Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Case for the People

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 11, 1997

Posted to HotWired 11 Aug 97

Noted science fiction Spider Robinson, who now lives in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, writes an occasional column for Canadian newspapers called "The Crazy Years". In a recent installment he describes the politics surrounding the placement of a new highway through the valley.

Robinson expressed surprised at the degree of consultation prior to the project. Dozens of public meetings, he says, were held up and down the valley. And while opinions on the highway were varied, a consensus emerged from every meeting: that the highway should run along the mountains north or south of the valley, not through the middle.

The politicians went away and a year or so later a new four-lane highway ran smack down the middle of the valley.

This is typical of governance in a representative system. Time and time again, what the people want, and what they get, are two very different things.

Are the people so short sighted, so ill-informed, so stupid, that they get it wrong, not just once in a while, but on a regular basis? I doubt it. And I think that what happens in a representative democracy is that the representatives serve interests which are directly opposed to the people's.

What would happen in a direct democracy? Here is what David Shenk tells us:

Actual direct democracy is a recipe for disaster - and that's not an overstatement. We're living in a complex, niche-ified world where people have less leisure time and are necessarily and understandably more narrowly focused on their own specific interests than ever before. Turn the political apparatus over to "We the People," and we the people would spit back a constant stream of short-sighted, uninformed referenda that would further polarize the nation. You think society is polarized now? A direct democracy would make today's cultural splinters look like pure harmony.

His argument, sans the rhetoric, boils down to this: it's a complex world out there. People are too busy and uninformed to make clear decisions on everything. So they would instead make bad decisions on narrow issues, further dividing the nation.

First of all, let me ask, is there any evidence which suggests that politicians - our representatives - are more capable of understanding the issues than the people? Politicians are busy too: they spend a significant percentage of their time glad-handing, fund-raising, and otherwise trying to maintain their hold on power. And they are no more educated that the public at large: there is no requirement that a politician have a university degree, or even have completed high school.

Second, people, when they make decisions on important issues, usually think of their own interests and, sometimes, the interests of society as a whole. But politicians, because of the demands of being elected, must also cater to a third set of priorities: the needs and wishes of their supporters, especially those who make large campaign contributions. It is often this latter set of priorities which rules the day, to the detriment of society as a whole.

Third, because winning an election requires a groundswell of public support, politicians often raise issues calculated to elicit outrage or fervour among the populace. Complex issues are presented in polarized terms. Issues are manufactured where no crisis exists. The public's attention is diverted away from things which matter in their lives to things which make good headlines.

More often than not, in a representative democracy, we are asked to choose between leaders, not on the basis of their platforms, but rather, on style, appearance, charisma, and various other intangibles. Contemporary politics is about packaging, and, since money can buy better packaging, it is about who has the most money. This is not a sound basis on which to consult the people in matters of public policy.

But Shenk does not think that the current system is broken. He writes:

Representative democracy is not broken; it is simply corrupted by current finance laws and terrorized by constant polling. Americans do not need or deserve a "revolution," another declaration of independence. In fact, we don't even need representatives who are more responsive to public opinion. Rather than "return America to we the people," as Kelly prescribes, what we need are leaders who are not afraid to lead, to step out in front of public opinion, to make tough decisions that will aid the country in the long run. We as citizens need to find, nominate, and elect those kinds of leaders.

Shenk's argument here has two parts. First, he argues that finance laws and polling distort our selection of leaders. And second, he urges that the people vote for strong leaders.

Agreed, the current system is distorted by finances, as mentioned above. But I would argue that the current system is so distorted because it is an inherent flaw in the system. In order to win an election in a representative democracy, you need to raise money, and no matter how the laws are drafted, that makes the representatives more accountable to those who raised the money than those who cast the votes.

It's hard to understand what "terrorized by polling" means, but the most favourable light which can be cast on this suggestion is that, from time to time, politicians respond to the will of the people, as expressed in polls, instead of to the will of their funders or some vaguely defined "national interest". But this is not a bad thing. If anything, politicians' subservience to the polls suggests that Big Money is not omnipotent, which is good, because it allows us to preserve at least the semblance of democracy we have today.

But what of the leader Shenk would have us elect? Such a leader, he says, should make "tough" decisions. This is pseudospeak for "unpopular decisions". And they should "step out in front of the polls". Again, this is another way of saying they should disregard public opinion. Shenk's perfect leader, it appears, is not merely one who pursues an agenda contrary to the people's interest, he is one who disregards the will of the people altogether. If that is to be the case, then it would seem that elections, under such a regime, are unnecessary.

Finally, he feels they should "aid the country in the long run". We can certainly agree that long-term thinking is important. But it doesn't follow that long-term thinking needs to be unpopular.

The unstated supposition here is that the vast majority of people are short-sighted selfish gluttons who have trouble thinking about next week, let alone the next century. But the evidence soes not support this. Often we find that it is the politicians who have difficulty thinking beyond the next election, rather than the people.

In fact, most people are very far-sighted. People invest years in an education, deferring gratification today for a secure tomorrow. People deposit their hard-earned wages in savings accounts and retirement plans, preparing for the long-distant day when they can no longer work. This is a much better record than most western democracies, who, in an orgie of spending on their corporate friends, have run up debts so large our grandchildren will still be paying them down.

Historically, we employed representative democracy because it was not practical to run a direct democracy. At a time when the popular sentiment was to hold public meetings, in which everyone voted, we send representatives to the capitial because we couldn't all travel the distances required. But - as Shenk notes - the internet removes that practical objection. We may not be able to transport ourselves across the country, but we can easily and cheaply transport our opinions. Direct democracy is now possible.

It's a prospect which firghtens Shenk. He writes:

In a society where so many can stand on their electronic soapbox, it is understandable that people resort to outlandish statements to get attention. The danger of Internet politics is that we will all get so used to overstatement, to blather, that we will lose the power to traffic in more useful, understated ideas. We will lose a sense of who we really are.

Shenk's argument here is, that among the babble of voices, only the shrill and exaggerated will get attention, and thus, debate will be drowned in a sea of rhetoric and hyperbole. His own vitrolic attacks on former Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly show that this is the sort of debate he feels is appropriate for this medium. But I would like to suggest, first, that it is not unique to the internet, and second, that it is not inevitable on the internet.

That it is not unique to the internet is evident from even the most cursory glance at today's newspaper, radio or televion broadcasts. Today's news, for example, features more coverage of Princess Diana's new boyfriend than it does her efforts to highlight the dangers of land-mines in Bosnia. There is the usual attack on politicians' paycheques. And in Canada, the relentless series of personal attacks on separatist Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard continues unabated. Television commercials scream for our attention, terrorist bombs explode in the hopes of making the six o'clock news, and frenzied mobs parade before the cameras all expressing their fervent desire not to drown in a sea of voices.

But such hyperbole is not needed on the internet. In traditional media, there are many voices and few outlets; hence the need for sensationalism. But on the internet, there is an outlet for each of the many voices. There is no reason to shout; a carefully worded and thought-out presentation will get as much air play as a violent demonstration.

The evidence that the internet does not necessarily breed distortion is found in this very forum. While some posts in Threads are sensationalistic, the vast majority are reasoned and thoughtful critiques. Sometimes, even, a clear consensus arises. I would like to think that this post, unlike Shenk's, is not sensationalist, and is instead, a reasoned and well-thought out critique. And at the end of the day I believe that this post will have more weight in the larger than Shenk's shrill attacks and demagogury.

Now that we have the capacity, the time has come to move toward a direct democracy. We who believe in democracy believe in it because we believe that, fundamentally, people are not stupid, that they are not short-sighted, and they are at least as likely to listen to reason as their elected elders.

And it is time to move toward a direct democracy because it is clear and evident to all of us that the political agendas pursued by our elected masters are increasingly at odds with our desire for a safe, sufficient and fulfilling life.

Direct democracy represents a will of the people to stand up and think for themselves. It represents their desire to grasp the reins with their own hands and to steer their own course. It respresents the need of the people, as much as possible, to govern themselves, rather than to be governed by others.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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