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When it comes to democracy, we may not be headed in the right direction

In the early days of the internet, the technology was seen as having a democratizing influence, with communication tools put in the hands of many rather than a few. It was viewed as a democratizing influence, giving a voice to those previously marginalized, with everybody having the same space on the platform (well, everybody with access to the technology, that is).

A generation later, we know that’s not really the case. As with much of our society, the internet is largely controlled by large corporate interests. Even so-called social media is little more than a propaganda vehicle aimed at separating people from their money through ever-more personal marketing.

Is it possible to turn the tide? The first order of business is to declare as illegal much of what the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter do, applying the same stringent privacy controls on every company using online tools. That’s the easy part – or would be easy if politicians weren’t bought off by lobbyists. The more difficult task would be turning the technology into something useful for the kind of direct democracy that was envisioned early on in the evolution of the worldwide web.

Given the increasingly undemocratic nature of governments globally, even in the ersatz democracies of the West, anything that provides us with a more representative democracy is a good idea. By that I mean democracy that represents the will of the people, as opposed to our system of representative democracy wherein we elect a few people to make decisions in our name. That’s a system that’s clearly showing some strain.

Only the most partisan among us would agree we’re well governed: from the autocratic financial mismanagement in Ottawa and Queen’s Park right on down through regional and local governments, we’re hardly getting full value, yet alone anything resembling true representation.

That’s true not just of the incumbents – though there’s much left to be desired – but a reality of what we’ve allowed our form of democracy to become.

Complaining about government typically trumps discussing the weather as the great Canadian pastime. Would those of us with a litany of complaints be prepared, however, to do something about it? I’m thinking in particular of reforms that would move our democracy closer to the form practiced in ancient Greece, the foundation upon which resides the West’s complex and often dysfunctional (see America, United States of) democratic system.

Instead of elections, we could have a form of direct democracy, in which every citizen entitled to vote would get to have a say in how things are run. Unworkable? Perhaps, especially at the federal and provincial levels, but more probable at the local level – Athens, after all, had upwards of 60,000 eligible participants at one time, far more than in the townships.

Or we could use an allotment system, whereby names are drawn in a lottery system, something akin to jury duty. With a significant number of representatives, numbering dozens or even hundreds, this would be more wieldy than having thousands of people out to vote on policy – online voting of this magnitude is certainly not ready for primetime.

The Greeks saw selection by lottery as more democratic, as it eliminates electioneering and removes money, class, popularity (especially important in this era of the cult of personality) and a host of other issues from the agenda in picking leaders. On the downside, critics argue, you might not get the best and brightest out to serve. Who, however, would argue that’s currently the case? And, with a large enough group, it all evens out in the end.

Of course, there are issues with essentially compelling people to serve as politicians: most of us are much too busy to even pay adequate attention to political matters, let alone take time out from our schedules to serve in government.

The fact that government has deteriorated to its current state is testament to what happens when we disengage from politics, ironically. In giving the power to a few elected officials and overzealous bureaucrats, we have politicians who make themselves unaccountable for their actions, civil servants pursuing pet projects and pestering of citizens in equal measures and unchecked corporatism.

Tales of corruption and boondoggles have abounded – and those are just the ones we know about – in such numbers as to give lie to “representative” democracy. They scream for more direct forms of democracy, including referenda and plebiscites – we’d not have our regional transit boondoggle if the people had their say instead of being saddled with poor “representatives,” for instance.

Those in power – those officially so and those pulling the strings – won’t cede control easily. The public will have to take it. Communication technology theoretically provides the means to exercise direct control, though only if it widens the disingenuous public consultation farce we see from governments today: so few people participate as to not only render it undemocratic, but the process opens the door to the tyranny of the minority while providing cover to officials bent on circumventing the public will.

Aiding in the status quo are those who argue people are too stupid, ignorant and bigoted to make decisions for themselves – people point to supporters of Donald Trump and a growing number of demagogues and authoritarians in Europe, for example.

It’s true we’d be hard-pressed to have real democracy in which a majority of the population voted on all matters of import – from budgets to imposing controls and judicial retribution on overreaching politicians and bureaucrats – but that’s what would be necessary to have democracy in the Athenian way.

A return to such a state is the premise of Canadian-Irish academic Rosyln Fuller’s 2019 book In Defence of Democracy, which counters the arguments of academics and think tanks suggesting the people are too stupid to rule themselves. Those making the rules today have an interest in downplaying if not outright ridiculing anything that would change the situation: oligarchs and monied elites want nothing to do with being removed from power.

As such, Fuller notes that  “in our democracy to date there has been a split between the ideology of equal participation and the practical reality of elites running the show: the political elites drafted and voted on laws; media elites decided which stories to publish; financial elites determined which candidates and parties to back.”

Countering the undemocratic status quo, direct democracy methods such as referendums, citizens’ initiatives, agenda initiatives, and recall votes, reinforce the fundamental principle of democratic self-governance, provide a check on the tendency of representatives to become disconnected from their electors, and can enhance the popular legitimacy underpinning key political decisions. 

We’re a long way from Athens.

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