Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

Social Media Politics: Are the New Movements, from Quebec to Wall Street, Compatible with Representative Democracy?

Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

Social Media Politics: Are the New Movements, from Quebec to Wall Street, Compatible with Representative Democracy?

Article excerpt

Overall, electoral participation has been declining in democratic countries for the last generation, as has party membership. (1) Many factors have been blamed for this weakening of the foundation of representative democracy--including the lack of clear distinctions between the political choices offered to voters and the constraints on political discretion in an age of globalization.

My own work, beginning in the late 1990s, focused on the relationship between political participation and political knowledge. I found that the decline in one tended to be accompanied by a decline in the other (see figure 1). Moreover, countries with relatively high levels of political knowledge--I use the term civic literacy--tended to exhibit high levels of political participation. I argued that effective policies in education (including related institutions like libraries), the structuring of political institutions (including proportional voting systems as opposed to first-past-the-post) and--most important of all--the media (2) could ensure a reasonably high level of political participation.

In recent years it has become clear that the decline has a significant generational component, something we observe in the mitigating role of the family. Hence, whether young voters live with their parents matters in explaining their participation. (3) A case in point is the apparently positive effect of Austria's reduction of the voting age to 16. This is confirmed by data from Norway, which experimented with voting at 16 in selected municipalities in its 2011 local elections and attained 58 per cent turnout among those 16 and 17, compared to 45 per cent among those 18 to 30. (4) Other data have shown that civic education targeted at those lacking the requisite family background can also have a positive effect. (5)

But such measures, it would appear, only slow down the generational decline. While the causes of lower participation may be multiple, a universal factor is the radically changed media environment for those who reached maturity in the years of the Internet, relative to previous generations. This is not a matter of technological fixes like e-voting, whose effect so far is marginal, but of something more profound. For previous generations, policies such as state support for newspapers and public service radio and television boosted political participation in the high civic literacy countries. But we do not have parallel measures that could have a similar effect on the Internet generation at our disposal. (6)

Just what can we expect from this generation? This is the question I pose here, inspired by recent events in Quebec. My contention is that there is an incompatibility between "social media politics" as understood and experienced by the Internet generation and representative democracy as we have known it. Furthermore, I reluctantly conclude that addressing this incompatibility may entail adopting some form of electronic direct democracy. These are contentious assertions that need, first, to be placed in historical context.

Changes over time

By the 1920s a consensus had emerged in Western societies: everyone should be educated and every adult should be able to vote. In exceptional cases, such as a few Swiss cantons, this took the form of direct democracy (for men only). But the norm became a combination of universal suffrage and party-based representative democracy: educated adult citizens had the ability and interest to distinguish among party programs and cast at least minimally informed votes.

The norm survived some glaring anomalies, most notably the totalitarian politics of left and right in the 1930s. At the time, movements that rejected representative democracy enjoyed a great deal of electoral success. The New Left of the 1960s contained elements opposed to electoral politics, but by the 1970s most radical movements sought not to overturn representative democracy but to make the system live up to its billings. …

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