If we can envisage the day when democracy will go from representative to deliberative, i.e. the day when sortition will substitute elections, it’s because in the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign an independent serious candidate named Ross Perot advanced the bold challenge to tradition: if elected, I will not govern with Congress, but with you the American people. On all outstanding issues I, or the members of my Cabinet, will address the Nation through Tv and all available media, detailing terms of problems and prospective solutions: you the citizens, as the Owners of America, will let me know your choice via phone, mail, interactive Tv, any other legal mean. Abolishing Congress it’s too difficult, also cumbersome and controversial. However Senators and Representatives will not dare to disregard the will of the Nation, out of fear of not getting re-elected. Not a sophisticated scheme, but a revolutionary one. Revolutions are never sophisticated.
In 1992 America and the world were impressed. Opinion makers either sounded the grave alarm or applauded. For first time in history, Man in the street was confronted with the choice, experimenting new ways or going along as usual. The latter prevailed of course. Ross Perot, a very successful businessman, was not elected (while winning the same number of votes, more or less, of incumbent president George Bush the Elder -as we said, Perot was a serious candidate. No maverick). However at that time Vice-President Al Gore uttered historic words, better noises, about “forging a new Athenian age of Democracy”. In fact ancient Athens did become the queen of the debate. In the days of Pericles the society that was the Intelligence of the West did practice direct democracy.
The main argument against going back to Athens was that common man, if politically empowered, would not be responsible enough as to resist the influence and propaganda of pressure groups, media, other powers; that man in the street would not be as capable of wisdom as the politicians are. Thus Ross Perot was depicted as a prospective Big Brother exercising control and suasion from the White House. At that time the Big Brother contention supported the predominant theses against deliberative, partially electronic participation. To day, twentytwo years and giant leaps of the technology later, the Big Brother argument is almost dead. Nobody seriously believes any more in the omnipotence of the media masters. Today the consensus, and the evidence, are that the true enemies of direct democracy are tradition, i.e. entrenchment of old habits, and simple inertia. Man in the street doesn’t trust himself enough.
“The Economist” against the old ways
In that context the London weekly Economist started carrying articles and “specials” which frontally opposed the distrust in common man:
“The overdue change is a shift from representative democracy to direct democracy. In the intervals between elections it is representatives who take all decisions. There are three reasons for thinking that this is going to change. One is the growing inadequacy of representative democracy. The voter will be increasingly angry when he discovers how much influence the special-intererst propagandists are now able to wield over parlamentarians. The voter is liable to conclude that direct democracy is better.
“The second reason for thinking there is going to be a change in the way democracy works, is: there is: no longer so much difference, in wealth and education, between voters and their elected representatives. People are better equipped for direct democracy. Third reason: the disappearance of ideology weakens the chief source of opposition to the new sort of democracy- the political parties, who have most to lose.
“Direct democracy works. If democrats have spent much of the 20th Century telling fascists and communists that they ought to trust the people, can they, the democrats, now tell the people themselves that this trust operates only every few years (at elections)?
(…) The question arises: why having elected representatives at all? Will representative democracy prove to be merely intermediate technology, a bridge between the direct voting of ancient Greece and the electronic voting?”.
Back to the dawn of the public discourse on changing democracy. For the rest of the Nineties the emphasis was on the civic use of electronics, in view of the day when the entire population would join the political process. So the key words were “digital politics, cyberpolitics, politics in cyberspace, cyberpower, technology and change, e-democracy”, and, why not, “total overhaul of politics”. As candidate Perot had proposed the phone, the Tv and the computer as instruments of communication between citizens and government, “telephone democracy, call-in Presidency, teledemocracy, democracy on-line, hyperdemocracy” became bywords too. Sortition was not a subject at that time, simply because the distant prospect appeared to be the involvement in government of entire citizenships. Consequently, first priority was not given to the quality of deliberation. Today such quality is paramount, this being the reason why the real dichotomy appears to be elections vs/ sortition.
“The Economist” again: “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”
The first March 2014 issue of the British-American weekly included an additional essay on the malaise of the Western political society. While recommending that the Economist theses are read in their entirety, we shall simply list hereinafter the main formulations.
“Flaws in the system have become worrying visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Democracy’s advance has come to a halt and may even have gone into reverse. Many nominal democracies have slid towards autocracy. Democracy has too often become associated with debt and dysfunction.
“The Internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-Tv votes every week, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy look increasingly anachronistic.
“Cynicism towards politics (is) growing. Party membership is declining: only 1% of Britons are members of political parties, compared with 20% in 1950. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”. Political systems have been captured by interest groups.
“In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, the former German chancellor, pronounced that “Western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it”. The combination of globalization and digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems.
“An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put on an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check. California’s system of direct democracy allows its citizens to vote. Similarly the Finnish government is trying to harness e-democracy. Many more such experiments are needed -combining technocracy with direct democracy”.
In an age when mankind is planning to colonize Mars, or to mine asteroids for metals, it will probably become clear the silliness of electing representatives (in fact lifetime career politicians) the same way the British colonists did three centuries ago in America.
A.M.Calderazzi and Associates of www. Internauta online.com