Enlarge / Cover detail from Infomocracy, by Malka Older.Will Staehle
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Whether or not you think American democracy is broken, you can probably come up with some ways to improve it.
The country gets less than 50-percent voter turnout; the Electoral College has disagreed with the popular vote twice in the past five election cycles; there are referenda with explanations that take 10 minutes to read and still don’t make any sense; and don’t forget all the special interests and pork-barrels and legislative gridlock.
Surely we can do better.
With all the technology we’ve developed in the centuries since the Founding Fathers set up our system, we have the capacity to make voting much more convenient. Plus, we can manage an almost unlimited number of voter concerns simultaneously. With all this technological capacity, what are the possible next steps for democracy?
One idea is microdemocracy.
As the name suggests, this is about getting democracy to a more granular, local scale, although there are different suggestions for how to do so.
In the 1990s, the term arose in academic literature exploring whether democratic practices at the civil society level could support democratic transitions in authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe.
Today, organizations like The Right Question Institute, which calls itself “a catalyst for microdemocracy,” think microdemocracy could work in countries that are already democratic.
They suggest that if citizens engage critically and demand accountability at the most local of levels—PTA meetings, community clinics—they will then “begin to move along the continuum of democratic action from an individual encounter at the agency to attending public hearings, joining with others through organizing, and exercising their right to vote.”
In other words, the solution to low voter turnout and political apathy is to get people to make their voices heard where public policy meets their direct interest and work their way up from there.
Information technology will make this process easier and more accessible, especially when it makes initial information gathering and post-engagement followup far less onerous.
Microdemocracy can also be used to describe a system that gives people power to vote, not just on their representatives and a few referenda, but on nearly every element of their government, from how their taxes are apportioned to individual pieces of legislation. More commonly known as direct democracy, this intensive involvement in government decision-making is similar to the ancient Greek model, but very rare today.
Although Switzerland uses direct democracy instruments, requiring voters to approve every law passed by the legislature, most other modern democracies are representative: citizens elect representatives, who then make most of the decisions for them.
This is partly because the 18th-century trailblazers of modern democracy were also wary of democracy.
They wanted some elite roadblocks in front of rule by the masses.
But representative democracy was also preferable because of logistical issues. When it took weeks to travel to the capital, it was hardly feasible for everyone, or even all free landholding men, to do so every time something needed to be voted on. Now, however, we have the communications technology to enable the rapid spread of information and immediate, verifiable voting from the comfort of your home, or car, or as you’re walking down the street.
Political technology of the future
In my recent science-fiction novel Infomocracy, I offer yet another definition of microdemocracy.
The book is set some sixty years in the future, when the nation-state is (mostly) dead and the basic political unit is a “centenal” of 100,000 people.
Each centenal can vote for any government it wants, from anywhere in the world.
This both makes politics very local—you only have to convince 50,000 of your closest neighbors to support your choice in order to win–and decouples it from geography—if the form of government you prefer originated in Denmark, you can vote for it without emigrating from your home in Tampa.
Centenal-based microdemocracy naturally requires extensive use of technology.
In my book, it’s provided through a massive international bureaucracy known as Information, which offers voters data about the thousands of possible governments and helps those governments manage what may be far-flung territories once they’re elected.
Although I included some cool-sounding tech gadgets to make all this more interesting, it’s really not so much of a leap, technologically. We already have countries governing territory that is not geographically contiguous–Alaska, Gibraltar, Ceuta, Oecusse. We already have multiple choices in the ballot box, and most of us have access to all the information we could want about those choices.
As with direct democracy, what makes the scenario improbable is lack of political will or, to put it another way, entrenched power structures.
These various definitions of microdemocracy have a few points in common.
They all point toward improving democracy through getting more citizens more involved and tying the complex, big-picture forces of government directly to people’s day-to-day interests.
They all see technology as a means of facilitating democracy, bringing people closer to their government.
And they all believe that this will make governance—or quality of life, or life itself—better, buying into a central assumption of democracy: that it leads to better government.
Decentralization and freedom
The rationale behind microdemocracy is not so different from that behind a less cutting-edge concept that has been extremely popular over the last few decades: decentralization. Pushing power down to local areas has been one of the common prescriptions for countries transitioning out of authoritarianism since the 1980s: if you disperse power through the regions of a country, it becomes harder for one person—or ethnic group, say, or religion—to dominate the whole.
As with The Right Question Institute’s theory of microdemocracy, many proponents of decentralization argue that getting citizens involved at the local level will translate into greater participation, and democracy, throughout the government.
In a 1999 paper on decentralization, political scientists Arun Agrawal and Jesse Ribot write:
Most justifications of decentralization are built around the assumption that greater participation in public decision making is a positive good in itself or that it can improve efficiency, equity, development, and resource management. […] At its most basic, decentralization aims to achieve one of the central aspirations of just political governance-democratization, or the desire that humans should have a say in their own affairs.
Despite these lofty and seemingly logical aims, as well as the enthusiasm with which the strategy has been pursued, evidence on the results of decentralization is mixed.
For one thing, what is called decentralization is often not; it’s easy enough to attach a buzzword to a toothless public policy.
Some governments use the concept as a way of pushing fiscal and administrative responsibilities onto lower levels of government without giving local governments more decision-making power.
While decentralization does help to disperse power away from the network of a central authoritarian figure, it also holds other risks.
It might consolidate the power of local or regional elites. Kent Eaton and Ed Connerley write:
In many developing countries that have completed the national transition to democracy but that contain enclaves of persistent authoritarianism at the subnational level, decentralization has the unfortunate effect of transferring power and authority from units of government that are more democratic to units of government that are less democratic or nondemocratic.
But this is not only true of developing countries: consider the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.
Microdemocracy, in any of its forms, faces many of the same difficulties as decentralization.
As an attractive term that suggests greater accountability and transparency, it can be strategically deployed to produce the opposite.
In disempowering some elites it offers power to others–those who care more about the issues, for example, or those who are more comfortable with the technology it uses.
We certainly have the necessary technology to improve democratic functioning in any number of ways.
But these initiatives are likely to require close attention and considerable calibration to make sure they are working the way we hoped.
Since this means trial and error, the sooner we can get started, the better.
Malka Older is a writer and political scientist.
She was named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015 and has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at the Institut d’Études Politques de Paris (Sciences Po) explores the dynamics of multi-level governance and disaster response using the cases of Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami of 2011. Her 2015 novel Infomocracy was named one of the best science fiction novels of the year by the Washington Post.