Renovating democracy from the bottom up


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

ROME — The participatory power of social media is a game changer for governance. It levels the playing field among amateurs and experts, peers and authorities and even challenges the legitimacy of representative government. Its arrival coincides with and reinforces the widespread distrust of elites across the Western world, ripening the historical moment for direct democracy.

For the first time, an Internet-based movement has come to power in a major country, Italy, under the slogan “Participate, don’t delegate!” All of the Five Star Movement’s parliamentarians, who rule the country in a coalition with the far-right League party, were nominated and elected to stand for office online. And they have appointed the world’s first minister for direct democracy, Riccardo Fraccaro.

In Rome this week, he explained the participatory agenda of Italy’s ruling coalition government to The WorldPost at a meeting of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. “Citizens must be granted the same possibility to actively intervene in the process of managing and administrating public goods as normally carried out by their elected representatives,” he enthused. “What we have witnessed in our democracy is a drift toward ‘partyocracy,’ in which a restricted circle of policymakers have been so fully empowered with decision-making capacity that they could virtually ignore and bypass the public will. The mere election of a representative every so many years is no longer sufficient to prevent this from happening. That is why our government will take the next step forward in order to innovate and enhance our democracy.”

Fraccaro went on: “Referenda, public petitions and the citizens’ ballot initiative are nothing other than the direct means available for the citizenry to submit laws that political parties are not willing to propose or to reject rules approved by political parties that are not welcome by the people. Our aim, therefore, is to establish the principles and practices of direct democracy alongside the system of representative government in order to give real, authentic sovereignty to the citizens.”

At the Rome forum, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio, a Five Star member, railed against the technocrats and banks he says are trying to frustrate the will of the people. He promised forthcoming changes in the Italian constitution to follow through on Fraccaro’s call for citizen-initiated propositions that will go to the public ballot if the legislature does not act on them.

The program that has so far emerged out of the government’s participatory agenda is a mixed bag. It includes everything from anti-immigrant and anti-vaccine policies to the expansion of digital networks and planting more trees. In a move that has unsettled the European Union authorities as well as Italy’s non-partisan, indirectly-elected president, the governing coalition last week proposed both a tax cut and the provision of a universal basic income — despite the fact that Italy’s long-term debt is already 130 percent of GDP.

The Italian experiment warrants close attention as a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. It reveals a paradox for governance in this digital age: the more participation there is, the greater the need for the counterbalance of impartial mediating practices and institutions that can process the cacophony of voices, sort out the deluge of contested information, dispense with magical thinking and negotiate fair trade-offs among the welter of conflicting interests. In Italy, or anywhere else that charts a similar path in the era of distributed power, such a deliberative ballast is as essential to good governance as inviting the direct engagement of citizens in government.

Populist politics have also erupted in other places across the European Union in no small part because ordinary citizens feel shut out of any meaningful say in big decisions taken in Brussels. One response, writes Michael Cottakis, is to invigorate the little-used European Citizens’ Initiative by lowering the 1 million signature threshold required for citizens to propose legislation to be taken up by the European Union government.

Even so, writes Cottakis, “for the E.U.’s experiment with direct democracy to be effective, it must first build an E.U. democratic system to institutionalize the role of citizens in the decision-making process. In such a system, a ‘European Citizens’ Assembly’ should be set up as a second chamber of the European Parliament. This body could consist of citizens who are selected annually and charged with vetting and scrutinizing the Parliament’s legislative proposals and decisions — similar to the role of a jury in a court of law. The Citizens’ Assembly should have the power to force amendments to legislation, like with the House of Lords in the U.K. Parliament.”

Another participatory tool being used around the world from Iceland to India, writes Beth Noveck, is “crowdlaw” — “a form of crowdsourcing that uses novel collective intelligence platforms and processes to help governments engage with citizens. Crowdlaw is based on the simple but powerful idea that parliaments, governments and public institutions work better when they leverage new technologies to tap into diverse sources of information, judgments and expertise at each stage of the law and policymaking cycle. This helps improve the quality as well as the legitimacy of the resulting laws and policies.”

Noveck reports on a project championed by Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, which “enables the public to define public problems. It then utilizes machine learning software to form working groups to create policy recommendations. In more than 80 percent of cases, publicly-defined issues have led to government action. … So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of Uber, telemedicine and online education, have been discussed with over 200,000 participants.”

As Yen-Tu Su writes from Taipei, thanks to the new Referendum Act that took effect in January 2018, the public has “more say than ever in the country’s future.” The new rules allowing citizens to propose and vote for initiatives have led to an “outpouring” of citizen engagement on the island nation. Propositions range from gender orientation education in schools to renaming the country’s Olympic competitors as “Team Taiwan” instead of “Team Taipei.”

Finally, the idea of direct democracy has retrenched instead of advanced in the Netherlands. After a non-binding 2016 referendum that expressed euroskeptic sentiment, the Dutch Parliament abolished the referendum law, worried that it would lead to populism. Writing from Amsterdam, Arjen Nijeboer and Thijs Vos argue the opposite: “By abolishing citizen-initiated referendums, the Dutch government has rolled back an important tool for letting under-represented and dissatisfied citizens blow off steam and make gradual changes to policies. This leaves such citizens with little other means than to vote for populist or anti-establishment parties. And that is why repealing the Dutch referendum will not halt populism — it merely risks intensifying it in the long run.”

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