Where's the cutting edge of democracy?
July 3, 2013 1:22 PM   Subscribe

After last month's manifestations in Brazil, we're talking a lot about the future of democracy. Direct digital representation, continuous public opinion feedback loops, Big Brother-like continuous surveillance of elected officials, this sort of thing. So I want to know, is this actually being tried anywhere? What is the world's most technologically advanced democracy? It doesn't matter if it's a nation-state, a city or just an institution — How is it working? How did you guys pull it off? Are there any books on this sort of thing?
posted by Tom-B to Law & Government (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What is the world's most technologically advanced democracy?

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:24 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: E-voting is used in Estonia
posted by banal evil at 1:25 PM on July 3, 2013

Best answer: What is the world's most technologically advanced democracy?

Maybe more precisely your question is: What entity is using technology to advance democracy in the most enlightened way?

A parallel question, however, should be: Is an enlightened application of technology actually the best way to advance democracy?

The enlightened part comes in doing the right thing with the technology. For example, in the US, the same technology and databases that are being used to create gerrymandered election districts for the benefit of one party, could be used (and are used, in some states), to create fair election districts in a non-partisan process.
posted by beagle at 1:42 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sorry, Singapore is good at a lot of things but being on the cutting edge of democracy is not one of them. Even in CPB's Wikipedia link it notes that Singapore only got the rating above "authoritarian regime" for democracy.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:43 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

posted by KokuRyu at 1:53 PM on July 3, 2013

"Project Cybersyn" Was a fascinating attempt by the government of Chile and a british scientest at turning a government into a neural network. It was carried out in the 1970s and was ahead of its time. It had real time feedback loops, advanced artificial intelligence and computer simulation. It was unfortunately cut short by a military coup before the project could be fully implemented. It's a shame the project was never fully realized.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 1:54 PM on July 3, 2013

Response by poster: Estonia is a fascinating example, but as far as I'm understanding it they just took regular elections and conducted them over the Internet — the structure is still traditional: elected officials indirectly deciding on issues. What I'm looking for is the next step, citizens deciding on issues directly, does this exist?
posted by Tom-B at 1:58 PM on July 3, 2013

Best answer: You might want to peruse The Federalist Papers for all the musty arguments regarding why the sort of instantaneously direct democracy you're talking about might not be all it's cracked up to be (the Founders tended to call it "mob rule").

Without taking sides either way, I can't but help think of what's going on in Egypt right now, where you can overthrow a nominally democratically elected leader just by getting enough people on the streets. The edge case of this is no government at all.

Jaron Lanier is sort of talking about the same thing when he talks about Digital Maoism, i.e. that the hive mind is just as capable of tyranny in its own way as an autocrat would be. John Adams called it the tyranny of the majority.
posted by seemoreglass at 1:58 PM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Participatory budgeting is a big deal lately. It's rolled out in specific city council districts in NYC and and wards in Chicago, inspired by examples in Brazil and elsewhere.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:01 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of the actual organizing processes used in Brazil (and Occupy, and Tahrir, and elsewhere) are based on anarchist principles. Leaderless, horizontal, direct democracy, etc. which mirrors in many ways the architecture of the internet. I know I've read commentary on this but can't recommend anything specific, maybe someone else knows a good article or book (I'd be interested as well).
posted by bradbane at 2:06 PM on July 3, 2013

Best answer: Another example would be the initiative process in California. Anti-tax initiatives could be blamed for some of the financial straits the state found itself in recently (voters will arguably always vote for less tax but more government spending when it benefits them, but that's not sustainable).
posted by seemoreglass at 2:34 PM on July 3, 2013

Regarding Estonia, some residents are left out, when everything is done online.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:01 PM on July 3, 2013

I agree, pure democracy is probably not a great idea. Because there isn't anything stopping the 51% from voting to eat the 49%. There must be some kind of balance between first principles of freedom and civil rights, and the purity of democratic self-government.

But my personal opinion on the most advanced applications of democratic principles are the nations that use newer voting methods like IRV. Especially Australia. Also, Illinois used to have an interesting way of electing state representation- each district was larger, but elected two or three representatives from each district. They gave this up, presumably because it didn't allow power to concentrate properly.

But this is a really interesting question, since technology is changing how we view our citizenship in local, national and world politics. We don't necessarily have as much in common with our geographic neighbors any more, and the idea of having to be stuck with the representative that can sweet talk 51% of our district seems a little antiquated. If I were designing the US Constitution now, I'd probably try and figure out a way to change congress in some way that acknowledges the fact that people have issues they might care about that aren't local in nature. Some kind of at large representative body.
posted by gjc at 3:05 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

>Regarding Estonia, some residents are left out, when everything is done online.

All they have to do is learn Estonian. I can tell you that the Soviets (the Russians) confiscated my great-grandfather's factory and their house in 1945. After independence in the early 90's we had the opportunity to get the house back, but it would have meant kicking out the Russians who live in it now. So they have the house.

Estonia makes it really easy for the diaspora (myself and my sons included) to gain citizenship, thanks to e-government. Given the historical and geopolitical context, I think learning Estonian is reasonable.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:07 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As seemoreglass pointed out, the California voter-lead initiates are a mess. The Economist is not fond of the "citizen legislature" of California, saying it "offers a warning to voters all over the world." There was also an earlier piece on the “initiative industry” that gets people to sign for measures that they don't understand, but are pitched by people earning money per signature.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:07 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It may not be particularly high-tech, but Switzerland is probably the strongest example of direct democracy in action.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:31 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One older book that briefly discusses the possibility of this structure of government is Robert Paul Wolff's In Defense of Anarchism (1970). He argues that it would be possible and desirable to use technology to shift from representative to "instant direct democracy," in which citizens vote on all proposed laws, an idea he defends against several common objections. (This is all in Chapter 2, Appendix. You have to basically replace every mention of television sets and personal voting machines with mobile phones, but the general idea has only become more technologically feasible.)
posted by voltairemodern at 9:48 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Senator Online (I won't link to their home page, but it exists...look at the election results here)
nthing that this is a terrible idea because this:
I agree, pure democracy is probably not a great idea. Because there isn't anything stopping the 51% from voting to eat the 49%. There must be some kind of balance between first principles of freedom and civil rights, and the purity of democratic self-government.

posted by sexyrobot at 9:25 AM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: sexyrobot, why won't you link to Senator Online? Is it widely considered as a bad idea?
posted by Tom-B at 2:53 PM on July 4, 2013

Because so-called 'direct democracy' (aka 'mob rule') is how civil rights get taken away, because who gives a shit about those people amirite? Also any public programs...you know, like schools...um...any services for poor communities, protections for minorities (prop 8 for example), proper government oversight (particularly over big business), etc...and as has been mentioned: see California...things are just crumbling here. The idea sounds good, but in practice is almost always a total train wreck.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:59 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

(as far as why I won't link there? Just dont care to spread their pixels. As you can see from their wikipedia entry, they got less than a tenth of a percent of the vote, for good reason. Wish my fellow Americans were as clever as the Australians)
posted by sexyrobot at 6:03 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Governance Lab has some examples of crowdsourcing legislation from places such as Finland, Iceland, and Russia. Also generally a good website to look for some ideas.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:57 AM on July 5, 2013

Best answer: Not yet mentioned: New England small town governance is pretty open and participative, though not necessarily technological. All authority rests in the voters themselves, acting as the Town Meeting. A Select Board is elected to carry out town business between Town Meetings. All Selectboard meetings are open and on the record, with a few exceptions for personnel matters etc. In many towns, Selectboard meetings, other committee meetings, and Town Meetings are broadcast live on community access cable TV channels. Reports, minutes, etc. are open records (with the aforementioned exceptions), often fully accessible online. Phone numbers and email addresses of the selectboard and other town officials are openly accessible. Plus, you run into them at the general store, the library, the post office, etc. It has its flaws, but it's pretty damn good and has been working since the 1600s.
posted by beagle at 3:05 PM on July 5, 2013

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