It’s not enough to defend democracy – now is the time to advance it

If democracy is to recapture the world’s imagination, it will have to show it can deliver a better way of life than the autocrats

‘Democracy has come by its demise honestly.’
‘Democracy has come by its demise honestly.’ Photograph: Alamy

Every time the president of the United States declares the free press an enemy or calls to congratulate a newly elected strongman, it comes as a reminder of what we already knew: democracy is in retreat, in the US and around the world. An apologist for military dictatorship now leads Brazil. China’s premier no longer has to worry about term limits. Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines have opted for authoritarians. Surveys suggest that people around the world, including the young, have declining faith in democracy as a sensible way to govern.

Democracy’s champions, meanwhile, are rushing to the barricades in defense. The new leadership of the House of Representatives has made this session’s HR 1 bill a tome that, when all is said and done, at best catches the country up to best practices internationally. Others are going to court to defend old norms, like presidents disclosing their tax returns. They fly to places where ballot access is under attack and watch for irregularities. These are all noble-enough causes, but they don’t do sufficient justice to the fact of how poorly the institutions being defended have come to serve us.

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Democracy has come by its demise honestly. The centuries-old institutional designs that are the gold standard for democratic government are, well, centuries old. The bicameral legislature designed for an agrarian settler society no longer serves a society powered largely by dense, diverse cities. In a world of instantaneous, nearly cost-free communication, why do we rely solely on occasional, crude ballots every few years for public input? And why are we taught to expect democracy only from our governments? What about the businesses where we work, shop and connect?

The best defense is to go on the offensive. Merely propping up declining institutions will not last long against the temptation of authoritarian shortcuts. Democracy has thrived most when it demonstrated itself a more effective way to run things than through inefficient, centralized authority. If democracy is to recapture the world’s imagination, it will have show it can deliver a better way of life than the autocrats.

The good news is that we are living through a renaissance of democratic opportunities, even if the powers that be, at least for now, are headed the opposite way. Some of these ideas were never possible before the networked technology we have today. Others are moral or structural innovations – long possible but little-tried.

Imagine, for instance, if we did not have to wait for election day to have our say in government. We might need to rely less on politicians to represent us if more big decisions could be made through rolling digital referendums. Of course, such polls could lend too much sway to mass enthusiasm rather than considered expertise. That is why new systems of “liquid democracy” allow people to delegate their power to people they regard as reliable experts on specific issues, rather than simply relying on a single person to represent them on everything. Alternatively, taking a cue from ancient Greece, policies could be written or decided on through sortition – juries, that is. Such juries could have sufficient space and time to become expert on an issue at hand while also being chosen randomly so as to represent the community as a whole.

Another approach, proposed by economist Glen Weyl, would be to allow people to assign multiple votes on matters they care most about and fewer to others – or even to pay for votes outright. (Weyl tames the excesses of such an approach with a “quadratic” calculus, which awards diminishing returns to larger vote-buys.) Still other techniques are being tried in participatory budgeting processes from New York to Portugal, which allow people a direct hand in allocating public funds.

The Obama administration took a chance by creating a petition platform on the White House website, and Washington DC open-sources its laws on GitHub. But these are baby steps compared with the experiments in online participation being developed in Taiwan, especially since a participant in a youth protest movement, Audrey Tang, became the country’s digital minister. Estonia puts the healthcare.gov website’s foibles to shame with an integrated platform that makes interacting with government easy, from paying taxes to registering for schools. For inclusive processes, interfaces matter.

One of the most important and most challenging frontiers of democracy is an old one: more enfranchisement. Florida has decided to enable past felons to vote, for instance. Although most states still forbid incarcerated people from voting, Maine and Vermont have chosen otherwise. Why can’t Puerto Ricans help choose the president? What about people in other countries whose lives are affected by US policies, whether in Canada or Afghanistan? Capital, weapons and propaganda cross borders; why not votes?

It doesn’t seem like the next frontiers of democracy will be explored from the White House anytime soon. This needs to begin on more local levels. Through an emerging “municipalist” sentiment, cities around the world are trying out radical ideas and sharing the lessons with each other. Some states are lowering barriers to participation through mail-in ballots and automatic voter registration. Some are regulating big money out of their elections. People can demand that their politicians outdo each other in making democracy more inclusive, responsive and accountable.

Some of the most important experimentation is happening outside government. A new generation of cooperative businesses is building on an old tradition of ownership and governance by the workers, customers and suppliers that rely on them most. Congress recently passed historic legislation on financing more employee-owned companies, and Senator Elizabeth Warren wants to see worker representatives on corporate boards.

Everything for Everyone
Pinterest
Everything for Everyone Photograph: Everything for Everyone

What if users of online networks chose board members, too? Even Mark Zuckerberg, who wields autocratic power over Facebook, admits that he can’t govern the platform alone. He wrote last year, “I hope that we can explore examples of how collective decision-making might work at scale.” More likely than from him, though, a platform democracy could emerge when users, gig workers and engineers learn to organize as a bloc against the digital oligarchy’s whims. Even as the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies plummet, the underlying technology is being used to advance creative frameworks for governing how we work, collaborate and get rewarded for contributions.

The next social contracts can involve transnational networks more than geographically confined nation-states. We have already begun drafting them now. We need to recognize this is happening, and be relentless in seeking a democracy that more fully represents our world.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote of democracy in the future tense – “democracy to come”, he called it. Democracy, he meant, cannot be a fixed or static thing. If it gets that way, it dies. If all we do is defend democracy, there will be nothing left worth defending.

  • Nathan Schneider is the author of Everything for Everyone: The radical tradition that is shaping the next economy