Monday, July 05, 2010

Does the Internet Enable Direct Democracy?

The Fourth of July holiday is an appropriate moment to explore the idea that the Internet has enabled direct democracy, at least at the local and state levels, a move which would reduce the concentrations of power that currently dominate American politics.

At the founding of the Republic, time and distance made a representative democracy the only possible choice. The ancient Greek model of democracy exemplified by Athens rested on a favorable geography: the landed citizenry who could vote owned and worked farms within relatively short distances of Athens, and thus they could make their way to the city on foot.

Please see The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization for more on the non-urban-Elite voters of Athens.

In the foundling United States, distances were vast and travel slow. There was simply no way for citizens to reach a polling place often enough to render decisions, and no way to dissiminate information rapidly enough to offer an opportunity for an informed opinion.

The Internet has effectively destroyed time and distance obstacles to direct democracy.

Technological innovation has spread far faster than institutional innovation since the 1800s. Institutions gather fiefdoms, Elites, constituencies and cultural attachments which resist change and adaptation except in times of extraordinary tumult and disorder.

We are in the first stages of just such a time, and thus it is timely to ponder what sort of radical institutional changes are now technically possible even if they are as yet politically "impossible."

Representative democracy has an enduring fatal flaw: the small body of representatives can be "captured" by highly concentrated centers of wealth and power. Ironically, the rise of mass media has had a perverse effect on the process of getting elected to public office: in order to afford the "media buys" needed to reach a mostly disinterested citizenry (less than half bother to vote in the U.S.), the candidates must raise vast sums of money.

This gives the Power Elites the lever they need to effectively "buy" the candidates' attention and loyalties.

One of the themes of the Survival+ critique is that extreme concentrations of power act as positive feedback loops: when their power reaches a certain threshold, they are able to cancel out any counteracting forces and thus add to their power. As a result, their wealth and influence becomes more concentrated and their control of the poltical agenda and process becomes stronger, which feeds and protects their perquisites, tax breaks, income streams and political power.

As they ceaslessly work to protect their fiefdoms, then adaptation, evolution and innovation are stymied, leading to economic and institutional stagnation. Phony "reforms" which leave their power intact are trumpeted in the corporate media while armies of lobbyists craft legislative bills which run to the thousands of arcane pages, as there are now many fiefdoms, Elites and power centers to feed and protect.

Direct democracy would force these extreme concentrations of power to persuade the wider circle of voting citizens, a much more difficult task than buying a few hundred legislators.

This is not that farfetched. Even now, the vast majority of meaningful legislation in California comes from the propositions which are placed on the ballots by lobbies and special interests for direct votes by the citizenry, who must ferret out cui bono--who benefits from this becoming law? Most self-serving propositions placed on the ballot by special interests are wisely rejected by voters.

That this process has become dominant shows that the state government in California is so supremely, systemically dysfunctional that the representative democracy of the Legislature has been reduced to a body whose only task is dividing up the tax revenues amongst the various fiefdoms who own the legislators.

Now that the state faces a $19 billion gap between revenues and expenses, this process has been disrupted; now we are in the era that I call internecine conflict between Protected Elites as the prison guard union, the teachers union, the public safety complex, the corporate interests and all the other fiefdoms which spend huge sums buying legislators must fight for their share of a shrinking pie.

What if the voters were empowered to have a direct say in their own taxes and in how those taxes were spent?

Defenders of representative democracy claim that the citizenry is not up to the task, and that "professional" staffers, lobbyists and legislators are uniquely competent to sort out the complexities.

I think California shatters this defense completely, and offers evidence that the opposite is true: that "professional" staffers, lobbyists and legislators are uniquely qualified to destroy the state. Quite honestly, the citizenry could not do worse even if they set out to do so.

The idea that the "crowd" may be collectively wiser than an Elite has recently gained some attention: The Wisdom of Crowds and Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business.

The decay of the two-party system was addressed in Running On Empty: How The Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It.

There are practical concerns, of course, such as security. The Power Elites would naturally be drawn to "gaming the system" via voter fraud, but there are ways of configuring Internet voting which would make mass voter fraud difficult.

For instance, I pay my quarterly state income taxes via the Internet and check my tax withholding account via a system which asks for line 19 (for example) of my 2008 tax return. A fraudulent vote scheme would need to access my tax return in order to place a vote in my name.

How easy would this be? What safeguards could be put in place? Is this an insoluable problem? I would say no.

The "insoluable problem" is the capture of representative democracy by extreme concentrations of power and wealth.

The critique of "crowdsourcing" systems like Yelp! (consumer reviews of services, restaurants, etc.) is that those "in the middle" who had an OK experience but nothing to write home about tend not to post reviews, leaving the majority of reviews to extreme partisans who had a wonderful or terrible experience.

These "crowdsourcing" venues also tend to be dominated by reviewers who post huge numbers of reviews; supposedly about 95% of Amazon reviewers have posted less than 10 reviews.

These factors will probably play out in Web-based direct democracy as well. Partisans (often those dependent on getting a share of government swag) will vote while those without a stake in the game or middling opinions will not bother to vote. But how is this any different that representative democracy, in which candidates pander slavishly to various partisan groups?

The entire point is to reduce the influence of concentrations of wealth and power.Right now, legislators are beholden to small constituencies who fund their campaigns, and who hold the threat of financing an opponent's campaign next election. This system has led to dysfunction without end and the corruption of democracy.

Perhaps it's time for the institution of democracy to catch up with technology. It may be the only way we have to save democracy from its current devolution to a facsimile of democracy.

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