Digital Democracy Series: Can ubiquitous connectivity make political parties obsolete?

If I think ahead into what I want the world to look like in 30 years, one of my hopes is that connectivity will be so ubiquitous that we no longer need political parties to act as the primary means through which we practice democracy. I say ‘practice’ democracy because democracy is, like the act of making love, as much an exercise as it is an institution. Though the ends of both the act and the institution are the same, the real joy is extracted through the execution. Now that I’ve distracted you with a sex reference, I should remind you that at first glance these two ideas (connectivity/political parties) might not seem connected; I argue, however, that connectivity allows us to bi-pass the need for others to represent us, thus making political parties obsolete or at least less meaningful. Allow me to explain.

As much as those of us who live in Western democracies like to think of ourselves as having unleashed the power of individualism, we still function almost entirely through collective means of action. As a result, any ‘leader’ we identify in the fields of politics, business, civil society, etc., is often unable to provoke much change on her own; instead, she is judged by her ability to move large groups of people to action. Though we like to think “one person can make a difference,” that statement is often only true in so far as that one person is an extension of a network of a larger multitude. Individualism and collectivism are not necessarily opposites or mutually exclusive in how their applied to provoking change in society.

To provoke change therefore we need to organize ourselves in such a way that collective action or potential for collective action becomes a force and a threat. For this reason we have businesses, trade unions, religions, community groups, interest groups., etc, all designed to organize people around shared principles and demonstrate our power in numbers. Nowhere is the exercise of power through collective will more visible than with political parties.

In stating that we should reduce the influence of political parties, I don’t mean to suggest or acknowledge that political parties haven’t served us well or that they shouldn’t continue to operate in some capacity: indeed, political parties are only as useful/useless as the political climates in which they operate. For example, once we capture power from the hands of dictators, monarchs, etc., political parties often help us diffuse this power and  create rotation in our governing systems. This rotation brings about more transparency, accountability, and generally leads to better governance. In mature democracies party leaders are held accountable by their party members: for example, the fact that neither George Bush in the past nor Barack Obama now can hand-pick his successor without any validation process is a tribute to the sophistication of the often lamented U.S. democratic system.  When political parties are themselves democratic and hold elected representatives accountable they become the pillars of a functioning democracy.

The problem I have with political parties is the impact they have on defining and exaggerating differences within a society. Though in theory political parties aim to ‘represent’ belief systems that already exist, in practice they often serve to impose reductionist belief systems on complex societies desperate to bring about simplicity in order to be able to understand themselves better. The result, if you think about it, is rather absurd. Why, for example, should the fiscal conservatives gravitate towards social conservatism? Why should those who believe in a more prominent role of the state necessarily disagree with those of a strong religious persuasion? To these questions one might respond: “Ah, yes, but these are generalizations!”, which is exactly the point: political parties turn us into generalizations, cliches of ourselves, incapable of diverging from the simple narratives that order and define our society. In other words, political parties perpetuate and fossilize the differences they report merely to represent, thus segregating society in unhealthy ways. More worryingly, they make us stupid by trying to replace the complexity of our society with simplicity, and this is what technology can help us solve.The fact that the U.S. for example, must re-visit the abortion debate each time it holds a presidential election demonstrates how limiting and increasingly irrelevant the political party system is.

Going back to the original benefits of political parties, we see that their greatest contribution has been to break up monopolies of power and replace them with, in many cases, oligopolies. While they distribute power more widely than the preceding governing systems, they still allow for extreme concentration. We acknowledge then that the dispersion of power has been a fundamental component of our societal evolution, yet we seem to be stuck on a system invented more than 200 years ago and designed to meet the needs of highly unconnected and immobile populations. What I argue for then is that we embrace our evolution and take the distribution of power another step further by going straight to the people and allowing them to represent themselves.

With ubiquitous connectivity the need for representation decreases as we are all far more capable of speaking on our own behalf. Furthermore, we can embrace our complexity by allowing ourselves to participate in issue-based discussions as opposed to the world-view battles that occur each time we make a binary contribution to our democratic process.

To give you a real world example, in Mexico’s upcoming Presidential elections it’s hard to find anyone excited about any of the 3.5 candidates running for office: because of the choice-limiting system the Mexican candidates are not only forced to empower a single candidate no-one can get excited about, they also have to live with that choice for 6 years. If we allowed people to represent themselves, however, the person governing would have less correlation with one’s satisfaction with the government’s ability to transform the collective’s will into action, because the representatives have to negotiate with the real-time expression of the will of the people. Mexico’s democracy was designed at a time when it took days to get to the capital. With ubiquitous connectivity, however, we can be there whenever we want.

Some argue that we’re too stupid to handle the responsibility of self-governance, but the truth is that we’re now smarter than ever. Access to information has become democratized and slowly, through organizations such as the Kahn Academy, access to education can also be democratized. In other words the tools I am calling for will be invented in a context in which people are empowered enough to accept the responsibility that comes with no longer out-sourcing the right to speak on their own behalf. While we still have cultural norms to develop, such as healthy patterns of information consumption, beginning a discussion about forcing our societal evolution forward will necessitate that these practices and behaviours come to the surface.

I am admittedly vague in describing what I think digital democracies look like. That’s because I don’t pretend to have the answers. What will ultimately replace political parties must come about as a result of computer scientists, sociologists, political scientists and interested people working together to create systems that increase empowerment while protecting against abuse. We’ll need multiple options, iterations and failures in order to create something that enjoys widespread support and adoption. I am therefore calling for individuals to begin to exercise their collective potential through collaboration. When Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst system accept for all the others, I don’t think he meant that we should stop iterating and trying to make it better. It’s time to make it better.

About Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

A former Google and Twitter manager, Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the founder and CEO of Céntrico Digital, a managed marketing services company.

2 Responses to “Digital Democracy Series: Can ubiquitous connectivity make political parties obsolete?”

  1. Greater participation in governance is something I can totally get behind. In exploring what that might look like, though, two (not very well formed) thoughts come to mind:

    * Political parties are to some extent a function of the rules and structure of governance. You know as well as anyone that the reason the US rarely has more than two viable parties for office is because of how we determine representation based on election results. The biggest exception is at the very local level (think school boards, sheriffs, etc), where party affiliations are meaningless because individual relationships obviate the need for some sort of “brand identity” to trust otherwise anonymous candidates. Since institutions reinforce themselves, how people change institutions is a key question.

    * In line with this, democratic participation is not only about speaking one’s voice, but also about conceptions of a collective identity–of defining what we belong to, what/whom is excluded from our group. To the extent that we use the Internet, speaking one’s voice has never been easier. However, our sense of what we belong to seems to be in ever greater flux. Community has historically been based primarily on family and geography (i.e., whom we are related to or live near), with language, occupation, and religion playing strong secondary roles. Today, physical relocation is increasingly normal, as are nuclear families. Parties, imperfect though they are, offer a sense of belonging to a greater whole. For digital democracy to really take off, we’d need to have digital communities as well–senses of belonging that supercede geography, family, language, occupation, and religion. While there are examples of this occurring, it remains to be seen whether collective identities will reshape along the contours of online community.

  2. Hey Jason, I agree with you on both points. I guess my biggest concern is the way that political parties can create false communities that lead to poor public choices. Sarah Palin’s discourse that “Good Americans are conservatives from the heartland and everyone else is not pure enough” is an example of the polarization that political parties can create. As a result Americans have a government very often incapable of developing smart public policy, since allegiance to the brand becomes more important than allegiance to the country.

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