Weekend Roundup: Renovating Democracy


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

As we laid out in our talk, “The rise of populism in the West, the rise of China in the East and the spread of peer-driven social media everywhere have stirred a rethinking of how democracy works — or doesn’t. The combination of globalization and the digital revolution has created new classes of winners and losers that the old social contract is not configured to deal with.”

China’s rise, we argue, challenges the dysfunctional democracies of the West to get their act together and demonstrate we can transcend the present polarization and paralysis “through reaching a governing consensus by other than authoritarian means” or risk “somnambulating into second-class status on the world stage.” We note that while the current U.S. president relishes “battling his way through every 24-hour news cycle by hurling barbed tweets at sundry foes, China’s near-dictatorial leader has used his amassed clout to chart out a roadmap for the next 30 years.”

The core of the book rests on what we call the “twin paradoxes” of governance in the new era we are entering.

The first paradox is that the more participation there is through the explosion of social networks, “the greater the need for the counterbalance of impartial practices and institutions to sort out the cacophony of voices, the welter of conflicting interests and the deluge of contested information.” As more and more players join the political fray, “what’s needed is a deliberative check against the false claims, untrustworthy information, prejudice and magical thinking that often comes along with the immediate wash of networked popular sentiment.”

The second paradox is that “the more dynamic a perpetually innovating knowledge-driven economy is, the more robust a redefined safety net and opportunity web must be to cope with the steady disruption and gaps in wealth and power that will result.”

In the book we propose two key ways to meet these challenges and “take back control” of the forces behind the present upheaval of our political and social order:

  • Empowering participation without populism by integrating social networks and direct democracy into the system through the establishment of new mediating institutions that complement representative government. This notion is a hybrid that draws from the American Founding Fathers’ insistence that popular sovereignty should be checked by cool and reasoned deliberation insulated from the immediate passions of elections. It draws as well as from the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, which introduced the direct democracy of citizens’ initiatives that make law directly at the ballot box while delegating authority to knowledgeable bodies to administer smart government.
  • Reconfiguring the social contract to protect workers instead of jobs, including universal health care not linked to the workplace, while spreading the wealth of digital capitalism by providing all citizens not only with the skills of the future, but an equity share in “owning the robots.” We call this “universal basic capital.”

The book also has a major section on “harnessing globalization” by favoring patriotic allegiance to the values of an inclusive society over nationalist incantation, tempered by the recognition that “open societies need defined borders.”

We call for dialing back “hyper-globalization” so there is ample policy space to cope with the dislocations that result from integrated global markets, but pursuing global cooperation where necessary in areas from pandemics to balancing financial flows. We recount our meetings over the last few years in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping and others in the top leadership, proposing a “partnership of rivals” between the West and China by joining together around convergent interests, most notably climate action, even as conflict exists over trade and security.

So far, the reviews indicate we’ve struck a resonant chord. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria says of the book that “the intellectual framework is compelling, the analysis acute and the prescriptions intelligent, forward-looking and practical.” The sociologist and former director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, calls the arguments “profound and wide-ranging…one of the most significant analyses of the stresses and strains of democracy in the digital age yet published.”

Our book is the first in a Berggruen Institute series on the “Great Transformations” that will be published by the University of California Press. You can order it here.