Democracy is changing

27 Jul 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 27 Jul 2018

Democracy is changing
Democracy is changing

Politics feels increasingly fractious, perhaps irrevocably broken. That is a blinkered view. The only thing that is certain is change, not ruin.

Democracy - which underpins our entire society, and many others around the world - is changing. There is no going back.

Modern politics is extremely disheartening for most people, whatever their beliefs or wishes, with angry discourse and the feeling that, as individuals, we are far away from decisions that are made.

Some of the things that used to make democracy function might be broken, but that does not have to be a bad thing.

It is easy to conflate the idea of fixing something with returning it to a previous, functional state, but a fix can look forward as well as it can look back. Maybe the future, politically, will be better than anything that has gone before.

The cork is out of the bottle; the drink is all over the floor; the bottle is smashed.

Major change, however, requires disruption. That is the view of Roslyn Fuller, a lecturer in international law and founder of the Solonian Democratic Institute, based in Dublin.

Last week, the Solonian Institute hosted the inaugural DemCon, an open "gathering of academics, NGOs, activists, journalists and technologists who understand that we are on the cusp of major changes in how democracy is exercised around the world."

Speakers included Eleonora Evi, from the Five Star Movement in Italy - a political organisation that, over the past decade, has come from almost nowhere to become the largest single party in the country and member of the coalition government - Lionel Dricot, a blockchain consultant, and Paul Braithwaite from NI's Building Change Trust.

Dr Fuller spoke with Scope about how it is possible - but not certain - for democracy to have a brighter, truer future in the digital age and how there is not going back to pre-Millennial politics.

"The problem is that a lot of people who are very deep into politics and related issues are often people who lived through the 70s, 80s and 90s. Often you can hear them exhorting people to go back to that, but they can't understand that we are not going back. That is not going to happen; the basis on which that existed doesn't exist any more."

DemCon is an attempt to have positive and productive discussions about models for democracy that are growing more, rather than less, relevant.

"It was to bring together different people who work on different issues that all come under the umbrella of increasing participatory democracy. For example, participatory budgeting, citizens assemblies, online voting, politicians, blockchain - but all under the umbrella of advancing participatory democracy."


So, what will the future look like, in the short, medium and long terms? Scope put that (unfair and speculative) question to Dr Fuller.

"In the short-term, things will get worse before they get better. There are so many people in positions of power who are absolutely committed to the party political system and they think that, if they try harder and bash the other side a bit better, they will fight the other side off and win, and maybe win forever.

"There is still that commitment to the way things were, on a deep level. Underneath that is growing what is almost a parallel system.

"Medium term: I think we will see elected representatives opening up votes to public input, saying 'I will commit to letting my voters decide on major points of legislation.' That's something I can see coming more into play for the younger generation.

"To some extent, the Citizens' Assembly in the Republic of Ireland is a weaker version of that type of system.

"For example, most people wanted the 8th Amendment to be repealed, for at least the past ten years, but because of the electoral system a lot of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael politicians didn't want to take a stand on it because they would lose X number of votes and would probably lose their seat.

"So, a minority of voters - a sizeable minority, but still a minority - were able to hold sway."

However, she says the fact the issue was such a big one for the Citizens' Assembly - and one with a significant majority calling for change - made it easier for politicians to make it a priority and, ultimately, call the recent referendum.

Five Star

Perhaps a more prescient example comes from Five Star's Eleonora Evi.

Five Star went from zero to 14 million votes in Italy by advocating a platform of direct democracy. They used software to get input from members, and then used that input to form their policies.

Dr Fuller said her speech was a highlight of DemCon.

"I think what was also interesting about Eleonora Evi's speech was that she took us through it, step by step, how this happened. We wanted to get insight from people actually practising new methods, as opposed to just theoretical discussions.

"We are at the dawn of the digital age and of the internet affecting politics. An analogy that is often made is with the printing press, which was invented at the dawn of the Enlightenment - it led to the rise of science, and reason, and the idea of representative democracy. People became more literate.

"Now we have to say that we have another technology, the internet, which is as game changing as the printing press was, in its time. It is entirely possible to ask people what they want - we just haven't done it yet. I think there is a gap, which was not there before, between the possibilities we have and the way our politics is functioning.

"The input isn't translating into the output. We can go on Twitter and can see what people are saying; they can scream and shout but there is no endpoint to that action. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter."

Long term

From this point of view, she says Mr Dricot's presentation was also very valuable. Blockchain is not a widely understood idea. Its broadest recognition probably wraps around BitCoin - and the BitCoin bubble - but its potential has much wider reach.

This includes a properly secure direct democracy, where individual citizens could be plugged into the decision-making process on a near or effectively continuous basis.

This could be the future.

"In the long term, we could have mass participation, mass online voting on issues, and even paid participation.

"The problem at the minute, is that you have to pay to participate. You have to get funding in order to win elections. We are hoping it will be the other way round, people get paid a small amount of money to vote, because it is work."

If that sounds radical, or fanciful, maybe it should be considered in the light of a universal basic income (UBI), a majorly topical policy whereby all citizens (regardless of circumstances) get a regular allocation of funds from the state. This has growing support from all directions (which does not mean it is feasible, or a panacea, but it is being discussed and even trialled in some places). Being paid small sums to perform a civic duty is a tamer policy than UBI.

Old problems

Whether everything works out this well is one thing. The possibilities, however, are extremely enticing.

Modern democracy may feel broken but many of the problems are long standing. Increasing tech has just shone a light on historical flaws.

Dr Fuller says, in general, distance between citizens and where decisions are made creates "points of failure" for the democratic process.

One example is elections themselves. Westminster seats are decided by first past the post. The winner may triumph with a minority of total votes, but still takes forward their whole platform.

Stormont has arguably a more democratic system, with a form of proportional representation, but that is hardly perfect either - and just how happy are the people of Northern Ireland with the Assembly right now.

Even individual votes themselves are a crude mechanism.

"At the minute politics is organised into parties, and when you vote for politicians you are endorsing, de facto, their entire platform. Generally speaking people don't want to do that. They either agree with a few key points or they dislike the other side so much they vote just to keep certain people out of power.

"So a vote doesn't give a lot of information about what people want. We end up, usually, with two big parties socking it out against one another."

She says mass participation, more frequently, allows for far more subtlety - and results that are closer to something resembling consensus.

"For instance, you might be for free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare, and be for water privatisation.

Generally those would be seen as contradictory positions but it doesn't have to be that way, so we could break up the predefined blocks - which is a good thing."

New problems?

One natural question that stems from more direct public involvement in democracy is about expertise.

Many legislative queries are tricky, high on specific detail, and require a lot of work to understand. And, if a single matter is a lot of work, a lot of matters could require an enormous amount of learning.

Dr Fuller says that plugging people into the democratic process will force them to develop a better understand. Greater ownership over decisions will force better understanding. People will have to hold themselves to account - and will be held to account by others - for poor policy.

It would also encourage a more continuous engagement with issues as they develop. Ongoing involvement, over a long period of time, breeds understanding.

At least that is the theory.

Dr Fuller is taking a positive view because she wants to be productive and, clearly, there is huge potential for technology to unlock a purer form of democracy - but nothing is certain.

"If I thought this was a sure thing I would not bother doing this work for a living. I'd be off enjoying myself."

Nevertheless, doom and gloom about the state of politics is not a useful state of mind.

And, the fact remains, there is no going back. All that is to be decided is where the road ahead leads.

"I don't mean to make generalisations but older generations grew up with representative democracy. They tend to be focused in putting the genie back in the bottle. Younger people will probably find it quite strange that they shouldn't be consulted on things - or that the tech that exists shouldn't be used to make decisions.

"Years ago it wasn't possible for people to participate virtually. That was impossible to facilitate. We have a democracy-light version of democracy - but we are in a position now to do these things, a better approximation of pure democracy - or simply actually democracy, as they thought of it in ancient Greece.

"All the change, especially big change, requires a bit period of turbulence and conflict. There will be people who the old system suits, and they tend to be in power, and then there are people who are afraid of change...

"We are living in a dynamic world but a generational change is coming and all the other changes coming will be precipitated by that.

"When change comes, it will come fast."

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