Can The Internet Strengthen Democracy?
Can The Internet Strengthen Democracy?
Political Hopes and Fears
What's gone wrong with democracy?
Democracy arises from an instinct that the exercise of power should be accountable to those who are affected by it; that arbitrary authority is inherently suspect and the expression of public voice never an unwelcome transgression. The foundational principle of democracy is that the interests and values of society should be collectively, self-consciously and autonomously determined by citizens rather than ordained by elites.
The historical link between how societies communicate and how they govern themselves has always been critical. Technologies and practices of communication are more than a means of delivering political messages. They are a key determinant in shaping the ways in which power is exercised. For democracy to be more than an empty label, there must exist modes of communication that enable the people (or demos ) to exercise unconstrained agency. Because democratic judgement is always generated intersubjectively, rather than through the whim of autocrats, it must be supported by communicative structures, styles and habits that are oriented towards democratic norms.
At this moment in the early twenty-first century, while democracy continues to have great purchase as a rhetorical trope, there is a growing unease that substantive social power resides beyond the control of the demos , wielded by unaccountable global forces and elusive domestic elites. The conduct of politics appears to be a Machiavellian contest for power: a game of thrones; a contest for commanding influence. Winning political battles seems to be mainly a matter of calculated endeavour and subtle cunning on the part of elites and their often cynical strategists. To act 'politically' has come to mean operating with an eye to manipulative advantage; to sacrifice veracity for plausibility.
While the promise of democratic politics is that all members of society, regardless of their socio-economic status, are free to address and remedy problems that affect them, there is a widespread perception that policies are constructed and decisions made over the heads of the public. People acknowledge that they have the right to vote for their chosen representatives and preferred policies (and that this is certainly more democratic than the denial of such an opportunity), and yet they feel that the really important decisions that affect their lives are not only made without their involvement, but are often made in ways that leave them feeling like beguiled and confused onlookers. Much policy formation and decision-making is complex and opaque, taking place within unaccountable institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Commission, multinational corporations and the amorphous and all-powerful 'markets'. Policy agendas are either hard to fathom (especially through the claims and counter-claims of rival politicians) or too narrowly conceived, failing to include some of the more intuitively sensible options that are ruled out as being 'unrealistic'. Choices between policy X and policy Z turn into contests for the least awful option. Political democracy begins to feel like shopping in a very bad supermarket where the daily choice is between what's not available and what you don't really want.
At the same time, democratic politics is marred by a conspicuous deficit of trust. When people are presented with 'facts', 'narratives' and 'advice' by governments, political leaders and other centres of authority, they do not know what to believe. Most of us would prefer to assume that what others tell us is well intentioned and valid, but experience teaches us to doubt some sources more than others. Disbelieving what political leaders say has now become almost a default setting. 'Speaking like a politician' has become a popular euphemism for distorting the truth or plain lying.