Ask any futurist a decade ago what the coming years would hold and they were liable to mention remote work and online conferencing. Ask those interested in finance and you would have heard about universal basic income long before Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend became the talk of dinner tables. But one topic has habitually been ignored when we talk about the future, and that is the future of democracy.
Back when the Founding Fathers were drafting the American Constitution, Bolivarian forces were battling their way across South America, and the power of British monarchs to act against parliament was gradually dwindling to nil, both the ideal and mechanics of democracy were limited. It is hard to imagine James Madison or Simón Bolívar agreeing with the modern democratic ideal of ‘ordinary people’ directly participating in politics en masse, but even if they had agreed with such a goal, implementing it would have been nigh-well impossible in an era of huge territorial States and limited communication.
Thus, rather than facilitating mass participation, the systems we think of as ‘democratic’ today were intentionally constructed to create bottlenecks and react lethargically.The idea was that this would inhibit both factionalism and pandering to the whims of the masses. While some systemic exclusions have since been rectified (extending the franchise to non-propertied persons, for example), the attitude persists in some circles that ‘proper’ political decision-making should be painstakingly slow and unrewarding; that new, useful ideas should not be implemented until they become safe, obsolete ideas; that real ‘politics’ consists of endless, petty intrigue, rather than substantive issues.
Commenters often view these as the unavoidable and also ultimately unconcerning consequences of ‘democracy’. However, the truth is that they are rooted in deep structural problems. When I wrote Beasts and Gods five years ago, no one knew that Donald Trump would become the next President of the USA – but the book detailed how statistical skewing can lead to a candidate who loses the popular vote winning an election. The deep polarization that now affects politics was also yet to come – but one of the main points of the work was how a vicious electoral competition can trip off frenzied disputes that often only end with the political (and sometimes real) death of one side.
Despite having foreseen many of the most relevant ‘problems’ of democracy today, my ideas on how to fix our political system – that is to transfer to a mass, digital democracy – tend to be greeted with terms like ‘radical’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘anarchic’, although for obvious reasons, I prefer the more flattering ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘prescient’ (bestowed courtesy of Amazon and Twitter). A point that has been made to me repeatedly is how fast, flexible, direct decision-making, that does not require face-to-face contact is (allegedly) nothing short of mayhem. This despite the fact that Estonia has voted online in elections for over a decade and that huge participatory budgeting exercises in Paris and Iceland allow for online participation.
In early February, I was still baffling authorities with my vision of a digitally-facilitated democracy that could work quickly and be easily extended to include ‘ordinary’ citizens in decision-making. Mere weeks later, as COVID-19 racks up to over a million worldwide infections, lawmakers are demanding the ability to debate and vote from home – for themselves.
If one does not need to be physically present to debate and vote on a measure, one of the key reasons as to why we have representative, rather than direct, democracy falls away. The only reason that then remains for the lack of mass participation is the elitist argument that ordinary people are not capable of political decision-making.
Back in the day of Madison and Bolívar, the first reason to favour representative over direct participation obviated the need to really dig into the second one. Today’s elites have a bigger conundrum on their hands, especially since, unlike our forefathers, they’ve spent so much time saying how much they like democracy and ‘ordinary people’.
Some might say that a crisis like COVID-19 isn’t the best time to start experimenting with democracy, and indeed legislatures remain well behind the curve, talking over Zoom and scanning in their votes to email, presumably in an effort to get that onerous fax machine feeling going. I have no doubt mistakes will be made, some of them serious. But six weeks ago, most of them would have happily claimed that what they are doing now is impossible. As it turns out – where there is a will, there is a way.
And the last civilization to create a mass, direct democracy – classical Greece – did so in rather haphazard stages in the midst of all manner of crises. Indeed, many people have theorized that national emergencies, with their inherent pressures for equality, solidarity, and efficiency, but also meaningful meritocracy and self-initiative, are the cradle of democracy. These are the times, after all, when it suddenly seems imperative to replace traditions that have outlived their usefulness with new, more appropriate customs. The ancients didn’t let their crises go to waste – we shouldn’t let ours now.