How representative democracy falls short of effective government in the modern age

Philipp Foltz’s Pericles Funeral Oration, depicting democracy in Ancient Athens.

It’s shocking that, whilst the world has changed rapidly and dramatically over the past couple of centuries, our conception of government hasn’t. We still place undue faith in elected representatives, happy to abdicate our responsibility, leaving power in the hands of a few supposedly uniquely qualified individuals. How can we expect 650 MPs and the periphery systems of parliament, with true influence concentrated to the dozens in the cabinet, their advisors and senior civil servants, to be effective enough in their decision making to successfully guide a nation of 63 million people? Drawing from a minuscule pool of background and ability, there is not enough variety of experience or knowledge. The creation of a political class guarantees self-interest, toward both their own careers and their parties pursuit of government. And the competitive nature of partisan politics requires them to give a biased picture of the world, offering 2 dimensional depictions of their party as totally competent, and their opponents as dangerously incompetent. Always aiming to control perceptions with talking points and catchphrases, they avoid answering difficult questions at the expense of honesty. This isn’t to say all politicians are totally self-interested, or that their commitment to the electorate is less than to that of themselves or their party. What I am saying, however, is that representative democracy in the form we see today necessitates the creation of particular wills that, in their own preservation, brace up against and distort the general will – the interests of the majority. Power, in this form, necessarily corrupts.

An example of this preservation of interests is the way in which the Conservative party have been shocked into offering proposals that may attract younger voters. After an increase in youth turnout assisted Labour’s near-win this June, swinging university towns to bolster their vote count, the Tories are now scrambling to engage with a demographic they have largely ignored for years, believing they held little sway over the chances of electoral success. The primary motivation behind the Conservative leaderships reassessment of tuition fees is not, therefore, an altruistic gesture toward a struggling generation, but instead a cynical attempt to secure their loosening grip on power. And whilst this is, of course, illustrative of a party’s function; to respond and reflect the public mood, to represent us, the failure is that the political class must catch up to the public interest, adjusting itself not out of moral obligation, but out of their lust for power. Political parties act as the interface between the people and government, but it is an interface that is only responsive if it is in their best interests. Before Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees thrust the issue into the spotlight, there was no representative, no outlet, for the will of those who opposed burdening graduates with over £40,000 worth of debt. As such, it is testament to the radicalism of Labours manifesto, and the success of their campaign efforts, in the way they shifted the parameters of debate. But without this economic populism, it would have remained a concern unheard. Extrapolating this to other issues which remain unsaid, unknown or obscured by our representatives, we can see clearly the deficiencies of modern democracy. Consider, for instance, the fact that despite the United States’ electorates overwhelming support for stricter gun control laws, the institutions of their government, and the way in which representatives are manipulated by an incredibly vocal minority – the wealthy National Rifle Association and its supporters – prevents constructive reform from occurring. The general will (in this case, to prevent criminals, potential terrorists and people with severe mental health issues from having access to high grade weaponry) does not align or correspond to the particular wills of Republicans in the House and Senate, and as such, it is largely ignored.

From corporate lobbyists to powerful media barons, special interests benefit from the opacity of government, utilising their insider route to persuade our ‘representatives’. Accountancy firms draft up legislation with the Treasury before using their knowledge to “sell clients advice on how to use those rules to pay less tax”, according to a report by the Commons public accounts committee. When Rupert Murdoch was asked by the Evening Standard’s Anthony Hilton why he opposed the European Union, he said: “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.” This short-cut to the ear of government is blocked off to the rest of us. Greepeace and anti-fracking campaigners aren’t consulted on energy policy; nor do you find the CND being approached about for their opinions on trident. Pressure groups, workers unions (at least whilst the occupant of Number 10 is of the neoliberal persuasion) and movements with large public support must opt for civil disobedience to raise the profile of the issue, hoping to prick the ear of those who claim to govern for us. Parliaments second chamber, the House of Lords, is filled to the brim with peers who also happen to be influential party donors, with researchers finding the probability of this link between appointments and donations to be “approximately equivalent to entering the National Lottery and winning the jackpot five times in a row.” It seems that the asymmetry of the decision making process, and the way financial interests embed themselves at the centre of it, has resulted in a polity that so often operates contrary to the general desire. It prioritises lobbyists and political expediency, protecting both the Party and their own careers. Government for the people, by the people, seems a bit of a stretch.

Furthermore, our only meaningful role in the political process is limited to one vote every 5 years, but even our influence in this is largely illusory: our choices are limited to one of the three main parties, and the majority of our votes bear little significance unless living in key marginals, with the Electoral Reform Society estimating that three-quarters of votes are wasted. We are, as George Monbiot puts it in Out of the Wreckage, denied “a fine grained democratic control over the decisions affecting our lives”, our impact reduced to a rubber stamp on a manifesto that contains countless commitments, many of which will be discarded. When we do obtain direct power, say in the case of a referendum, complex issues are presented to us as a simplistic dichotomy: yes or no, leaving no room for nuanced decision making.

All of this is exacerbated by the influence of mainstream media, specifically national papers. Media focuses on the surface level game of politics; turning politicians into celebrities, judging their style rather than substance. Newspapers regularly laud the faux-charisma of Boris Johnson, whilst famously ridiculing former Labour leader Ed Milliband for his unflattering attempt to eat a bacon sandwich. The personal attacks levelled against Jeremy Corbyn represent the inability of media to offer nuanced, detailed analysis of the context in which he rose to power and the merit of his ideas. Instead they resort to mocking his appearance and casting him as a clown. This creates a culture of debate where we view politics not through the prism of ideas, as it should operate, but through appearances: Do they look ‘prime-ministerial’? Do they wear a tie?

The latest subject of the media’s vacuous attention is Theresa May. After she gambled away the conservative majority on the promise of the stability and competence of her own leadership, the commentariat are now relishing the excitement of the speculative hubbub around who will be her successor. Ignoring the content of her conference speech, it was the prankster, cough and falling set that gained the most attention. And the consequences of this focus on spectacle is that politics becomes about managing perceptions, rather than enacting change. You don’t actually have to do what you say you will to win votes, you just need to be a convincing enough rhetorician to make people believe you will. Engaged in gossip, the media fails to adequately inform, with their reductive, myopic focus on the game of politics; the implicit biases of commentators, most of which hail from the same social echelon, and the financial interests of their owners degrading the standards of political debate.

This combination of petty partisanship, cumbersome governmental processes, and inadequate media coverage contributes to an underwhelming, ineffective politics, condemning society to a dangerous mediocrity. When we’re facing huge technological change, a cataclysm of climate, and the difficulties of a global economic system that shows little regard for peoples lived experiences, a politics that operates in the closed loop of Westminster, Fleet-Street and the City is not responsive or efficient enough to deal with 21st Century problems. No wonder so much of the public is rejecting politics, with trust and faith declining rapidly, when this mediocracy is all that is offered.

So how can we reform the two components of democracy identified here — political education and governmental institutions — in a way that makes them fit for approaching the challenges of the modern world? Part of the answer, it seems, lies with the internet.

The day before the General Election earlier this year, the most read newspaper in the United Kingdom ran a 13-page story branding the Labour leadership as “APOLOGISTS FOR TERROR”. The second most read newspaper, the Sun, went with the headline “JEZZA’S JIHADI COMRADES”. Yet this synchronised smear, coordinated as an effort to crush the insurgent Corbyn riding high in the polls, failed to achieve what it hoped for. A day later, May had lost her majority, and Labour had attained a victorious defeat. The genuine absurdity of their ‘investigations’ may have led voters to ignore the warnings, perhaps even motivating some to vote Labour out of spite toward Murdoch’s blatant character assassination. But this specific incident fits within the wider context we now find ourselves in of traditional media’s waning influence. Long plagued by dwindling readerships, newspapers are quickly being superseded by instant, multimedia internet journalism.

Like with any technological disruption, this brings benefits and disadvantages. The reduced cost of entry encourages ease of access, breaking the dominance of corporate owned outlets and opening up the space for independent content producers, from Spiked and Westmonster to Novaro Media and Red Pepper. The lack of spacial restrictions and the immediacy of back catalogues allows room for plenty of long-form analysis, benefiting magazines like The Spectator and The New Statesman. Data-driven, wonk journalism, from the likes of Vox and FiveThirtyEight, provide more depth-full and empirically sharp analysis. All these create an environment in which journalism can more accurately reflect what the public is feeling, and open up the Overton Window — what ideas and policies are accepted as reasonable and possible; the parameters of debate that have been shifted by Labour’s strong manifesto. But the fake news phenomenon arising from the decentralised, emergent nature of the internet has proven the web is no saviour of democracy. The platforms which curate our news for us, Facebook and Twitter, fail to differentiate lies from reality, showing us attention grabbing click bait. The nature of their algorithms divide us into bubbles of like-minded individuals, nurturing our biases and failing to provide intellectual balance. Vitriolic, impersonal forums essentially guarantee the spreading of misinformation and the debasement of political conversation, manifest in relentless abuse and name calling.

To solve these issues, we must pay attention to the role of the algorithms that present us with our content, and the corporations whose desires control them. Like any multinational, these companies main purpose is to make money, and their profitability arises from how many hits and engagements they obtain. Every time we click, we are gifting more wealth to these giants of technology, and their engineers expend a significant amount of brainpower on devising ways to get us to keep clicking. Design changes, like those proposed by Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and internet entrepreneur turned cyberspace activist, can redefine the purpose of technology to assist us, not to manipulate us. Instead of Facebook’s news feed prioritising content that will outrage us, as a way to anger us into further engagement, sharing and commenting to vent our anger, it could add a feature whereby it would be easier to coordinate with friends in person to discuss whatever issue vexes you currently. Instead of prioritising comments with the most likes or reactions, the algorithms could prioritise the conversations that display the greatest intellectual nuance and openness.

But the role of technology in the mediocracy encompasses more than just disseminating information and managing perceptions. It demands a revision of our governmental institutions, redefining how, and by whom, governance is executed.

We often speak of government in the sense of it being something done to us; a dominant authority to which we are passive recipients. “The governments done this..What’s the government done now?Have you seen what the prime ministers going to change about..?” Et cetera. If they are the government, we are the governed. But this definition betrays the reality of the society we live in. They work for us. If there were no people, there would be no government. It is an extension of us; sustained by us. We are the system, yet representative democracy in the modern age has sapped us of power. We are no longer government – they are perceived as alien from us, separate and corrupt, our incompetent rulers.

Herein lies the true potential of technology: it can help repair this division within our idea of government. By opening up new avenues of engagement, E-democracy can expand participation and evolve government, adapting it to the Information Age. Momentum, the Labour affiliated pressure group, borrowing methods pioneered by the Bernie 2016 campaign across the Atlantic, employed phone-banking, political advertising on social media and mass canvassing operations, all coordinated through the internet, as a vital instrument in Labour’s quest for power. In the same way the internet broke the didactic nature of television with instant feedback and participation, it can mediate a two-way dialogue between the governed and the government, blurring the distinction between them. This is already occurring throughout the world with governments and political parties in Spain, Taiwan, Finland and Estonia providing collaborative policymaking, participatory budgeting and popular consultations. The internet can be used as a way to procure policy suggestions, like with Iceland’s ‘Better Reykjavik’ giving citizens the power to propose, debate and ultimately vote upon ideas for improving their city. In Brazil, the establishment of ‘E-Democracia’, an internet portal in which citizens can live-chat with representatives and scrutinize proposed legislation, makes the process of government significantly more accessible and transparent.

Emergent technologies such as blockchain, with its peer-to-peer decentralised distributed ledger (meaning each computer connected to the network keeps a record of every transaction made on it) offer radical possibility for online elections, referendums and organising. The company DemocracyEarth has been developing such a system, running a trial in Colombia on the question of whether or not to initiate a peace process with the Farc rebels, Marxist-Leninist guerillas who have a long history of violent extremism. Using their Sovereign application, it split the question up into its constituent parts, encouraging a deeper understanding of the issues and increasing the accuracy and intent of the decisions. 100 votes are assigned to each person to be distributed across each aspect of the referendum, and could be given to someone else if you didn’t feel qualified. Such a process is known as liquid democracy, whereby you can delegate your power to a friend to make decisions on your behalf.

Our government needs to modernise its online operations, stepping into the frontier of digital democracy, or it risks being left behind. Simple things like visualising the breakdown of taxes, showing where and to what your money is going toward, can counter the undesirability of seeing our money vanish into the technocratic ether, changing our perception of the value of taxation. Beyond that, platforms that can identify popular pressure groups and the public’s most prominent concerns and coordinate these with a government department creates a more open route for those without the privilege of expensive lobbyists and access to the revolving door. Gov.UK’s records should be made far more accessible and consumable within an application or redesigned website, housing regular updates on legislative processes and policy papers, keeping the public informed as to the actions of government. And we should take cues from the European, Scandinavian and South American pioneers by adopting their best online democratic practises.

These former developments would hopefully begin a greater employment of e-democracy, and the latter would go a significant distance in creating a more accessible, responsive government, relieving tensions and repairing trust between us and the state.

This bottom-up revolution does not stop with the supplementation of E-participation, however. Such reforms are limited by the technological infrastructure, and still leave ultimate power in the hands of our politicians. If representative democracy fails to sufficiently articulate public will and competently guide society, then we should seek to devolve and disperse power as much as possible, enabling self determination and increasing legitimacy through cooperative, deliberative, democratic institutions and processes.

The establishment of a system of proportional representation could be the first key step into the progressing democratisation of the state. Constitutional conventions, municipal self-government, and other means of subsidiarity – breaking up power into its smallest possible levels; bringing decision making to the people it will effect – ensures a more diverse, honest and efficient government. Free from the entrenched self-interest of representative democracy, this evolution toward a pragmatic anarchism allows us to capitalise on peoples diversity of experience, giving power to our collective ingenuity. A conversation between a biologist, an engineer and a writer would produce a better ability to solve complex problems, in drawing from varied fields of knowledge, then from three biologists (or Eton graduates). When it comes to problem solving, cooperation is a superior means than competition, yet adversarial politics prevents effective collaboration. And in seeking democratic consensus within assemblies, the general will should emerge, with the power to implement it now in our hands.

Through accessible forums of deliberation and decision making, both physical and digital, ideas could permeate far quicker through such a system than it ever could through our lumbering bureaucracies, with proposals rotating every 5 years with each election and politicians tied to their party line. It could allow us to keep up with the speed of change present in modern society - reacting fluidly as consequences arise, adapting to each change quickly and with the consent of the majority, accommodating for the inherent reactionary complexity of society. This adaptability is vitally important in a fast moving world. The extreme statist experiments in Soviet Russia and Mao’s China failed not because of their moral atrocities, but because of the propensity for abuse and volatile inefficiencies resulting from its centralisation of power. The corporatist essence of neoliberal politics, in its subjugation to the whims of capital, means that the voice of the wealthy and the goals of business guide our government, centralising power in an unaccountable system and concentrating it in the hands of the status-quo’s beneficiaries. We can see both these options – communist authoritarianism, and capitalist oligarchy – have huge structural failures. We haven’t, as a civilisation, ever tried the middle way, where transparent, democratic decision-making frees our institutions from capture by special interests. As the more accountable and diffuse power is, the less the chance of corruption. Giving people the true power to plot their own course and define their own goals, in both government and the work place, through worker councils and cooperatives, would revolutionise how we interact with each other. Illegitimate authority, from inept politicians to malevolent bosses, corrodes our social fabric and breeds alienation, preventing us from seeing each other as equals. Non-hierarchical assemblies, coupled with an effective online interface that makes it easier to organise and connect over distances, would usher in a new era for society, of active engagement. It could provide a much needed sense of agency in an increasingly complex world, inspiring an inclusive and joyful politics that is flexible enough to meet the needs of society. This is a genuine, radical assertion of our collective authority; a way to smash the facade of control that our current pitiful system offers. To fix democracy, we must seek to extend it.



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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor


22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.