Defending Democracy

What is the political process by which we should achieve the profound changes that are required? We are seeing some leaders emerge in this period of transition who provide simplistic, populist answers to difficult questions, advocating a return to the past. There is a danger around the world, including here in the United States, that we will slide into dictatorship and other forms of autocratic government.

Democracy is the only system of government in which the knowledge loop can function to its full potential. Democracy allows new policies to be tested, with a peaceful transition to another set of policies if they don’t work. As tempting as a quick autocratic fix might seem, we need to figure out what it takes to have a working democracy. Some things seem obvious, such as limiting the influence of money in politics.

Because attention is scarce, it can be bought, either by raising and spending a lot of money, or by doing or saying outrageous things. Neither is good for democracy: the former because it makes candidates beholden to the interests of their backers, and the latter because it results in polarization rather than critical debate.

Going forward, we should experiment with new forms of democracy. Given the complexity of the modern world, I am in favor of specialization and delegated voting. We should explore forms of democracy in which I can delegate my vote to people I trust on specific issues, such as energy policy. These delegates, in turn, would elect a leader for the energy agency based on their proposed policies.

A more extreme version of this, which is worth exploring in the context of the climate crisis, is a so-called ‘citizens’ assembly.’ Citizens would be selected at random from the population to form an assembly and given access to experts in the field. With the experts’ help, they would come up with a plan that is then either implemented right away or put to a vote. This idea recalls Athenian democracy, which relied on the random selection of citizens for various government functions. The advantage of such an approach is that it would shortcut long electoral cycles and allow for policies to be chosen that might not be popular with any one party. For example, Ireland recently successfully used a citizens’ assembly to develop an abortion policy.

These are just two of many possible variations of how democracy can work. With digital technologies, we have options that were not previously feasible. Take, for example, the town of Jun in Spain, which uses Twitter as the primary communication channel between citizens and local government officials (Powers & Roy, 2018). We should start to explore more of these possibilities, and part of that means revisiting the geographic units we use for decision-making. The key principle here is that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. We need to make some decisions globally, such as limiting greenhouse gases, but how we achieve that should be decided at lower levels.

Making decisions at the lowest possible level, a principle known as ‘subsidiarity,’ is especially important during a time of great change. For instance, what is possible in education is changing rapidly due to digital technology, so we should allow experimentation at a local level. By running many small experiments, we can more rapidly figure what works well.

Most of all, we need to reject attempts at dictatorship and autocracy. These effectively disable the knowledge loop because they cannot tolerate freedom of expression—their power is based on suppressing criticism. This is especially dangerous in a time of transition that requires debating and implementing new ideas. There are many ways of defending democracy, starting with the obvious one of voting against would-be dictators. Of course, speaking out against them once they are in power is also crucial, even if it comes at high personal cost. Finally, building and participating in systems that support uncensorable, anonymous or pseudonymous expression is a crucial action to help undermine dictatorships.

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