TECHNOLOGY RACES ahead, propelled by scientists and engineers, giant companies and public investment. Society rushes to embrace it without a plan, just market forces and the insatiable human desire for newer, faster, better. Politics, in contrast, still plods along. At a time when democratic institutions around the world are fraying, the mechanisms of politics—from gauging public opinion to finding compromises and voting—seem unable to adapt to the changes in modern life.
solution is to borrow from the ethos of technological progress and instil innovation into our democracy and political processes, so that they keep up with the demands of the times. With imagination, effort and care, we can upgrade our political systems with technology to improve them.
all, democracy is in crisis. Having watched the death of Russian democracy up close, I know it is not enough to have a well-designed system on paper. Nor is it enough for people to believe in it, as important as that is to engage citizens so they take their civic responsibilities seriously. Democracy has enemies, wreckers who will undermine and destroy it for their own gain. Dark money, voter suppression, conflicts of interest—these are challenges enough, without even mentioning outside interference and outright fraud.
Populism was surging before the pandemic. But covid-19 exacerbates social and economic pressures, exposes government dysfunction and turns citizens’ frustration into rage. People vent their anger online and in the streets. Demagogues and radicals exploit that anger while traditional parties and moderate views founder. Lies and attacks get more attention than co-operation and compromises that would improve the greater good. People are divided into hyper-partisan tribes, self-exiled into information silos and increasingly see fellow citizens as the enemy.
These problems are worsened by digital technology. The internet did to politics what it did to everything else: accelerated and decentralised it. Political polling, advertising and fundraising have become faster and highly targeted. Yet the shift wasn’t so dangerous until the arrival of social media. As everyone trumpets their views, they form groups around their opinions, which encourages tribalism.
When the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote “The Revolt of the Masses” in 1929, he was looking back at the collapse of the world order after the first world war. The old establishment in many countries was pushed aside by new radical movements, from fascists to communists, who promised action at all costs—and delivered horrors.
We aren’t at that point yet. Society is less prone to extremism than it may seem when scrolling through a newsfeed. Research shows that there is public willingness to agree and to compromise, especially when it comes to local and personal issues like schools, crime and health care. This reflects a “silent majority” of moderates. It helps that local politicians have to get things done, instead of spending their time fundraising and attacking opponents on television and social media.
Some believe that since political processes are so delicate, and every new technology entails hidden threats, it is better to make the gentlest of tweaks to our political practices rather than overhaul them. But I take the opposite view. Politics is too important not to change, not to take risks when it is failing us so badly.
We need to experiment with solutions to rejuvenate the political centre, harnessing the same technological innovations that more commonly divide people. If not, the cycle of extremism and discord will continue. Of course there is no digital magic wand. And my expertise is in diagnosing ailing democracies; I don’t come with a tidy plan for how to restore them to health. However three reforms give a sense of the sorts of changes we need to strengthen democracy.
First is “advisory voting”. It is a virtual town square that allows citizens to turn public opinion into a politically tangible thing. It can scale down to the province, state or city level, letting people debate and vote about the issues that interest them most. Fringe candidates and extreme positions often dominate conversation online but fail at the ballot box—a comforting fact, but one that is becoming less true all the time.
Advisory voting offers the advantages of digital deliberation without the heat. It is open to all citizens, topics are proposed by the people, and the votes provide a lens into public opinion to inform policy. But because people are identified and need to participate in order to vote, there is goodwill in discussions, not just anonymous online anger. Even The Economist celebrates one form, citizen assemblies, that have proven effective in Ireland, Spain, Taiwan and elsewhere.
To support advisory voting, governments can create an official body to manage it—the town hall for the digital era. It would have verified accounts and be transparent, nonpartisan and not-for-profit. Eventually, formal government petitions, that typically rely on signatures on paper, could move onto the platform—making them easier and more responsive. Most developed countries already possess the building blocks for this, from driving licences and passports to social-security numbers. It would mark a powerful evolution in supporting democracy to bring those old record-systems up to digital speed to enhance the political process.
Another mechanism to enhance democracy is to foster issue-based coalitions of politicians aligning across party lines. There used to be right-left alliances on national security, for example, or social liberals who were fiscal conservatives, and vice versa, allowing for compromise and bipartisan policies. It is something nearly unimaginable today in America and elsewhere. Adhering to rigid party ideology leaves moderates in fear of challenges from radicals in their own party, should they dare join forces with members of the other.
Hence, instead of striving for a potential third or fourth party to provide more political choice, we need more fluid groupings that put issues and results over any party at all. Technology can be used to identify common issues and form coalitions that have wide public support, in the spirit of Kickstarter campaigns but for policies. For example, environmental issues are associated with the left and pro-business policies with the right—but that misses how companies have reoriented themselves around green industry.
Political coalitions could form to fuse such goals. But it requires an open mechanism for political preferences to be expressed. This is especially important at the local level, which can be a centre of gravity for moderation and compromise. It would help citizens move beyond decaying political parties that represent so many things that they barely represent anyone. Competition for office and power based on parties will remain, but publicly uniting on common ground would push policies towards the mainstream. We want our politics to align with the majority of voters, not the plurality of angry tweets.
Finally, there is election turnout. Making it as easy as possible to vote is an underestimated lever to improve politics (though it isn’t underestimated by those who try to make it harder). Online voting isn’t as easy as it looks. There are prerequisites like national digital IDs that are unpalatable in some countries. Yet eventually, the option for online voting with simpler registration should become a regular feature of elections.
Not going to the polls, be it online or in line, is a luxury we can no longer afford. The more than 100m Americans who didn’t vote for the president in 2016, representing 44% of the electorate, outnumber the votes cast for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Coming from the former Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, I’m hesitant to endorse mandatory anything. But if these digital reforms don’t spur greater political participation, and if people continue to disdain voting voluntarily, the case for compulsory voting gets stronger.
The central point is not that these specific reforms are the right ones: it’s that we need to be open to reforming politics generally—and that we can imagine and invent the improvements. Though technology is a crucial component, the real solutions must come from the human end of the equation. We must begin the hard work of restoring trust in our institutions. We have seen how good the digital world is at tearing things down. It’s time to see if it can also build things up.