold on those they elect.

As faith falters in representative government, public opinion polls show support for such a fresh approach. According to a global Pew poll in October 2017, 66 percent of respondents wanted a system in which “citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major issues to decide what becomes law.” At the same time, 49 percent would approve of a system in which “experts, not elected officials, make key decisions.”

The WorldPost this week further examines the fault lines of democracy and explores ideas about how to mend them.

The most interesting experiment in democracy taking place today is in Italy, where the Internet-based Five Star Movement garnered the largest block of votes in recent parliamentary elections. While the FSM suffers from what ails most populist movements in its simplistic approach to complex issues, it has nonetheless invented new forms of citizen engagement that should be closely watched.

Davide Casaleggio, who manages the FSM’s online platform, writes from Milan: “Our experience is proof of how the Internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic.” Financed by micro-donations raised over the Internet, he notes that the FSM spent only 9 cents per vote in the recent elections compared with $8.50 by the mainstream parties.

“The platform that enabled the success of the Five Star Movement is called Rousseau,” he explains, “named after the 18th century philosopher who argued politics should reflect the general will of the people. And that is exactly what our platform does: it allows citizens to be part of politics. Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.”

Following the slogan “participate don’t delegate,” the Five Star Movement has also developed software that allows citizens to propose laws directly. Its further plans include using blockchain technology to secure online voting and building an academy that will ensure training and “meritocratic selection” of candidates.

Writing from the other side of the world in Manila, Richard Heydarian examines the case of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as a way to understand the rise of illiberal populism in nascent as well as established democracies. “Often the culprit behind democratic decay and degenerative mutation,” says Heydarian, “is the absence of functioning state institutions that have the capacity to discipline rapacious elites, enforce laws and insulate the bureaucracy from the undue influence of interest groups. As a result, we are beginning to experience a troubling phenomenon — a ‘democratic fatigue’ — as a growing share of citizens, including in developed societies, becomes more comfortable with the notion of military rule or full autocratic takeover.”

Like too many other nations at this historical moment, Heydarian concludes, his country “is caught in an interregnum, struggling to anchor itself somewhere between strong-man populism, autocratic nostalgia and democratic resistance — with no clear resolution on the horizon. The Philippines has entered a twilight zone.”

Reporting from Australia, WorldPost editor Rosa O’Hara describes how that democracy’s innovative preferential voting system allows voters to rank their choices. If their first choice doesn’t obtain more than half the vote, their votes for lesser preference will be counted in successive rounds. The virtue of the system is that it produces a stronger governing consensus with an absolute majority instead of a simple majority.

Douglas McLennan and Jack Miles relate the ongoing disappearance of mainstream newspapers, which at least strive to be objective in their presentation of facts, to the incapacity to arrive at consensual truths that are the foundation of democratic discourse. In this WorldPost video, we trace the commensurate rise to dominance of social media that not only often spreads false information, but as seen in this week’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, gathers personal data, in this case from Facebook users, that can be exploited to manipulate elections.

And finally, to mark World Water Day this week, Jonathan Rashad reports from the Nile Delta on how the fertile land that has supported Egyptian civilization for millennia is at risk from a growing population, climate change and poor garbage and sewage disposal.

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