I thought, after the Hungarian elections last weekend confirmed my long-standing opinion on democratic processes today, that I’d talk about it.
All this has been brewing me since college, it got more articulated during the 2016 US Presidential elections, and this past weekend was the last push I apparently needed to focus on stating it.
This post is not about any particular political stance. Neither for nor against.
I have mine, obviously, and it got beat by hate, misinformation, and radical simplification yesterday. But the purpose of this post isn’t to herald the doom of civilization. Civilization will go on just fine. Little less fine now perhaps, but I'm willing to assertain that that’s up for debate.
What I do want talk about goes beyond left or right, liberal or conservative. What I want to talk about is addressing the foundational problem(s) of democracy.
What I want to talk about is how democracy, as we currently understand and use it, has failed. Or, rather, how it never got the chance to not fail. Our current idea of democracy is a scam, and the decision isn’t, and has never been, with the voters.
But it could be.
The problem with democracy.
Oh, democracy: the pinnacle achievement of human civilization.
Sure, it was invented a few thousand years ago and haven’t been fully adopted until a hundred years ago. If we think of evolution as an upward curve, democracy ranks somewhere very, very low on it.
Still, democracy is the — mostly — undisputed ideal for governance.
Democracy had its missteps. People have tried to install an increasing number of safeguards into democratic processes in order to refine and protect democracy.
But “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” as Churchill is so famously quoted. Many people only quote this first part, as an argument against democracy.
I’d argue against democracy by looking at the full quote:
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
As Churchill points out, many forms of governance have been tried. We’ve discarded all, but for some reason we still cling to democracy. We still put our faith into what is, in fact, the illusion of control.
Let me list 4 major issues I have with (current) democracy.
1. The math doesn’t work.
It’s not about what the people want: it’s about what the majority of the people want. And even that isn't true: it’s about what a single largest block of people want. That doesn’t necessarily mean the majority — in fact more often than not it doesn’t.
I’m not going to discuss the problem of low voter numbers. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and as much as I’m against democracy in its current form, if someone can’t be bothered with showing up every few years to make a single decision (however wrong that process is) is not worth accounting for.
But even without accounting for those missing votes, the math doesn’t add up. Democracy in its current form relies on a binary decision, and that’s simply discarding representing the majority of the people.
Consider a candidate winning a mandate with 45% of the votes. That means 55% of the people, the majority, voted for somebody else. There’s no legitimacy for that mandate, or there shouldn’t be. But if that 55% is divided among others, the mandate goes to the largest percentage.
But that’s not the majority.
Increasingly democracy means voting against something, and not for. It means choosing the lesser evil, and not making decisions and elect representatives. It's about a minority masquerading as a majority making decisions about who makes decisions in the name of everybody.
Democratic processes lack legitimacy, no matter what. Elected representatives are neither elected by democratic ideals, nor representing anyone other than a perceived, imaginary opinion.
It's a highly simplified choice that results in a binary choice. That creates an inevitable, systematic conflict.
2. Democracy creates systematic bias and oppression
The rule of majority by definition creates and maintains a gap between the majority and the minority or minorities.
“In a democracy, often times other people win.” (The West Wing)
Even if we could live with such a thing, and we really shouldn’t, we have a representation problem. Whether it’s a majority or minority mathematically, the all-or-nothing nature of current democratic systems is unacceptable.
It’s more severe in cases where it’s the majority of people left unrepresented. And this is the area where recent decades have done the most to make corrections and adjustments. But it’s still far from any resemblance of fair.
This systematic flaw in representation then bleeds into everything. This is why we have systematic racism, systematic sexism, and any number of other systematic issues. Over-balancing through group rights and positive discrimination, while may offer a short term solution, is always the wrong answer.
3. Politics and governance is all-encompassing.
Politics was never meant to be about cultural or social governance. Or if it was, it was one of the gravest mistakes humanity has ever made.
Culture and society are fluid things. Especially in a global world, people come and go, and they change their local cultural environment which in turn ripples into changing the larger cultural context of a society.
When politics and government is stepping into the ring, that means preserving the cultural status quo, and holding back the change that happens — and always happened — naturally. It’s chaining down progress, it’s limiting the freedom of people.
Politics need to be about executing on the decisions the people make. The more we simplify those decisions the larger degree of interpretation politicans have to do whatever the hell they want.
Politics should stay the hell away from culture.
Politicians have no business in making decisions on cultural issues. Not on religion, not on morality, not on anything.
If we take cultural issues out of politics, most of the dividing forces simply disappear.
4. Democracy can’t scale. (Or can it?)
The major reason why we have a flawed, insufficient set of processes is logistics.
(Let’s not dwell on the issue of not willing to spend resources on an event that occurs only once every few years and is the only form of control — however illusionary, simplified, and hackable — we have over our own future.)
Democracy can’t scale, so instead of finding ways to make it scale we settled for accepting the flaws as a necessary part of the process.
To hell with that. Democracy could scale, not just in theory but in reality, and we already have everything we need for it.
Everything except the will and power to implement it.
It's easy to argue against democracy. It's slightly harder to use proper arguments, but still not a hard thing to do. What's not easy is finding a solution.
My feeling is that democracy should be replaced. I don't believe it's sustainable in the long term. But my belief is my belief, and this isn’t about feelings. Most importantly: I don’t have an alternative.
But I do have an alternative for making democracy better, and expand it's lifespan until such time it can be replaced by something else.
Create a dynamic democracy.
Democracy is static. Every few years the voters make a single decision, and after that everything’s out of their hands.
In today’s world even a fraction of fraction of a single decision is way too complex. We’re asked, again and again, to make a single binary decision but haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell to understand that decision.
Votes are only equal if their value cannot be manipulated. But it can be, because creating skewed — or outright false — narratives from facts, concentrated into a very short period of time destroys any nuance.
We cannot reasonably ask any human being to be aware of every issue that's going to be affected by a single decision they make every few years. But we can, and should, ask people to make smaller decisions on a much more frequent schedule. Day to day. Even hour to hour.
But in a dynamic democracy, where the people are able to evaluate, choose, and communicate their choice frequently, nuance becomes important again. When decisions are made not ahead of time but at the moment, the context of those decisions becomes important again.
“There's nothing that's more important in democracy than a well-informed electorate.” (The Newsroom)
Scaling democracy, and making it into a dynamic process can only work if those making the decisions are informed.
Fake news and misinformation campaigns appeal to emotions, but only work for a limited amount of time. When there’s a short campaign.
In a dynamic environment falsehoods cannot be sustained. They cannot exploit emotions because the can’t reach a critical mass.
That part is easy. We’ve invented the single greatest tool for communication in human history: the internet. Or, rather, digital communication in general.
We already have everything we could possibly need for a scalable democratic process, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what technology is capable of.
The internet is capable of giving everyone a voice. A way of representation. A channel through which decision can be made. A platform on which context can be evaluated.
We have all the tools to sustain billions of decisions made every day dynamically. I’m not talking about giving an artificial intelligence — which scenario is more science-fiction than science anyway — governing power, but using AI to automate the process of gathering and evaluating those decisions without bias.
And AI is just one of the tools, and not a very sophisticated or advanced one yet, we have at our disposal. We have the means of communication, the means of securing that communication, and the means of interpreting that communication all at our fingertips.
We really shouldn't use that capability for only sharing funny pictures. (But we can do both at the same time. Funny pictures are valuable and... well, funny.)
This part is again easy. Those in power have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They’re comfortable. Their power is more important to them than the progression of society.
I’m not trying to cast politicians as villains here. Still, I stand by my statements. There’s no interest in change because it means losing control. Somewhere, sometime, people have been conned into giving up their control.
A dynamic, everyday democracy brings dynamic accountability. Suddenly politicians would become the executors of the people’s actual will, and not decision-makers on behalf of a vaguely defined idea of it.
Systematic bias benefits those in power, but not those who gave them that power. A dynamic democracy would mean an elimination of systematic flaws, would bring about true representation that is endlessly scalable.
Democracy was based around the idea to empower a select few who have a better understanding of the contexts, to make decisions we ourselves cannot make. That's a good idea, but only when there are no ways, or no sustainable ways, for the people themselves to be empowered in the same way.
But we do now.
Finally: if we have the tools to make this happen, who will make it happen?
I wish people could make it happen. I'm a futurist, which means I have a good dose of optimism.
But realistically speaking it will happen violently. I don’t necessarily mean physical violence like a revolution, but when technology reaches a critical mass in power — and I do think it’s much sooner than most people realize — there will be a forced paradigm shift. Not forced by anyone in particular, but by the sheer power of technology itself.
The world have a 100% track record of realigning itself when it's been out of whack for a long time. If history has taught us anything, and in so many ways, it's that resisting change never works out.
That’s why it pains me to see the innovators of those technologies act cowardly. That’s why I’m alarmed when I see technology regulated. The more we push against what will happen either way the more devastating the inevitable change will become.
To summon Plato a bit: we can either stone to death those who, after breaking their proverbial chains and venturing outside the cave to experience sunlight, came back to free us…
… or we can push against the chains ourselves, and realize that there’s more to this world than the shadows cast onto the wall in front of us.