Can a new App save Democracy?
According to recent opinion polls, most Europeans do not trust their politicians. Nor do they believe that their voice actually counts (European Commission 14-19). In the last years, citizens expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, as the frightening success of right-wing populist parties shows. That is an alarming development taking place across Western countries. Nevertheless, it is somehow unsurprising: Representative Democracy – our current political system – was hardly adopted over the past 150 years, although societies grew immensely in population and complexity. The questions arise: How can democracy by modernized? And what role can New Media play?
Political activists in Australia promote a new app that aims to strengthen the citizen’s influence on policy-making. How does that work? “MiVote” notifies citizens via their Smartphones whenever new debates are up for discussion in their parliament. It provides information packages that help them to make up their minds about the issue. Then, it invites citizens to vote on the app and eventually, it published the results within 36 hours. MiVote will run as a political party for the next elections. Remarkably, it will not have positions of its own, since it promises to vote on each issue alike the majority of its app users.
MiVote proceeds the experiments of similar movements, the first of which emerged in Sweden in 2006. Today, their NGO Pirate Parties International (PPI) has members from 43 countries who gained seats in local, national and European parliaments (Blum and Zuber 2). Mostly known is the German “Pirates” party. In 2010, it introduced the software “Liquidfeedback” for intra-party decision-making processes. Thus, the Pirates enabled discussions among large member groups, the possibility to suggest opinions, and ensured a vote for each of its members.
The conceptual background of these movements was developed in the early 2000s and became known as “Liquid Democracy” (also as “e-Democracy” or “Proxy Democracy”). The aim was to apply the ancient model of Direct Participation to today’s industrialized societies. Liquid Democracy combines direct democratic participation and the option for citizens to delegate their votes to another person. However, as its major characteristic – distinctive from Representative Democracy – one can delegate his or her votes issue-specific to different persons, or take it back at any time.
Thus, Liquid Democracy addresses two major aspects of democracy that famous scholars formulated over the last decades: First, Barber promoted a “Strong Democracy”, which calls for direct means of participation for citizens. He points out the limitations of Representative Democracy, as parliamentarians usually enjoy a more privileged life than the citizen they are supposed to represent. Second, Habermas has put forward the idea of “Deliberative Democracy”, which asks for the creation of a Public Sphere – a sphere where citizens discuss and exchange ideas to make up their mind about politics.
Addressing these fundamental issues makes MiVote highly topical. Although, the app will only be out at the end of the year, the founder explains in an interview to have requests from 22 other countries. The questions to answer will be, how citizens will react to this app and whether they will actually vote the MiVote party into parliament. Additionally, all the enthusiasm associated with direct democracy should not result in underestimating dangerous side-effects: Promoting the “will of the people” as the founders suggest, is a concept first introduced by Rousseau, called the “Volonte Generale”. Having certainly good intentions, Rousseau’s concept was misused by several totalitarian regimes. So, there is more to democracy than doing what the majority wants.
Technology vs. Democracy
The entire debate about technology and democracy is similarly double-sided. On the one hand, New Media “enriched the lives of billions by giving them access to knowledge, communication and networking” as the Cambridge Center for Digital Knowledge points out. For instance, it fostered democracy during the Arab Spring. Social Media enabled unhindered flow and exchange of information that was previously suppressed, since mass media is normally under state-control (Howard and Hussein 4).
On the other side, Foreign Policy Journalist Carothers believes the world is not much more democratic than before New Media made its influence. Interviewing six experts on political change, he concludes three possible explanations: “First, it’s too soon to see the full effects. Second, the positive potential effects are being partially outweighed or limited by other factors, […] And third, technology does not solve some basic challenges of democracy building, above all, stirring citizens to engage in collective action and the establishment of effective representative institutions.” Another interesting argument is that New Media fosters habit of squeezing every information into short statements, which might lead to extremism and superficiality (Harari). Regarding the variety of opinions on democracy and technology, one can only say for MiVote, that time will tell, where we are going.
Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. University of California Press, 2003. First published in 1984.
Blum, Christian and Zuber, Christina Isabel. Liquid Democracy: Potentials, Problems, and Perspectives. Journal of Political Philosophy, May 2015. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://christinazuber.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Blum-Zuber_Liquid-Democracy.pdf>
Can Direct Democracy Be Revived Through New Voting Apps? An Interview with MiVote founder Adam Jacoby. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <https://www.fastcoexist.com/3063379/can-direct-democracy-be-revived-through-new-voting-apps>
Carothers, Thomas. “Why Technology Hasn’t Delivered More Democracy”. ForeignPolicy. Published: June 3, 2015. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/03/why-technology-hasnt-delivered-more-democracy-democratic-transition/>
Ford, Bryan. Delegative Democracy Revisited. 2016. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://bford.github.io/2014/11/16/deleg.html>
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The MIT Press; Sixth Printing edition, 1991. First published in 1962.
Harari, Haim. “Technology may endanger Democracy”. Edge. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <https://www.edge.org/response-detail/23835>
Howard, Philip and Hussain, Muzammil. Democracy’s fourth wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford University Press. 2013. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://philhoward.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Democracys-Fourth-Wave-First-3-Chapters.pdf>
MiVote 2016 Retrieved: September 18, 2016.<http://www.mivote.org.au/manifesto>
Piratenpartei revolutioniert parteiinternen Diskurs: Interaktive Demokratie mit Liquid Feedback. PiratenBerlin Press release. Published: January 3, 2010. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <https://berlin.piratenpartei.de/pressemitteilung/pressemitteilung-piratenpartei-revolutioniert-parteiinternen-diskurs-interaktive-demokratie-mit-liquid-feedback/>
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Wordsworth edition 1998. First published in 1762. Standard Eurobarometer 85 – Spring 2016. 2016. European Commission. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/PublicOpinion/index.cfm/ResultDoc/download/DocumentKy/74264>
Technology and Democracy. Cambridge Center for Digital Knowledge. University of Cambridge. Retrieved: September 18, 2016. <http://www.techdem.crassh.cam.ac.uk/>