Democracy 2.0, Part I

The basic principle of democracy is self-governance. Everyone in a democracy has an equal right to participate in the decisions that affect us all. Though it is customary to think of this principle as applying to our own representative democracy, when we cut through the complex web of media coverage, party affiliation, ideologies of the left and the right and the thousand other dimensions of the political cacophony, we see the truth: we as a people do not satisfy this most basic criterion of democratic self-governance. But for the first time in history we have the means to close the great gap between our democratic principles and our lived democracy, with profound consequences that we can only begin to imagine.

Political rule falls along a spectrum that runs from a single person having all political power, an absolute monarchy, to a direct democracy with all persons participating in every political decision, something that only ancient Greece has ever remotely approximated. Along the spectrum between the two are versions of oligarchy, rule of the few, and representative democracy, rule by elected officials. Although representative democracy would seem to provide for equal participation, in fact the movement from direct democracy to representative democracy creates a great gap, a disconnect between those who vote and those who rule, that is filled all too often by people with money, power and influence.

Think about the amount of time that so many of us spend keeping up with news, talking about issues and expressing opinions in small groups. Now ask yourself: does it matter? Yes, it is important, vitally important. But moving from what we read to what we discuss to how we vote, we lose almost all of our personal, relative influence in the day-to-day governing decisions. We simply follow and discuss politics way out of proportion to our ability to directly influence decision-making, while those with money, power and influence enjoy a grossly disproportionate ability to shape policy. Moreover, what the media reports is necessarily limited and distorted, leaving officials to make decisions and enforce policies largely outside of the public view or understanding.

The implications of this observation, though vast, have all but vanished from our political discourse. My thinking about this subject only began when I found a little book called “Manifesto of Real Democracy,” written by someone under the pen name of Democrates. For Democrates, monarchism, oligarchy and representative democracy are but three names for the same political system – rule by the few – under different guises. For that writer, the few who wield power in today’s representative democracies have deliberately blurred the line between our representative system and a direct democracy, in order to retain power for themselves while leaving us to believe that we share power equally through our representatives. Though Democrates’ powerful little book changed forever the way I view our political system, for me it is not so important why the line has blurred, nor is it so vital to achieve that writer’s ideal of real democracy.

The reason for this is that the great gap between direct democracy and representative democracy is no longer beyond our power to bridge. Though we may never have direct democracy, we can and will develop what I would call virtual democracy, a form of shared power not so radical as real or direct democracy but with the promise of a government exponentially more direct than the representative democracies dotting the globe today. We live at the dawn of the information age: we can now follow events in real time, via Twitter, Facebook, online news sources, government and education-sponsored websites and countless other technologies we have at our disposal. What is missing, and what we need, is a clean, orderly, interactive way of linking our online news coverage to the policies that are the subject of the news and the officials who are responsible for those policies. When we have created an online virtual forum in the spirit and manner of the direct democracies of Ancient Greece, our politics, though still representative, will be driven much more directly by the people.

This is democracy 2.0. It is the practice of ordinary people actively engaging in the political system, using online resources to learn about, comment about and make judgments about the laws and policies currently before their local, state and federal officials. For any given issue of public life, democracy 2.0 requires a set of direct online links, from media sources to proposed legislative bills, to the committee meetings about the bills and the compromises to finalize them, to their presentation to the executive for signing or veto, to the administration and execution of the laws and to court decisions interpreting them. It requires direct online communication between the people and their elected officials, in real time – a dynamic process whereby officials work with their constituencies as they propose, negotiate, pass, enforce and interpret the laws. It also requires links to publicly available data bearing on our laws and public policies as they are formulated and after they are implemented. In short, democracy 2.0 will leverage information technology to collapse the gap between the people, the media and our public officials, so that all may directly and actively participate in our collective self-governance.

A move to democracy 2.0 will require an online infrastructure that does not now exist, but which we can build with the technologies now at our disposal. But it will require – and usher in – new ways of perceiving and experiencing our democracy and our society. Though it is impossible to see where democracy 2.0 can take us, we can anticipate some of the profound and inevitable changes it would bring, which will be the subject of Part Two.

 

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