Democracy 2.0 is coming. It is only a matter of time before we have an online system for participating in the political process that is comprehensive, organized and interactive. We will learn about, debate and track government policies in real time. We will know the positions of our officials on every issue, and their reasons for them, and register our own positions with them. Every time an official acts, she will do so knowing whether her constituents – and the public at large – support or oppose her actions. More importantly, constituents will know whether and why an official has voted against them in every instance. A more direct democracy is coming, and we should try to understand its implications as we watch it unfold. Here are some thoughts on what we may see:
Money in Politics. There is an inherent tension between wealth inequality and democracy. Simply put, a majority will not consistently vote for a system that funnels money into the hands of a few people. As long as a democracy is sufficiently indirect, however, the wealthy and powerful can buy politicians and control the media in order to perpetuate an economy tilted decidedly in their favor.
Democracy 2.0 will sharply curtail this corruption. When an official endorses a policy that tilts the economy unfairly, it will be simple to track the meetings and political contributions of that official for evidence of corruption. Corruption thrives in the shadows, where it is possible to employ indirect and secretive methods to circumvent the democratic process. Democracy 2.0 holds the promise of bringing the political process fully into the light of public discourse, where corruption has nowhere to hide. When we can all see corruption clearly, there will likely be much, much less of it to see.
Media. The media today is a quagmire of information, little of which is news in any real sense. Those in power in America have understood, since at least the run up to World War I, that it takes propaganda, as opposed to violence, to control a population that sees itself as democratic. (See Noam Chomsky’s many writings and lectures on this point). The advertising, marketing, entertainment and media industries in America today are masters at playing on our emotions and manipulating us at an unconscious level. It would be naïve to think that the people who own our news sources would refrain from using these techniques to control the political agenda.
But this kind of propaganda will lose much of its effectiveness when Democracy 2.0 comes online. In order to actively participate in governing it is necessary to read, to think, to discern and to judge. Governing activates the reasoning part of the brain, so the more time we spend in the online forum the less likely we are to fall prey to those who would manipulate our emotions. In “Manifesto of Real Democracy,” written under the pen name of Democrates, the author explains how the act of governing hones our reasoning skills, a virtue of the system with vast implications for our development as a species. A more direct democracy will allow people to circumvent the manipulation of the media in favor of the orderly, reasoned discourse of the online forum.
Education. Education stands to gain the most in the move to Democracy 2.0. The biggest obstacle to more direct control of the government by the people comes from the people themselves, who are leery of giving more power to other citizens they feel are too ignorant to participate responsibly. But this kind of thinking actually gets the causation backwards: people are irresponsible – or seem to be – because they have never been asked to participate in the day to day decisions that affect us all. How differently would we teach our children – all of our children – if we knew that when they grew up they would be actively shaping our public discourse and public policy? Would we not teach them the tools they will need to become responsible citizens? When everyone has an equal right to participate in the online forum, we will radically change our educational system to produce the kind of citizens worthy of a more true democracy.
Economics. Democracy 2.0 holds the promise of a reversal of our present economic policies, which protect corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans. After the crash in 2008 our government bailed out Wall Street while leaving ordinary Americans to fend for themselves, even though it was Wall Street that caused the crisis. Since then corporate profits have soared while we are subject to “austerity” measures to pay back the government that bailed out the banks. Simply put, our political economy protects profits, not people.
The move to Democracy 2.0 will prevent this kind of top down use of our government by powerful interests. The economic policies of 2.0 will flow in the direction of helping ordinary Americans because ordinary Americans will be more directly involved in creating the policies. It does not take the financial savvy of a Wall Street insider to create a cooperative economy that protects people; it only takes that kind of savvy to fleece people with policies that “are necessary to keep America competitive in the global economy.” When we enact economic policies ourselves, they will increasingly protect the interests of the people and not the corporations.
Security and Privacy. Perhaps the most immediate and profound reversal will take place in the area of government spying. Governments spy on their citizens when the interests of the government and the people diverge. Spying is a means of control used by one group against another. When the government for all intents and purposes is the people, its political alter ego so to speak, there will be no need for the current surveillance state.
On the other hand, corrupt officials may find the move to Democracy 2.0 an uncomfortable development. Officials will be subject to scrutiny in all aspects of their public lives. We will need to know about their schedules, their finances, their patterns of accepting donations, their phone calls, their social connections and more, to assure ourselves that they are not corrupt. The life of an official is an inherently public life; in the future much of it will be lived out in the online forum.
As with any impending significant change, some will say that it will not happen, or that it will not work, or that it will be prevented by someone or something, or that it will not change things very much. But every so often life presents us with a game changer, something that allows us to challenge our current paradigm. The Internet presents such a game changer for our democratic system, one that could reverse the flow of political power in a way that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago.