Across the Western democracies, trust in public institutions and established political parties has all but collapsed because of the inability of governing elites to address popular anxieties and social demands over inequality, immigration, globalization and the upheaval in labor markets caused by the emergent digital economy.
This explosion of discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo has gained broad traction as never before because of the participatory power of social media. It levels the playing field of information among amateurs, professionals and meritocratic experts. As a platform open to all, it challenges the custodianship of elites and even the legitimacy of representative democracy. It heralds a new distribution of power that goes hand in hand with the increasing preference of publics in the West for the direct democracy of referendums and citizens initiatives. We’ve seen the Greek referendums and Brexit. Populist movements and parties from the Netherlands and France to Italy are all proposing referendums on the EU as they move closer to power.
If the average citizen can know as much as those who would govern them, and are governing them badly, who needs governing institutions? Why can’t the disgruntled public just make decisions on its own?
As the revered former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso put it in the wake of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, "At the core of this crisis [of representative democracy] is the widening gap between people's aspirations and the capacity of political institutions to respond to the demands of society. It is one of the ironies of our age that this deficit of trust in political institutions coexists with the rise of citizens capable of making the choices that shape their lives and influence the future of their societies."
Yet, the same medium that so effectively transmits a howling message of change also undermines the ability to make it. Social media amplifies the human tendency to bind with one’s own kind. It reduces complex social challenges to mobilizing slogans that reverberate in echo-chambers of the like-minded rather than engage in persuasion, dialogue and the reach for consensus. The body politic is serially divided among itself. Polarization rigidifies. Paralysis and gridlock sets in. Authoritarian and strongman alternatives start to look attractive as the way to create order out of chaos.
This was the experience of the Egyptian Arab Spring, as Wael Ghonim has now concluded.
“I once said, ‘If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.’ I was wrong. I said those words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I anonymously created helped spark the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart. We failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization. Social media only amplified the polarization by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”
The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. -Wael Ghonim
The ever-Tweeting Donald Trump and his campaign in the U.S. are not so pale a shadow of this experience.
The Paradox of Governance in the Digital Age
The paradox of governance in the age of social networks is that, precisely because there are more contending interests and actors than ever before, never has the need been greater for countervailing institutions to deliberate wise choices, mediate fair trade-offs and forge consensus that can sustain long-term implementation of policies.
Post-Party Politics and Thinking Outside the Ballot Box
In today’s anti-establishment environment the industrial-age model of cohesive, mass political parties with which the public loyally identifies has been fatally disrupted. They are going the way of lifetime employment and the mainstream media. A post-party politics is emerging in which coalitions of the willing will mobilize around specific issues, seek effective remedy, disband and move on to the next issue. Just as fragmentation and flexibility have entered the labor market as a permanent feature, it has entered the political marketplace as well.
What is now needed is a new set of practices and institutions that can engage a reawakened public
What is now needed is a new set of practices and institutions that can engage a reawakened public, which now has the tools to make their demands known and the political means through direct democracy to effect their realization. The challenge is how to embrace and encourage participation without populism.
In this new era we need to think outside the ballot box to create non-partisan mediating institutions -- islands of good faith, expertise and experience outside the short-term, special interest and passionate influences of the electoral system -- that are platforms which can bridge polarization through the enlightenment practices of reason, dialogue, negotiation and compromise.
The California Case
In California, we have long experience with the pluses and minuses of institutionalized populism in the form of the citizen’s initiative – in which citizens can make laws directly. The citizen’s initiative, which was originally introduced during the Progressive era in the early 20th century to give the public a means of redress against a legislature in the pockets of the railroad barons, has at times resulted in policies that are in the public interest. In recent times, it eliminated gerrymandering by according the drawing of electoral district to a citizen’s commission instead of the partisan legislature. It created the non-partisan, top-two winner primary. Earlier, it sanctioned the Coastal Commission to curb development along California’s coast and the Air Quality Control Board to clean up pollution. But the lack of a deliberative filter has also resulted in majoritarian votes to ban same-sex marriage and deny public services to immigrants. Above all, it has tied the state into fiscal knots, locking in spending and locking out revenues, leading, among other calamities, to spending more on prisons than higher education at one point in time.
This new reform was critical in passing legislation this year for a sequenced minimum wage increase
The non-partisan Think Long Committee for California, a Berggruen Institute project, has started to move down the path of reform that doesn’t seek to dismantle this valued venue of popular redress, but interpose a deliberative filter. In 2014, we were able to pass legislation drafted by a coalition of 30 groups, from labor unions to civil liberties organizations, and signed into law by Governor Brown.
That law requires legislative hearings after 25 per cent of the signatures needed to qualify a ballot measure are collected. At that point, the legislature and Governor can negotiate with the sponsors to fix unintended consequences or collateral impact.
If they can come to agreement, the ballot measure can be amended, or legislation can be introduced without the necessity of a public vote. The original measures can be withdrawn. (Previously, once a measure qualified not even a comma could be changed and, even if unintended policy consequences were discovered, it could not be withdrawn. Sometimes contradictory measures on the same issue appeared simultaneously on the ballot). This new reform was critical in passing legislation this year for a sequenced minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. The Governor was able to reach a compromise with two unions, which had qualified two separate initiatives, in a legislative solution. The initiatives were then withdrawn from the November ballot.
A further reform proposed by the Think Long Committee and drafted by the former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Ron George, would establish a non-partisan council, appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders for terms that cross electoral cycles, to vet initiative proposals. The council would also proactively solicit public input through extensive deliberative polling as well as public hearings on pressing issues not being addressed adequately by the legislature. Measures resulting from these solicitations would then be formulated into fully researched and carefully designed proposals that would either be put -- depending on whether it is constitutional or statutory -- to the legislature for a vote or to the public directly in a ballot initiative without the step of gathering qualifying signatures.
Prime Minister Trudeau is proposing to make appointments non-partisan with public input
Ultimately, the hope is that California’s bi-cameral legislature would be reconfigured to create a new equilibrium among representative democracy, direct democracy and a non-partisan deliberative body insulated from the pressures of the electoral cycle and special interest lobbyists. In this scheme, the 40 members of the present Senate and the 80 members of the Assembly would be merged into one 120-member lower house, thus reducing the size of duplicative electoral districts from about 1 million constituents to 300,000. A new non-partisan Senate would be appointed by the Governor, the legislative leaders and by the public through a combination of lottery and regional and functional representation (for example a seat for the public higher education institutions such as the California State University system). This new constitutional arrangement would introduce deliberative ballast with a long-term and common perspective in governance to counter-balance both the constituent and special-interest influences on the legislature and the immediate short-term horizons and passions of direct democracy. In effect, this new Senate’s mandate would be as a body for the “sober second reading” not only of legislation proposed by elected representative, but by the public citizen’s ballot.
The Canadian Senate is already positioned as an appointed body with the mandate of “sober second reading” of legislation. As I understand it, Prime Minister Trudeau is proposing to make appointments non-partisan with public input instead of merely an honorary award for political loyalty. As such, it could provide a template of sorts for just the kind of deliberative institution that can help reweave a new relationship between the demos, the public, and res publica, the public interest, in the new era when political awakenings empowered by social media and intent on direct democracy must be responsibly addressed.
Nathan Gardels is Editor-in-Chief of The WorldPost, co-founder and executive adviser to the Berggruen Institute.