Direct Democracy in the Online Age

America is not a democracy.

I know what you’re thinking–okay, the PRISM stuff is a little weird, and yeah, Citizen’s United is messed up and we’re leaning towards oligarchy, but it’s not THAT bad. You’re not wrong, of course. But even in the mythical time-before-corruption when our politicians were pure and true to their wives… we weren’t a democracy.

We’re a representative democracy. As a republic, we elect people to make the choices of government for us. We delegate, mostly because we have to; various hurdles make the alternative–direct democracy–difficult to envision. When the Constitution was drafted, direct democracy couldn’t have worked because it would have taken so long for any decision to be made. With no internet, no telegrams, no cars or trains, information would be so slow to reach citizens, and their responses so slow to reach the executive, that of course it made more sense to elect a trusted representative to make decisions quickly.

But those barriers have fallen, and while politicians love to talk about e-governance and transparency, so far as I know no legislative candidate has yet taken the next logical step: promising to tether their vote to online plebiscite (restricted to registered voters in their district, probably). This would be the ultimate way of handing power to the people. It wouldn’t take a technological genius to make this work; you’d need some stronger-than-usual verification measures, but nothing mind-blowing.

Though the internet has removed the time-element barrier to direct democracy, another has arisen: issue expertise. When I posed to several of my peers the possibility of a legislator tethering her/his vote to online plebiscite, their response was overwhelmingly–and surprisingly, to me–negative. Their criticism hinged on the idea that the common person is not capable of making the decisions required of a member of Congress.

This assumption is lamentable. It precludes broad swaths of the population from having their voices heard, and ignores the benefits from perfect (or near perfect) information that would follow from such a system. Presently, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Candidate runs with a platform that approximates what he thinks the mass voters support.
  2. Candidate closest to mass voters wins.
  3. Elected legislator frequently betrays campaign promises and acts in ways that benefit a select few (the moneyed, mainly). The populace potentially suffers from programs carried out against the common will.
  4. The legislator is replaced and the cycle starts all over again.

Right now, the ways of knowing where your fellow constituents fall on an issue are highly indeterminate, both from the perspective of the legislator and the common citizen. Both parties would benefit from knowing what percentage of the populace supported this or that measure.

I do acknowledge that navigating, much less understanding, the labyrinthine world of American federal government is probably a much more complicated task than ever before. But the idea that we’re not capable of governing ourselves might be even more sorry.


to be finished later


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