Technology & participatory democracy?
June 21, 2006 10:10 PM   Subscribe

Why have advances in technology not led to more participatory democracy?

Most western democracies hold elections every few years, with little possibility of citizens exerting any meaningful democratic influence in between.

People are unable to vote for or against specific policies - instead they must choose the party of best fit & accept its entire (stated) platform. Once voted into power, parties often break their election promises & change their policies. They also start pushing agendas that were unannounced at election time.

All of these factors, and more, give me the feeling that "democracy" has very little to do with letting the people actually run their own country, and is more like a system of holding a lottery every few years to decide which bunch of autocrats gets to do virtually whatever it wants.

I am wondering why, with all the promise of modern technology, it would not be possible to have a plebescite on every single initiative? Would this not be true democracy? If so, why does nobody seem to be agitating for it? What are the best & worst possible outcomes?
posted by UbuRoivas to Law & Government (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am wondering why, with all the promise of modern technology, it would not be possible to have a plebescite on every single initiative?

It was possible to do this with pen and paper. The question is whether it is desirable. Most importantly, the question is whether it is desirable to the plutocrats who really run a modern 'representative' 'democracy'. I don't think that, say GlaxoSmithKline or whoever, really want to lobby every schmo around, when the present system works so well for them.
posted by pompomtom at 10:17 PM on June 21, 2006

Why have advances in technology not led to more participatory democracy?

Because governments are socially-constructed institutions and society doesn't change as technology changes. To whatever extent they happen at all, societal changes lag far behind technological changes.

I am wondering why, with all the promise of modern technology, it would not be possible to have a plebescite on every single initiative?


Would this not be true democracy?


If so, why does nobody seem to be agitating for it?

Because we've never had a true democracy (arguably, no one really has), we're relatively comfortable with our current system (we're fat), and we're afraid of change (see: metric).

What are the best & worst possible outcomes?

Best? Technology magically solves all of our problems.
Worst? Flesh-eating virus slowly and painfully kills everyone.
Realistic? Technology is used to mobilize politically outside of government and put organized pressure (e.g. on government through traditional channels (bribery, threats) without significantly changing the structure of government.
posted by scottreynen at 10:41 PM on June 21, 2006

California has a rather robust system of ballot initiatives (propositions), where it's relatively easy for independent voters to gather enough signatures to place a proposition before the voters. Some propositions are structured such that they even change the state constitution (notable, Proposition 13), or force special elections (which is how Arnold came to power) Most of these propositions are at least backed by state politicians, but in theory, this might be the most people-centered system available in the U.S. ...

That is, if it weren't such a fucking disaster.

The result is that California is essentially ungovernable. Nothing of real value can be done legislatively, because everything can be easily undone and/or twisted out of recognition by a populace that is easily swayed by effective proposition marketing (the aforementioned Proposition 13 was a "taxpayer revolt" that ended up gutting California's education system. Another proposition installed a state lottery to fund education. Gambling ... you know, for kids). Nearly every state-wide election features propositions designed to trump or modify other propositions. Television commercials are a riot, as each side tries to get people to vote "'Yes' on 73, but 'No' on 74."

So it's a republic, not a democracy, because large groups of people are stupid. If it sucks, we can vote the bastards out. Only we don't, because large groups of people are stupid.

Feel free to bang your head on the keyboard now.
posted by frogan at 10:54 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's possible that direct democracy could end up being pretty bad. I mean, if we had a plebiscite the other day it's possible we could have ended up with huge-ass wall along the border. Or something like that. Changes could be implemented too quickly.

Anyway, it certainly could change in the future. Move-on does their 'primaries' online to see who gets their money. It wouldn't surprise me to see more automatic democracy in the future.

There's always been a concern about identity verification with online voting, but I think we've seen that real-life physical voting has all sorts of crazy-ass issues as well.


Honestly what I'd really like to see is some sort of, you know, standard for voting. Like make people take a test or something why should people who don't understand an issue be allowed to have a say in it? It's absurd. Too bad the south ruined the concept with their racist "literacy tests". Oh well.
posted by delmoi at 11:02 PM on June 21, 2006

pompomtom: It was possible to do this with pen and paper.

Possible, yes, but stupendously impractical & expensive, which is why it would take electronic technology to implement regular plebescites. I think the possibilities have only realistically been around for a few years with the penetration of the internet, because even setting up Diebolds or whatever at your local public library would be too much of a burden for most, if voting on every issue is the idea.

I understand that Switzerland has a very direct, vote-on-every-bill model.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:03 PM on June 21, 2006

why does nobody seem to be agitating for it?
Most people really don't care that much. Moreover, even if you did care, there are so many things to vote on, you would have to spend most of your time learning about the issues and then voting on them. The point of electing representatives and employing civil servants is so people don't have to think about this stuff.

What are the best & worst possible outcomes?
best - the citizenry, empowered by their new er... power, decide to spend all their spare time learning about everything, and vote regularly, wisely and without self-interest or prejudice, and all poor people are given a free computer and an hour off work each day to study and vote.

worst - of those few of the citizenry who bother to vote and have the time to invest in voting, the majority vote on important issues they have no comprehension of, largely based on the constant TV ads for/against each option and whatever dumbass internet commentator they happen to read regularly, or just vote randomly because they're drunk/high/insane.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:12 PM on June 21, 2006

Swiss direct democracy at wikipedia. Impressive, though I suppose it helps that their population is only around 7 million, they are (and have been for some time) a very wealthy country, and they have a fairly unique culture which has evolved over centuries.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:21 PM on June 21, 2006

What others have said. Direct democracy was possible with the invention of paper and ink, but it has not been seen as a good idea. Frogan's comments on the California initiative system is superb. The American Founders feared democracy because it did not promise protection for individual rights. Majorities in a democracy could run roughshod over the rights of minorities. The republican form of government is supposed to temper democracy with elements of elite rule, for the good of all.

There is a famous story of Hamilton and (I think) Jefferson being at the same dinner table. Jefferson was holding forth about the wisdom of the people. Finally Hamilton could stand it no more. "Your people, sir, is a great beast," he shot back.
posted by LarryC at 11:22 PM on June 21, 2006

I am wondering why, with all the promise of modern technology, it would not be possible to have a plebescite on every single initiative?

It would.

Would this not be true democracy?

It would.

If so, why does nobody seem to be agitating for it?

It might be fine for homo economicus, or New Soviet Man, or some manner of homo politicus, or if everyone would just stand around the campfire and sing Kumbayah together. It would be a terrible idea as long as humans remain human.

What are the best & worst possible outcomes?

The likeliest outcome is rule by many small, vocal minorities, since most people reasonably enough don't care much one way or the other about most policies.

At best, it would mean that everyone would have to spend lots of time going over jillions of proposals, all the time. This would reduce human welfare by taking that time from activities that people would prefer to engage in.

It's more likely that we'd see "chaos" -- unstructured outcomes, leaping from one alternative to another and never reaching any stable resolution. The reasons for this are complicated but basically boil down to: no matter what has been chosen, there is some alternative that some majority prefers to what we have. And if we get that alternative, there will be some other alternative that beats that. More technically, but probably more useful for googling, there is no point whose win-set is empty.

This is bad. It's also just a reflection (sort of) of a larger problem. At a fundamental level, each and every possible way of making decisions that bind everyone is horrible and awful. Ken Arrow got a Nobel for proving this mathematically. Some versions of the proof are very accessible -- it boils down to first demonstrating that dictatorship over one choice can metastasize into other dictatorship over other choices as well and then to all choices, and then demonstrating that there is always someone who is a dictator over some choice.

One of the ways that actual polities avoid chaos problems is by imposing large amounts of structure and process on the decision-making process. This eliminates many possible alternatives and makes stable policy choices possible; we usually call it structure-induced equilibrium. Direct voting over alternatives in the relatively structure-free way you describe would take us closer to chaos.

I'd swear I've read of *somewhere* that voted in two contradictory initiatives or referenda at the same time, but it's late and I'm way too lazy to find them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:59 PM on June 21, 2006

There is still, in some New England towns, in the form of town meeting, a functioning direct democracy at the local level. Not that direct democracy doesn't have its hellaciously awkward moments, such as when the warrant item for the police chief's salary comes up for discussion...
posted by paulsc at 12:23 AM on June 22, 2006

I guess part of the problem is the unspecified assumption that 'perfect democracy' is a good thing.
posted by wilful at 12:46 AM on June 22, 2006

"I am wondering why, with all the promise of modern technology, it would not be possible to have a plebescite on every single initiative? Would this not be true democracy? If so, why does nobody seem to be agitating for it? What are the best & worst possible outcomes?"

Hi. You're talking about the tension between liberalism and democracy, the (in my humble) central question in Western political science today.
On the one hand, you've got folks like Pericles and the Athenians who argued (at least in theory, as citizenship was drastically curtailed) that broad democracy was the best possible way of organizing a state. You'll find this throughout populist writings and used to justify circular proposals like Rousseau's "General Will." On the other hand, you've got folks like Plato and Hobbes, who think that democracy is essentially a bunch of yobbos lynching and pillaging.
Since Athens was the closest thing to a pure democracy ever, it can be helpful to look at some reasons why writers have decided that democracy mediated is nice enough, but the straight stuff is for jerks and kneebiters.
The first reason is that democracy is inherently unstable. Sometimes, that's good for a country. In times of peace, a bit of instability allows for the jettisoning of stupid traditions and general upheaval to make the society match the desires of the people governed. Other times, like when facing an external threat, that's terrible. You don't want your strategies on the battlefield constantly second-guessed by Monday morning QBs. Further, in general, people tend to like safety and stability. It allows them to think about things that make them happy, like owning stuff and fucking.
The second reason is that it's hard to keep people interested. The biggest sign of decline in Athenian democracy to many contemporary writers (like Aristophanes) was the necessity of giving everyone who voted one obol (a fairly decent sum). When things are going well, people tend to focus on things they like more, like owning stuff and fucking. This makes long-term planning hard, and the more democratic a system, the more reactive it tends to be. But if we had to have informed opinions on every budgetary bill that goes through our legislatures, most people would tune out rather than bothering to slog through the mountains of intentionally obscuritanious legalese.
The third reason is that democracies are majoritarian (though occasionally super-majoritarian), which means that they don't respect individual rights. Granted, if implimented in this country there would be a constitutional check on the powers of the plebescite, but folks in California have shown us that this doesn't necessarily make for good policy (see: Immigration).
The fourth reason that many theorists stand against things like this is that democracies are stupid. This reason goes back to the "original sin" of democracy, and ties into the third reason; killing Socrates was symptomatic of how democracies would murder minds that stood above the mob. But you'll have a hard time finding anyone who considers the average person all that intelligent (even dumb people think they're smarter than average), and that's pretty indicative of a central prejudice (justified or not) against direct democracy. Arguments like "they're easily swayed" fall under this rubric.
In theory, our Representatives are supposed to be common folk who take the job for only a little while, until they can return to their farming. Senators are supposed to be above average folks who keep us from doing stupid shit that will harm us in the long run. Plebescite government would eliminate their influence. Either way, the business of government is so complex now that few common people really can invest the time and energy required to understand it to the capacity necessary for good governance. Arguably, the elected officials we have are largely in the same boat.
And granted, there are serious systemic distortions in how our government runs now, and a reform is necessary to get it running well again. However, when faced with the idea of my neighbors voting on things like gay marriage, tax cuts and health care, I'll take the crooks I elected.
posted by klangklangston at 3:09 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's not that hard to join a political party and gain a little more influence that way. Representative democracy provides stability and gives enough power to the people that we don't need to keep having civil wars, which is arguably the main benefit.

I live in the UK... the idea of immigration and asylum policy (to give one example) being decided by direct democracy is frankly terrifying.
posted by teleskiving at 5:23 AM on June 22, 2006

Yeah, if you have direct democracy, what you basically have is policy being decided by tabloid newspapers and the great mass of reactionary 'public opinion'. You'll end up with public hangings for pedophiles, or something.

From a technological standpoint, also, the technology isn't there. An online voting system accessed from home computers would be very prone to people stealing passwords and such, not to mention that it would disenfranchise people who lack computers or Internet access (generally poor people).
posted by reklaw at 5:37 AM on June 22, 2006

The Burkean tradition of liberalism is that our representatives don't have to be responsive to our whims. As he said in reply to a consitutent when he was campaigning for re-election:

I did not obey your instructions. No. I conformed to the instructions of truth and Nature, and maintained your interest, against your opinions, with a constancy that became me. A representative worthy of you ought to be a person of stability. I am to look, indeed, to your opinions,—but to such opinions as you and I must have five years hence. I was not to look to the flash of the day. I knew that you chose me, in my place, along with others, to be a pillar of the state, and not a weathercock on the top of the edifice, exalted for my levity and versatility, and of no use but to indicate the shiftings of every fashionable gale.

posted by patricio at 6:25 AM on June 22, 2006

Because most western democracies are representative democracies. They are based on the idea that the people vote in a representative who acts as their voice in the government and executes their will in the process. There is one fundamental flaw in a representative democracy, though: you get a government that is representative of the democracy. In other words, if you let stupid, irrational people vote in representatives, you get stupid, irrational people as the representatives. The obvious solution to the flaw, then, is to educate people so they can make intelligent decisions as to who their representative should be.

Ever wonder why the educational system in the US is on such a downslide?
posted by Spoonman at 6:41 AM on June 22, 2006

Democracy relies on an informed public, which it patently isn't. Unless/Until you fix that problem, there's little point worrying about how direct the democracy is.

As many have pointed out in this thread, democracy is broken in some pretty interesting ways already and I think that a more direct democracy would make some of them worse (vote splitting, inconsistency of policies, marketing-driven policies, etc, etc).

On the assumption you're an USAnian and want to improve the system, you need to look into preferential voting systems (like we have in AU), reforming campaign finance, binning the electoral college and making voting compulsory. Those 4 things (in that order) would make a much greater improvement to your democracy than more directness.
posted by polyglot at 7:08 AM on June 22, 2006

Imagine if every spam message was some political message that needed your attention (and fast, and direly). That's direct democracy.

You'd never get anything done. You wouldn't be able to keep up with the torret of information, changes, research, propaganda, news, edits, re-edits, un-edits, to every piece of legislation.

That's why we hire people (hopefully good people), who have a staff of researchers, to to it for us.

It's true that everything is fucked up. Direct democracy is not the answer that you think it is though.
posted by zpousman at 7:43 AM on June 22, 2006

Tangential thought: Maybe changes in technology have led to a more participatory society, but through the economy rather than the government. Every time you spend money you vote for the type of society you want. Big box stores, urban sprawl, and SUVs, or local merchants, walkable communities, and bicycles? Cable TV or board games? Porn or no porn? And society is shaped by millions of individual decisions. we never call this "democracy," but shouldn't we?
posted by LarryC at 8:29 AM on June 22, 2006

As has been stated, direct democracy is one of those things that, like communism to me, sound really great in theory.

My ideal system combines public funding (so everyone has a shot), proportional representation (so the legislature closely reflects the electorate) and long electoral terms with no recall ( >4 years, so legislators can make unpopular decisions without fear of being thrown out in a knee-jerk reaction).
Basically, the system described in the question is correct in theory, it's merely poorly implemented. Politics should be very sensitive to public opinion at election time, then we should leave legislators alone to do their jobs and when election time comes back around we should toss the ones who aren't doing well.

Oh and one geeky electoral systems comment to polyglot.
The US does need a preferential electoral system but only one like the Tasmanian state and ACT local elections. The federal House system merely reinforces a two party system (no, National are not a party they're just a faction of the Liberals, BTW what a funny name for a party). The Senate system is excessively complex. Also, compulsory voting is not the solution, the solution is a vote that actually matters so people actually want to show up.
posted by Octaviuz at 8:40 AM on June 22, 2006

Washington state has an initiative system much like California's. The result is that the populace sometimes votes for a new program (e.g. road improvements) in one election and then a couple years later votes for a "tax reduction" initiative (usually proposed by Tim Eyman) that does away with the tax added to fund the program they already voted for. To paraphrase Dilbert, what people want is robust government programs for free.

Now a libertarian would say that what the people are really voting for when they vote for such initiatives is reduction in spending in other areas to fund the programs they previously voted for, but the reality is, the legislature puts together a budget based on expected revenues and then has the rug yanked out from under them and the result is always a huge kerfuffle.

(Another guy started an initiative to allow the state's voters to officially declare Tim Eyman a horse's ass, but it didn't make the ballot due to legal challenges. Apparently the state courts considered this proposed initiative a mockery of the initiative process, which is ironic considering many view Eyman's initiatives the same way.)

The other problem is that the bar for iniatives is high enough that it takes money to get one on the ballot, so they are almost always brought forward by the wealthy and/or by well-funded special interest groups rather than ordinary citizens with an idea.
posted by kindall at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2006

What a bunch of well-argued, erudite answers! It would be unfair to mark any as best.

Maybe the idea of a vote on *every* initiative was over the top, but I still wonder why things cannot be more participatory, and what would be the best model to achieve this? Certainly, the California & Washington approach of citizens' initiatives sounds like hell. Perhaps something more like a citizens' veto (along the Swiss model) could do the trick...? The main point of the question might have been "how to curb governmental excesses between elections?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:32 PM on June 22, 2006

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