Beyond Vox Pop Democracy: Deepening democracy in the internet age

Herewith the text of my talk on Ockham’s Razor this morning. It is from a longer essay which you can find here, boiled down so that it could be read in the 12 minutes or so one gets on Ockham’s Razor.


Shortly after Barack Obama became the first US president to build his campaign around online social media, his new Administration held an online ‘brainstorming’ session seeking ideas for making government “more transparent, participatory, and collaborative”. Participants in the online brainstorming felt unconstrained by these terms and pursued their own pet ideas, and/or voted others ideas up or down a ladder of popularity.

With a rerun of the Great Depression in the offing, what was uppermost in the public mind? Legalising marijuana topped the pops on the brainstorming site followed by releasing Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

Welcome to Vox Pop democracy. The tendency is intensifying with ‘shock jocks’ spreading a culture of narcissistic entitlement and the internet hosting ideological echo chambers where people nurse their resentment and hostilities to their ideological opponents.

In the US, the conjunction of big money from the top and the bottom up power of the internet is making things worse. In 2000 leading Republican candidates for president paid lip-service to the scientific consensus on global warming. This year the Tea Party has marginalised such views and the remaining candidates wear their intransigence on action against climate change as a badge of honour.


In much discussion of the ills of our democracy “we the people” figure as innocent victims of the depredations of others. Of the sensationalism of the media. Of the duplicity of our politicians. But the media doesn’t run the sensationalist, empty, narcissistic rubbish it runs and politicians don’t engage in the dark arts of spin and character assassination because they’re a lower form of life.

They do it because our decisions mean that it works. We buy the papers. We voted for John Howard in 2004, though by then we knew of his lies about children overboard. We voted for Paul Keating in 1993 because he demonised the GST, the same policy he’d described as an economic necessity a few years earlier.

This self-indulgence about “we the people” can lead to magical thinking. In our republican debate how often have you heard someone say that they don’t want our politicians to appoint our head of state because we want something better than a typical politician? They conclude that “we the people” should keep it in our own hands by electing them ourselves.

Yet on the slightest reflection, it’s clear that popular elections are precisely the way we get politicians. Note how politicians are cast as the villains here, but we – whose votes elect them – remain unsullied. We’re present at the scene of the crime, yet our lying eyes tell us we’re not there.

Much enthusiasm for the internet’s capacity to transform politics is similarly magical in its thinking and similarly self-indulgent. Like the glamorous assistant disappearing once inside the magician’s cabinet, only to miraculously reappear moments later, here “we the people” go missing when the hunt is on for the culprits responsible for the toxic state of our political culture, only to emerge as the deliverer from it moments later. It is only this disappearing trick that allows us to imagine that we might be made whole again if only “we the people” can take politics back – unmediated – via the internet.


What we’re seeing here is the naïveté of what Joseph Schumpeter called the ‘classical doctrine of democracy’. Following eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this holds that the will of the people coincides with the public good and that the less mediated that public will is, the more democratic and so beneficial government will be.

For Schumpeter this is hopelessly naïve. Politics is necessarily a struggle for power between people and perspectives. It also requires expertise and command of detail. The internet really does give us the technology to take government fully to the people. Each night on returning home, we could vote online on all the legislative minutiae that today occupies our parliamentary representatives. Just spelling it out dispels the allure.

Schumpeter argues that modern democracy is largely impossible without a strong elite class dedicated to public service. For Schumpeter, elites – which is to say leaders – are inevitable for any tolerably complex organisation to function efficiently. And when you think about it, that fits the bill in schools, firms, hospitals – even local tennis clubs.

He’d probably concede that the political elite tends to take advantage of its position in unfair ways. But the touchstone of a democracy is that we the people get to shape our elites because factions of the elite compete for the consent of the governed.

Without this process, ‘the will of the people’ is inchoate. In the same way one might say that one hasn’t really had a thought until one has properly articulated it, it is through electoral contest that the polity articulates its own political values, lives its own democratic political life.

Yet, as Schumpeter pointed out, thinking effectively about political questions requires abstract thought and is far removed from the concrete details of our life. In that regard, Schumpeter was an early worrier about magical thinking in democratic politics. As early as the 1940s, he was prescient about the similarity between commercial advertising and political campaigning. He observes:

We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious . . . the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are . . . the same evasions . . . and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people.

Sound familiar?


While it’s fashionable to look to the radical openness of projects like Wikipedia and open source software for inspiration about our politics, those projects offer some other food for thought. For each online project requires leadership. That leadership must be inclusive enough to encourage volunteers. But there are endless design questions about how that’s best done. And here a dominant leadership style is that of the BDFL – or for those not in the know the Benevolent Dictator for Life.

Jimmy Wales was a BDFL for years after his founding of Wikipedia and retains enormous power. Here’s how Linux leader Linus Torvalds defended his choice of the penguin as Linux mascot.

If you still don’t like it, that’s ok: that’s why I’m boss. I simply know better than you do.

These comments were made in the context of the ability of anyone anywhere, to ‘fork the project’, that is to take Linux’s entire codebase and distribute a new version of the software reflecting their wishes. Alas, this remarkable new turn is only possible in the digital world which transcends scarcity.

The ultimate task of politics – its point – is to solve the e pluribus unum problem. Out of the vast diversity of its citizens’ views, the community must converge on some unitary will. Our politics decides whether we invade Iraq or not, whether and by how much we will cut tax or increase pensions and so on. And with or without the internet, converging towards those decisions remains as problematic as ever.


Rather than swoon at the chimera of ‘direct’ democracy unencumbered by institutions and elites, one ‘lesson’ from the internet is that the wishes of the electorate cannot be properly aggregated into a unitary authority – they cannot be articulated – without leadership; that is to say without elites.

The question then becomes the extent to which we can get the elites we need. Alas I have no panaceas to offer. The problem of how we govern ourselves is an ancient and tragic part of the human condition. But here are some tentative suggestions:

Arguably our most radically democratic institution is the jury. Yet it was nurtured within the deeply elitist traditions of the legal system to be largely insulated from the depredations of populism or vox pop democracy. As it sits through the case, each jury is trained as a special purpose cognitive elite. Though it represents the populace from which it is selected, it has deliberated long and hard on the case and the community puts great trust in its judgement.

The consensus conference is a similar institution in politics. Here a small jury-sized randomly selected group deliberates at length on some policy issue – including, as with a jury, hearing evidence from professional experts and advocates from various sides. Typically the body has no legislative or executive power. Nevertheless, it is hoped that its conclusions are of note to other citizens and their political representatives.

Legislators in the US state of Oregon were concerned at the scope for the manipulation of citizens’ initiated referendums by wealthy interests. So they recently required such referendums to be accompanied by citizen’s juries to draft advice to voters casting their ballot.

This could be extended further into a standing house of Parliament which was broadly representative of regions, gender, race and so on, but otherwise chosen at random from the community. Like the jury, this would provide a means of democratic deliberation away from the alarms and excursions of vox pop democracy. We could see what a random group of Australians, having taken the time to brief themselves, thought of the issues passing through Parliament.

This would also broaden our pool of politicians by assisting talent spotting and promotion in a political world that is otherwise collapsing into careerism. Such a body should not displace the process by which we vote for the government of our choice, though, to give the new body some ability to insist it be listened to, it could have the power to delay bills as the UK House of Lords enjoys today.

In all this, the internet could support citizens’ juries or chambers by facilitating participation and deliberation at much lower cost and greater convenience. In conclusion, the internet is working miracles. It is opening our world to an explosion of talent, creativity and diversity. But where Wikipedia unleashes the power of the crowd to help us answer questions about what is the case, politics is our necessarily imperfect way of solving a vastly more difficult question. The task of politics is to build some unified will about what ought to be, from the vast diversity of interests and perspectives within the community.

Here there are no miracles in sight. Indeed it’s hard to imagine them emerging this side of the grave. Juvenal’s question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Who will guard the guardians? – remains as ever a reminder of our fallen state and a spur to continue our efforts to build a better world.

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12 years ago

With a rerun of the Great Depression in the offing, what was uppermost in the public mind? Legalising marijuana topped the pops on the brainstorming site

Perhaps the author needs to take a good hard look at the reasons why.

James A
James A
12 years ago

Ahh, demarchy. I never connected the fact that juries are demarchic. Using them to assist rather than run the show (as in pure demarchy) seems like an interesting compromise.

Yobbo: I have a comment but have withheld it because I don’t want to derail this thread.

Paul frijters
Paul frijters
12 years ago

Nick this chapter is improved since the last showed it to me but I think it can be proved still. What about giving us some examples of how this will work in the Australian context since Australia does not have many referenda to be accompanied by a jury to explain an issue. One issue with using juries is the question of who selects them under what issue. You do not want to end up in a situation where it becomes part of the political game to call a jury to delay policy further so you must have some automatic mechanism by which they are invoked.

12 years ago

“Schumpeter argues that modern democracy is largely impossible without a strong elite class dedicated to public service.”

Well, we have got the strong elite class, that’s for sure. Now we just have to figure out that other bit… ideas anyone?

12 years ago

The problem with juries for referenda is that with today’s political polarisation, how would you get an uncontaminated jury.

For example, if the NBN had gone to a referendum, Liberal voters would say ‘nay’ and ALP voters ‘aye’, no matter what evidence was presented. Once a political party had adopted a position, it would fall out exactly according to the political preferences of the indivduals on the jury selected.

Of course, if there were bi-partisan support for an issue, then the jury would most likely reach a consensus. But heck, if there is bi-partisan support for an issue, it usually gets up now, even without a jury.

12 years ago

With a rerun of the Great Depression in the offing, what was uppermost in the public mind? Legalising marijuana topped the pops on the brainstorming site followed by releasing Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

My initial reaction was the same, but then after further reflection I have changed my mind. Whilst I have no personal interest in legalising marijuana or any other banned substances, and I’m not convinced it’s a good idea, the war on drugs has been a failure on an epic scale. Not just a one time failure but a continual one. Whether or not there is a recession is irrelevant to dealing with this problem. The only explanation for the continuation of damaging failed policies is corruption or a kind of bloody-minded paralysis. Neither is a vote of confidence.
In any case why should the public have any great confidence in the political process to effect policy to improve their economic conditions more than other aspects of government?

12 years ago

I don’t think Nick means we should have juries for referenda!

I took him as meaning that we could have a standing body of parliament, a third house, to be formed from random ballot. As a part of parliament this body would consider any legislative proposals, receive expert evidence and submissions, etc, and issue non-binding opinions to the other two houses.

One refinement to that idea would be that any given issue would be considered by smaller subcommittees whose members were drawn at random from the larger body. This would make it harder to lobby and ‘capture’ even these temporary representatives.

One critical problem would be that Parliament does a great job of ignoring hefty expert reports it doesn’t like (what did they call that big tax thing a while ago, already? Humpty something?) and it isn’t obvious to me that they would listen harder to this body. Maybe this body would have to have some kind of binding power, even if only to require a second vote by each house?

On the more encouraging side, this suggests that modern democracy works better than might be expected:

12 years ago

Some thoughts on democracy.
The following points track Nick’s ideas and need some expansion but in the absence of enough time I thought I would just put them down and try to get back to them.
1. The first is that most of our models tell us that democracy in the sense of universal voting can’t work as a means of choosing the best policies or even good policies and I am not sure in what universe anyone could think it could. There is more substance to the claim that it is sometimes good at stopping horrible and obvious things happening, although I am not sure about that either.
2. The obvious and best alternative is some sort of elite model.
3. I am not sure whether we can draw much inspiration from Schumpeter. As I recall he thought the multitude swinish. I would argue that individual members of the multitude are smart in the sense of being no dumber than any other select group such as medical practitioners or lawyers or journalists etc. The problem is that most voters lack: (a) the incentive; (b) the time, and; (c) the resources to learn anything much about issues such as interest rates, carbon emissions, mining tax, resources curses, health issues, etc etc
4. From 3 I think the multitude is perfectly capable of governing itself if these items are remedied.
5. I think the way to do it is with random selection. I am not sure I would support a randomly selected second chamber. What I would support is randomly selected panels of citizens to recommend on issues such as taxation policy, environmental policy, health policy etc. These recommendations could be made public. Parliamentary sovereignty would be maintained as parliament could choose to reject the recommendations if it wished. I suspect it would need to have good reasons for doing so.
6. How would it work? A random panel would be selected, paid properly and would sit for some set term. It would have an incentive, time and resources through access to experts in the appropriate field.
7. I can’t see why such a panel would be any more incapable of making decisions than any other body. I suspect that given the opportunity most people would approach the task in a responsible manner. Moreover it would be free of the exigencies of election or of the need to please special interest groups.