Digital tools haven’t transformed politics as much as we expected. But that’s about to change – and just in time
POLITICS is broken. Across the globe, voter turnout has been in decline for decades. The electorate believes that “the parties are all the same, the politicians are all the same, they are not like us, it does not make any difference”,, director of the Hansard Society, which records British political discourse.
Low turnout breeds further discontent. It is, but low turnout exacerbates the sense of unfairness when a minority government is elected, or when tiny factions end up tipping the balance of power.
Technocrats have long hoped that social media might empower the public – helping them to make their voices heard. But what has transpired has been not so much a transformation of politics as more of the same. Sloganeering, hucksterism and gaffes persist: the abiding impression is often of ever bigger megaphones blaring in an ever bigger echo chamber.
We should spare a thought for the politicians, too. Consider this: they are now open all hours to their constituents’ every whim and whinge, their every utterance recorded and pored over by their opponents. Is it any wonder they struggle to engage?
So what is to be done? It is not that people have lost interest in issues such as health, education, welfare or homes. “Even the most disengaged… including people who had never voted, could not be described as not caring,”the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy in January. But they no longer feel connected to politics as they once did, as card-carrying members of a party or trade union, for example.
We have the beginnings of a solution. Online campaigns are easy to join, and can thus quickly attract huge support – but are all too easily ignored. So hacktivist groups are now building tools that buttress their efforts with real ballot-box power, helping people deploy their votes effectively and liberating policymaking from the wonks and lobbyists (see ““).
These tools are gaining ground, both in austerity-stricken states where conventional politics has fallen furthest from grace, and in progressive democracies. In some, such as Spain, their adoption may have been helped by memories of more dictatorial forms of rule.
The new systems are distinctly rough and ready. Some require us to reconsider such sacred cows as the secret ballot; they may prove vulnerable to manipulation and mob rule. But dismissing them because they don’t yet have all the answers would be a mistake, just as it was a mistake to sneer at the call from comedian Russell Brand to opt out of the current system. Brand clearly struck a chord with the young and discontented, even if he proposed no real alternative.
Better to harness that energy to find that alternative. There is a precedent. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many economics students protested against courses dominated by unrealistic models. A radically revamped curriculum isat institutions around the world. Pillars of the Establishment, notably the Bank of England, are rethinking economics too ( ).
We don’t want to wait for a crisis of democracy to prompt a rethink of politics. Nor should we wait for politicians to act: that would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. If the task is to return power to the people, it has to start with the people too. Ever fewer of us may want to engage with the current political system. But we should all engage with the task of fixing it.
This article appeared in print under the headline “A vote for change”
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