Leading Article: Press a Button for Democracy
ONE OF the most troubling themes of last year, and one that will continue into 1994, is the declining authority of democratic governments. Weak at home, they have also responded poorly to external challenges, thereby further undermining their domestic standing. The vicious circle shows no sign of being broken.
This is pushing a new question on to the agenda: is the whole concept of representative government under threat? All the obvious reasons for the unpopularity of democratic governments take us only a certain distance towards an answer. Yes, there are some tired, corrupt and mediocre politicians around. Yes, there has been a recession. Yes, the passing of the Cold War has dissolved the glue that held some governments and parties together, giving them purpose and authority. Yes, the power of European governments has been seeping away to Brussels.
Yes, and probably most important over the longer term, the growth of global markets and the dispersal of manufacturing have reduced the ability of even the best governments to respond to the needs and wishes of their voters. Wages, prices, pensions, interest rates, health, safety and many other aspects of life are shifting beyond their full control.
But there is something else going on of equal or greater significance that could threaten the fundamentals of the system. The principle that we elect people to take decisions for us on the basis of their own judgements, properly influenced by a desire to be re-elected, is already being undermined by opinion polls and the media. The spread of interactive electronic communications will weaken it further. Before long, practically every citizen will be able to sit at home with a beer (or something stronger), listen, or not listen, to a speech, and register a response by pressing a button. We shall then be on the way from representative democracy to direct democracy. Although the political system will be slow to grant any formal authority to mass electronic voting, it cannot fail to be fundamentally altered by it. …