The trouble with democracy

What better way to end the rule of self-serving political parties than to hold elections on the Internet?


The trouble with democracy
by Niloufar Parsi

We have descended a long way from stated ideals of the original proponents of democracy. The great march of freedom has been replaced by national and international political discourses consumed with fundamentalism and extremism of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Hindu types. Lofty ideals about the nature of humanity, progress, and a bright tomorrow when racism, fascism,apartheid and sexism would be discarded to the dustbin of history to be replaced by a loving, green and peaceful world have been all but forgotten. The age of the Internet and the information highway, the collapse of totalitarianism, and intensified globalisation have rather surprisingly resulted in a greater and more severe pursuit of national interests and wars rather than the pursuit of happiness and international solidarity.

An exponential rise in the availability of information has exposed extreme levels of ignorance, particularly among politicians and their hangers-on: the advisors and the ‘opinion makers’. Civil society appears less civil than was expected. Significant improvements in standards of living across the globe have not brought humanity closer together on the level of ideas. At least this does not appear to be the case in a war-obsessed world. The media have regressed in information quality while they have improved on information quantity and presentation quality.

The situation has led to a sense of disempowerment or lethargy if not exacerbation among the greater populations at large. The opportunities presented by technological progress have been seized on by states across the globe. The state is ever more powerful to monitor, control and direct people and their minds. Social engineering has been on the rise in recent decades. Instruments for the protection of civil liberties have become blunted, blurred and unresponsive. Politicians act like agents of the ‘market’ – whoever or whatever that elusive policy determiner may be. Wars are launched and maintained for indefinite periods in the face of public opposition. The elected representatives of the public treat public opinion as largely irrelevant. At best, public opinion is seen as something that must be managed rather than followed.

Vested interests are king today. Public officials and elected representatives are bought and sold like commodities. They do not possess a sense of responsibility toward the public, but arrange their time and efforts to manage their electorate instead. Put simply, representative democracy seems to fail the public. This may have been the case from its inception (we leave that argument to the academics), but the shortcomings of representative democracy are patently clear today. Elected representatives do not represent the opinions or interests of those who elect them, nor do they intend to so it would appear. Talk of ‘people power’ has been replaced by ‘leadership quality’.

What is democracy?

So it is time to go back to the drawing board and ask the question: what is democracy? What was the essence of all the fuss made in the first place? We will deliberately exclude an analysis of the modes of production here since it would add way too much volume to this short paper, and because it is essentially not necessary when we are discussing the basic principles and goals of democracy as an age-old concept in itself. Suffice to say, we will confine our discussion to the exigencies (and the mode of production) of today.

Democracy has in essence three separate aspects:

1. The free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government and to effect required checks and balances on office holdres

2. A system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making

3. The control of an organization or institution by its members, who have a free and equal right to participate in decision-making processes.

The core problem with the situation is that while the first two aspects are to varying degrees practiced in various countries, the third aspect is hardly ever practiced anywhere. This raises a fundamental question on the practicality of the ideal itself: how is it possible for individuals to participate in government-level decision-making if there is a dearth of democratic organisation in social institutions or organisations such as the family, the corner shop, the office, the shop floor, the hospital, schools and so on. There is always a ‘representative’ or ‘leader’ in place wherever you go and whatever you do. Inevitably, we are being a little reductionist here, but the subject matter requires it, and there is undeniable truth in our basic statement: as a rule, democracy is absent from the family and the work place. The question is: Why? And, what is the impact of this situation on a quest for greater freedom and self-determination?

The glitch

A simple answer to the question of ‘why’ is found in the capitalism/democracy dichotomy. But this is not a satisfactory answer to those who believe in freedom in a personal, human way rather than the intangible ‘market’ way. In fact, the mysterious ‘market’ appears to successfully negate democracy and our efforts to achieve it. In ‘Bush-speak’ freedom is effectively reduced to the freedom (of Americans) to exploit others and to own vast amounts of private property, and virtually nothing else.

We are here insinuating that ‘free market democracy’ and ‘democracy’ are diametrically opposed to each other. The driver for this contradiction would appear to be inthe system of representative democracy itself: giving up individual freedoms in a social contract that essentially disempowers the ‘masses’ in favour of the chosen few – an idea that gained ascendance with the rise of the feudal aristocracy and later strongly reinforced by the rise of the bourgeoisie. Representative democracy would have looked highly attractive back then, but today, it effectively impedes democracy itself. Put differently: where exactly is the ‘power’ of the average citizen today in between transient election fevers?

There is a structural contradiction between stated ideals and realities on the ground. Perhaps this is the case today largely due to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Perhaps it is time to roll back the power of the oligarchy. We are certainly heading in the wrong direction in terms of peace, the environment and citizens participation in the decision-making processes. Profits and short-term gains have drawn a large curtain over international solidarity. Hit-and-run economics have led to the present “credit crunch”. Who knows where this new financial crisis will lead. For sure, there are some positive signs among the wreckage. The Bali conference of November 2007, and other bits and pieces can be pointed out. However, decorations alone do not make a cake.

Reclaiming democracy

How then would one approach the question of achieving greater accountability and democracy today? Despite the foregoing arguments, we are not here looking at the idea of revolutionising the work place. That is at once too obvious and too impractical short of a global revolution. What may be more practical is to start at the top, and to aim specifically at reducing the decision-making influence of the new aristocracy: the super rich, the multinational corporations, banking warlords and the military-industrial complex. And the key to this shift in power may in fact rest in the Internet.

In the context of such a large and constantly increasing number of delicate and confidential transactions being conducted over the World Wide Web today, one has to wonder why it is that so many decisions are still being made by elected representatives rather than directly by the people themselves. If we can conduct banking transactions and most of our confidential correspondence over the net, why not establish Internet voting systems too? And once we have web-based voting systems, why not extend its use to the legislative domain too?

Why is it that a single person – a president - has the right to declare war on another nation without consulting the people first; and an illegal war at that too? Why is it that when an elected Congress or Senate or any other parliament fails to defend a national Constitution and to resist war crimes, no one has the power to do anything?

The experience so far

Thus far, there is little evidence of a significant deepening of democracy with the rise of the Internet. On the contrary, one can argue that traditional methods such as the street protest have been rendered ineffective with public opposition being more and more confined to home-bound digital exchanges on the one hand, and politicians becoming more and more unresponsive to public displays of discontent on the other. In North America, the expected impact of first-hand information on web sites like YouTube has been minimal, particularly in terms of disastrous policies like in Iraq. Interestingly, as more and more unsavoury ‘truths’ have surfaced through wider and freer media outlets, the veracity of ‘truth’ itself has been increasingly challenged with old tools such as outright denials, smear campaigns, spin and effective propaganda. We are once again reminded that an information tool is just a tool, and the opposition can use it just as effectively – if not more so.

Similarly,what voting takes place on the net is usually in the shape of opinion polls onsites like that remain poorly monitored, and are run by political sycophants directing debates in favour of the exigencies of representative democracy, rather than their original stated aims of direct democracy, as with the case of Dick Morris’ Direct Democracy andthe Internet.

The same individuals deeply involved in the power corridors of Washington and running the corporate mass media pose as champions of direct democracy through the Internet. These well managed election campaigns and opinion polls help potential election candidates formulate popular policies (to put it positively) and to gain votes (to put it sceptically), but with no evidence that such policies would ever be enacted, as experience with representative democracy has shown over and over again (to put it bluntly).

Similarly,academic institutions such as the George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet devote much of their efforts toward self-explanatory topics such as ‘Poli-Fluentials:the New Political Kingmakers’, or ‘Constituent Relationship Management: The New Little Black Book in Politics’.

This author’s search for the term ‘direct democracy’ on the Centre’s web site bore no results, not even in a document entitled ‘Person-to-Person: Harnessing the Political Power of Online Social Networks and User-Generated Content’. Perhaps it is prudent that the performance bar is inadvertently being set at the level of ‘influencing’ policy (rather than ‘power to the people’), but what then makes the Internet as a medium any different from say the newspaper?

In USA, therefore, there is little obvious evidence of much significant impact from the rise of the Internet, which should be expected, as there is no decision-making power transferred to the public so far. The Internet is primarily used as just another top-down information medium so far like the radio and TV with a few exceptions to the general rule.

Without meaning to ignore the Internet’s hugely interactive nature, we are here simply pointing to the lack of people power in the decision-making process itself, despite a real potential for this. With a vastly growing number of on line users and less and less of a generational gap in its usage, the Internet’s biggest impact so far remains at the level of its ever growing ‘potential’ to transform democracy. This is a very real and positive potential that is as yet to be realised (or perhaps even initiated) in North America.

In Europe,the Internet has quickly become a central feature of social services, education, advertising and business transactions as well as political discourse. As expected, existing institutions have latched on to its speed and efficiency, and reduced costs on several fronts. Of particular interest to us is the situation in Switzerland, which has a long-established system of direct and indirect democracy, and we shall return to this example later.

The impact of the Internet on power relations in other parts of the world is harder to gauge. On the one hand there are the famous Egyptian bloggers who have caused considerable embarrassment to their government with their exposures of torture by the Egyptian police. However, here too one is struck by a distinct lack of impact on either the Egyptian authorities or others such as the US government that continues to work closely with the Egyptian, Jordanian and Albanian secret services in the Middle East and beyond. Similarly, Iran displays a decidedly vibrant Internet culture, but with little impact on government policies so far.

Filtering techniques have become highly sophisticated and widely used in a wide range of countries including in China. Google’s well-publicised servility to Chinese government pressure is a good case in point where the threat of the Internet to an undemocratic regime was palpably felt and somewhat curbed.

There are very real positive signs, however, as well documented by a Japanese enthusiast, Joichi Ito’s ‘Weblogsand Emergent Democracy’, and laudable initiatives such as Steven Clift’s ‘DoWire Group’. The Internet has provided an unprecedented platform for direct exchange of views across countries and continents. It is now possible for the most I.T.-savvy to reach out to people across the globe from their computer desks. A South African and an Indian can now debate the issue of Palestine on the AlJazeera or the BBC web sites, albeit through the censoring power of a ‘moderator’ but with the advantage of avoiding the rigmarole and risks of setting up personal web logs. Virtually all news web sites today invite reader comments.

None of these examples, however, display any fundamental shift toward direct democracy within countries or in inter-governmental organisations such as the World Bank, IMF or various organs of the United Nations, which continue to represent the interests of the rich and/or militarily powerful countries in a non-transparent manner. On the contrary, none of these organisations or their agencies operates under management systems that even remotely resemble democracy with the sole exception of the UN’s toothless General Assembly. This latter point is important in that these institutions claim to propagate democratisation, good governance, transparency and/or ‘poverty reduction’ globally, yet they have not taken any concrete steps toward leveraging the potential of the Internet in their policymaking processes other than in some greater transparency measures in reporting and information sharing on the net. These reports available on the Internet, however, are invariably bland and self-promotional, and represent decisions already made by the same powers that be.

The international NGO’s too tend to use the power of the Internet most effectively for fundraising purposes, while failing to make waves in the promotion of human rights and citizens’ participation. There have, however, been some positive steps undertaken by the likes of the Athens-based access2democracy, which is a member of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Possible objections

For sure,there are many practical questions to consider, but there is no justification today for continuing with the status quo if we truly see ourselves as upholders of democratic values. One can anticipate several of the inevitable objections:

Election fraud is nothing new in any country, and whatever preventive measures exist today can be replicated for a web-based voting system too. It is a matter of the political will and transparency. A web-based system indeed would be easier to monitor independently.

A constant and old anti-democratic argument has been the competence of voters on technical or sensitive issues. We know full well that most legislators do not bother to read what they are voting on – not even on matters such as the Patriot Act. On the contrary, elected representatives are highly susceptible to party political, financial and lobbyist pressures, and as such are largely incompetent for the legislative jobs they hold. However, this potential objection to direct democracy must be taken very seriously, as it is likely to be a main obstacle that would be placed in the path of direct democracy by those wishing to hold on to power.

It can be argued that the average citizen may not be interested in or have the time to deal with a broad range of issues that politicians typically deal with. This is an important barrier that would need careful consideration of how a direct voting system would be organised. However, just as in the above point, politicians have shown a distinct lack of interest in dealing with their responsibilities with the required professionalism and dedication. This is partly related to an absence of personal implications for the politicians in the decisions they make. Their number one priority is to hold on to power. They base all their decisions with this single issue on their mind in addition to other considerations that come and go, but holding on to power stays as a main objective all the way through. However, the average citizen has a personal stake in many if not most of the political decisions made. They may well make the time and develop the interest in their own affairs in a surprising manner.

Furthermore, and as with other tasks, the legislative workload can be shared or distributed according to the level of interest. Local level decisions would attract a great deal of interest as they affect one’s own neighbourhood. State-level issues need only state-level interest. National issues of a sensitive nature would attract a great deal of voter interest, while others can be delegated to elected representatives and/or technical groups. The options and opportunities with direct democracy and citizens’ participation are limitless, and there is no excuse for reneging on the task of bringing real democracy about.

An almost singular case of direct democracy

An outstanding example of the real and practical potential for the exercise of direct democracy is Switzerland. This tiny country became a federal state in 1848, with a government made up of 7 members whose presidency is rotational. While legislators are elected as in other countries, the people of the country have the concrete power to propose their own legislation and to repeal legislation proposed by elected representatives. Popular initiatives have succeeded in passing legislation against the position of the parliament, while referenda have to be held on all cases of popular opposition to new parliamentary legislation, and on major international agreements.

On local matters, people’s participation is deep, and can extend to local referenda on issues such as the purchase of a painting for a local museum. In some districts, people vote on every single piece of local legislation proposed.

Among the various criticisms made of the Swiss system, the most important one relates to its inertia or sluggishness (assuming for the sake of the argument that ‘slow’ is ‘bad’): It can take up to five years for popular legislation to be finalised. Worse still, women only finally got the right to vote in federal elections in 1971 due to longstanding objections by a minority.

For our purposes, it is clear that the Internet may in fact be an essential tool for alleviating this inevitable sluggishness in a system of direct democracy.


Our foregoing analysis raises more questions that it answers. Any honest discussion of the potential for direct democracy must also face difficult issues such as cultural ones. What are the cultural prerequisites for direct democracy? Also, we have to recognise that the Internet is a mere potential tool for the exercise of direct democracy – not its foundation. But such questions are in themselves no excuse for inaction. Political transformations have always been attempted in the face of longstanding established interests and against existing power relations. The case for direct democracy fundamentally rests on a belief in the goodness of people, and our natural right to govern ourselves. This is no more than a belief in democracy itself, but extended to all the people all the time. As such, most arguments against direct democracy are in essence anti-democratic.

A system of direct democracy backed up by the use of the Internet would need to be set up gradually. Perhaps one would have to aim at the two extremes of decision-making to start with: matters of high national interest (as in the case of Switzerland) and those at the local level such as proposed by the UK’s newly established International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy. Most likely, a mixed system of delegated and direct democracy would work best, at least to start with, again, as in the case of Switzerland. And a natural place to start such a movement would of course be the Internet.

Interestingly, a web-based voting system would also put an end to two or three-party monopolies at the reign of power. What better way to end the rule of ineffective and self-serving political parties than to hold elections for representative houses on the Internet? The process can start from the local level with each successful candidate moving up the administrative ladder to the county, province, and then national level for the head of state.

Manifestos can be more easily scrutinised; question and answer sessions held; and the policies of candidates can be truly scrutinised instead of the current razzmatazz of balloons, excruciating music and nauseating celebrities. Moreover, direct democracy would also put an end to a false preoccupation with ‘small government’ versus ‘big government’ in political debates by instilling the largest and most democratic form of government possible: government by the people for themselves.

It really is time to take control of our lives, and to address the key question of ‘what is to be done?’ with a feasible solution, to draw on our basic and fundamental approach to democracy, and thus take ownership of it. It is only then we can truly be the responsible and engaged global citizens that most of us aspire to be. Even the many who have fallen victim to apathy will recognize that some of us have decided to reclaim a basic right that is ours as citizens and re-establish the system’s creditability and accountability.

Given the performance of the powers that be, our survival may depend on it.

This article was written in December 2007. Some may disagree with its critique of representative democracy in the post-Bush era, but I believe it is as relevant today.


Recently by Niloufar ParsiCommentsDate
US media double standard
Jul 21, 2010
patriot dog
Jul 13, 2010
the trouble with capitalism
May 24, 2010
more from Niloufar Parsi
Niloufar Parsi

kurush jan

by Niloufar Parsi on

thanks so much for the detailed comments. of course this subject is imposssible to attempt to cover fully in this space. its focus on 'elections' was primarily due to the razzmatazz of of elections in December 2007 when it was written. My aim was to point out that it is possible to reduce the influence of interest groups and reliance on elected representatives (as they always seem to fail us) by opting for greater 'direct democracy', which would help individuals be more involved in the decision making processes, including for example in the decision to make war or peace.

the 'internet' side of it is there to highlight the fact that it is possible now for people to vote on issues and major national decisions from the comfort of their homes, in the same way that we can carry out banking transactions. both are highly sensitive and private, and if - in terms of internet security - we can do one, there is no excuse to avoid doing the other.

your patriarchy comments are of course related, but with one caveat: in the case of children, i believe  it is not quite as 'undemocratic' as you depict it in the sense that nearly all children get the chance to be grown ups too. they do not continue to have their views ignored so much as they get older. so its 'fairness' is similar to a tribal structure that allows everyone to play a certain role according to their age. your argument is stronger on the gender front, in my view. this, however, is not inherent to capitalism in the sense that men and women can become more equal as more and more women earn wages, and can for example choose to run their own lives independently if their partners are too oppressive. this was not the case under feudalism (as an example).

on the question of racism, this too is being challenged more by the economic realities of a changing global economic order. racism is more of a tool than an inherent part of human nature anywhere. it may become entrenched and highly destructive and yet it can be quickly defeated once the racially abused gain the upper hand economically. i know i am being reductionist here, but the rise of asia will for sure put many racists in an untenable position.

an underlying argument of yours is that the patriarchal system engulfs all aspects of society and economy and keeps the majority under the thumb of a group of wealthy men. my argument is that this will inevitably change. moreover, the example of some other countries today - scandinavian ones for example - points to this likelihood.

i hope i have done your inputs justice. would love to hear your feedback.



Democrcy & Patriarchy

by Kurush (not verified) on

I have a few suggestions for you to consider. You have followed a narrow band of argument, such as democracy and the internet for which I do not find any plausible linkage. Are you saying that democracy and technology are somewhat linked or are interdependent? I think you are going on a wild goose chase. If you want to deepen your discourse you would have to start, first and foremost, with the patriarchal system in which we all grow up irregardless of our background. Indeed, it is universal. All great authors sooner or later would have to treat it: Shakespeare expatiated upon it in King Lear and also in Hamlet, arguably two of his best works. The patriarch and/or the matriarch make the decisions for their children with little involvement from the children who will have to undergo the consequences of those decisions. In no wise, do the parents sit around the kitchen table with their children and consult them on an ongoing basis with regards to issues affecting them (the children) directly or indirectly. We get use to that growing up and take it for granted. Then once the children grow up and go on their merry way, they never question this one-sided system when they come across it in other circumstances.. Subliminally they have succumbed to accepting it as inevitable and divinely preordained; the father knows better and has the good of the children in mind. But figures of authority are humans and subject to all the ills and shortcomings of their species. . Take Enron or Lehman Brothers which collapsed and took with them the savings of their employees. Those employees never made the major decisions and were never privy to the boardroom hagglings and shenanigans. The boardroom imposters appeared fatherly and with the good of their employees at heart. But what followed was rude awakening. Take another example the father-like stature of the US president and how Bush single handedly ruined the lives of a whole generation, he never consulted them, or cared for their opinion, nor for their welfare.. No one was seriously able to question him and stop the dimwit in his ruinous path. The obedience people learn in their childhood are carried with them through life. The logical conclusion is of course to change the structure of the patriarchal system, the children should be taught to learn to consult and evaluate options in conjunction with their parents. Children can think. The system status quo is such that the decision makers never face the consequences of their decisions and those who must face the outcome of those decisions never make the decisions, nor are they involved in making them. THAT would have to change first and foremost., for we can not talk meaningfully about consensus, a vital ingredient of democracy, without having been allowed to practice it early on. Furthermore, we can not talk meaningfully about democracy if we turn a blind eye to the vast disequilibrium in the distribution of wealth. That is why the American so-called democracy is just a joke. We both have a vote to cast, true, but if I have a billion in my bank account and you a mere few thousands, I would be disingenuous to say my vote is commensurate to yours and you gullible to think so. Moreover, what about justice. I declare that I rather prefer to live in a dictatorship which practices justice honestly than to live in a democracy were injustice is the norm, or to obtain it one would have to spend a fortune, as is the case in the US. The corollary is that justice and democracy do not engender one the other, although to have them both is sine qua non. Finally, democracy does not guarantee that you vote into office competent people each and every time. By competent, I mean both morally and mentally. Hitler came into power by a genuine democratic vote. In fact the Germany of 1932, was more democratic than that of the US circa 2000. The Germans had a true range of parties & ideology to choose from: on the far right, was of course the National Socialist/Nazi party, in the middle you had the socialists who respected the laws and the constitution, and on the far left the German communist party, the largest in the world after that in Russia. Democracy did not guarantee that the right candidate was selected. This should serve as warning to those who are naïve to think that democracy inherently weeds out the wrong candidate. Bush’s election demonstrates this reality yet again. In the absence of the sacred, and in a secular society, the voters are made to appear as omniscient and possessing a virtue. Yet we know those who vote, like the rest of humanity, are susceptible to corrupting influences of deceit, falsehood and monetary gains. The notion of democracy as practiced today is a fetishistic ritual. Even worse, The American/Western so-called democracy is interwoven with racism so endemic in the West. When America rams democracy down the throats of hapless Iraqis by bayonet, it is implying that the inferior race is incapable of creating a democratic context, and, hence, needs the superior race to benevolently bestow it, even by bayonet if necessary. That is of course deviantly patriarchal.

Niloufar Parsi

abarmard jan

by Niloufar Parsi on

many thanks for the encouragement. the link looks great :)


Well thought of and informative

by Abarmard on

Thank you for this informative and interesting article. A friend of mine has written couple of books about this topic that might interest you: