December 26, 2016

Renovating democracy by innovating how communities engage

[Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts without fear and hatred. 
Ngaire Woods
Dean, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
When elected politicians hold referendums to give people a say, it is surely a sign that the foundations of democracy are weak. In Britain, as in many other democracies, people have their say in various ways. They form associations or join political parties or unions; they lobby; they write to newspapers; they take part in television discussions; they write to the Prime Minister; they vote in local, regional and national elections. They badger their local MP, church or school. If these no longer work, the solution is not to offer citizens the chance to answer a one-off question.
Referendum results are seldom a reliable indication of voters’ specific preferences in response to the one-off question. When in March this year New Zealand offered its citizens a chance to choose between two national flags, many voted for or against the design as a way of voting either for or against the prime minister (who had made his preference clear), or they voted for or against the process by which the selection was made.
Referendums, however, have more pernicious effects. They tempt politicians to replace their duty to make decisions carefully with a crude majoritarianism. Demo­cracies have derived ways to avoid this. Representative democracy requires politicians to balance competing interests and to take minorities into account. [...]
Worst of all, referendums permit politicians to avoid responsibility. [...] They might seem “democratically” to give people a voice but, in practice, they permit a difficult decision to be made without anyone being held to account.
Direct democracy is not a good solution to failures of representative politics. Representative democracy recognises that good decisions are not the result of simply aggregating individual preferences. Someone has to take responsibility for bringing together the interests, information and institutions required to decide. If politicians do the job badly, voters can throw them out of office. [...]
When politicians stoke fear and resentment between groups in their society, the result can be a vicious circle of conflict and violence. People become more scared to go to the same school or to live in the same area as those deemed the other. Yet it is precisely this mixing that reduces fear and makes social cohesion possible. When the lives of different groups are separate, their fears grow. In societies as diverse as Britain, the US and France, this is dangerous stuff.
As well as the risks of nativist rhetoric by politicians, social media and online interactions are reinforcing separation, creating echo chambers in which like-minded people endorse each other’s views.
Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts without fear and hatred. It requires organisations that give people a “voice” and a feeling that they have a stake and some influence in the system, just as early steps in political enfranchisement and organisation helped the US and the UK to preserve democracy in the 1930s. It also needs public spaces and debates in which people interact and discover communalities and differences that they would otherwise ignore.
Renovating democracy can take place by innovating how communities engage with political challenges and decisions. We do not live in a world where “post-truth politics” is inevitable. My academic colleagues in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford have demonstrated the positive effects of getting citizens to engage and deliberate on substantive issues, and how this shifts voting away from personality politics – in locations from West Africa to the Philippines.
Equally importantly, democracy needs online innovation. Technologists, media companies and entrepreneurs must rethink the online spaces and social media that they have created and start reshaping them to help diverse societies cohere. When Microsoft created Windows, it created the possibility of multiple lenses or views of any issue. Why not build on that? A renovation of democracy should permit people genuinely to take back control as a diverse community, and to participate in a society and political system that holds together, rather than cracking apart.
This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump

[Deleuze essay, Foucault on panopticism. Haggerty and Ericsson’s Surveillant Assemblage makes Deleuze’s argument, but is in an easier idiom]

By GAVIN WAX  12/26/16
In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle developed a theory of historiography which he coined "The Great Man Theory." This theory postulated that the process of historical examination is akin to a series of chronological biographies of these so-called "Great Men."

These great generals, artists, philosophers, theologians and entrepreneurs were the ones who truly had decisive impacts on society, rather than the other way around. Caesar, Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Napoleon and Ford were not products of their time but the producers themselves. While this theory has largely fallen out of fashion within academic circles, it is still a useful conduit to examine the current political machinations.

@sabhlok Resurrecting Gandhi is surely an interesting but strange facet. Pushparaj V Deshpande advocates the same.

Religion and the new populism

Democracies will always bring forth populist movements when a broad cross-section of the democratic order feels, correctly or incorrectly, that their concerns are not being recognized by the establishment. For good or ill, these movements provide a corrective to the ruling order and call for reforms.
The new populism today is probably best understood in the plural form: populisms. Some versions of the new populism want the integration of immigrants to fail (such as the radical Identitarian Movement); others want it to succeed. It would be an error to lump all of these groups together. Most expressions of the zeitgeist are, however, essentially unified in their anti-establishment agenda. They are calling for an end to the politics of multiculturalism and demanding protections from the detrimental effects of globalization. They want to strengthen cultural, political, and economic borders, regulative powers, and national identities.


  1. [All these people understood that they could only grab and retain ordinary citizens' attention with good yarns: powerful, memorable, morally compelling narratives that could prompt the listener to step inside and take a stance. That is the argument Mr Evans makes in a very short, very sharp book, “The Myth Gap”. He observes that all successful movements, including those that overturned slavery and racial discrimination, consisted of a network of small and large communities held together not by common calculations or common acceptance of certain technical facts, but by commonly-proclaimed narratives about the past and the future.] Jan 8th 2017 by ERASMUS

  2. [Khanna recommends a combination of democracy and meritocratic rule—“direct technocracy”—which would chasten the demands of an often myopic public with the long-term judgment of the nation’s “best and brightest.” The author’s model for direct democracy is Switzerland’s, while his exemplar of technocratic oversight is Singapore’s, and he ably discusses both.] KIRKUS REVIEW