Beware, politicians
Cybergovernment is on the way

Brian Flemming

A SPECTRE IS HAUNTING politically mature nations – the spectre of direct democracy. Al-ready in less-than-robust health, weakened political establishments in advanced democracies are cowering like cobras before mongooses as this spectre speeds toward them like some ancient asteroid, one capable of destroying every decaying democracy.

The flower of democracy is about 2,500 years old. Yet it has never fully bloomed.

Democracy only became wide-spread in the 19th century Then, unfortunately the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler’s rise caused democracy to retreat into suspended animation as it fought a life – and – death struggle against the anti-democratic ideologies of communism and fascism.

In 1989, the “short” 2Oth century came to a close when communism collapsed. Suddenly democracy was free to move once more toward its true destiny But it will only reach that destiny if it returns to its roots and enthusiastically embraces new information technologies.

Returning to its roots means revisiting one of the hoariest questions of democratic politics: are politicians “representatives” or “delegates” of voters? Edmund Burke gave the conventional answer in a speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Burke’s paternalistic, elitist position might have been acceptable when voters were poorly educated and lacking the (secret) information their political masters possessed. Today most electors think they are as well – (or ill-) equipped to make important political choices as are a handful of randomly chosen citizens, a.k.a. parliamentarians.

‘Apple of knowledge’

The Internet is the “apple of knowledge” that will drive political establishments from their comfy Gardens of Eden where deference to authority was routinely demanded, and given. Politicians shortly will be as effectively disintermediated as any other cybersociety middlepeople.

The idea of handing total power for five years at a time to a less-than-respected political class is already perceived by voters to be as nonsensical as shopping for one’s groceries only two days every decade. The signs of crisis of confidence are everywhere. Political parties are in steep decline. Party loyalty is a quaint relic from the past.

New parties, such as Reform and the Bloc, spring like dragon’s teeth from fetid political fields; or disappear as Saskatchewan’s Tories recently did. People know politicians put on their policy trousers one leg at a time, just as they do. Another wind-blown straw heralds the end of politics as a lifetime vocation. Most younger Canadians face multiple careers. Why shouldn’t politicians? The era of the “expert” politician is over Direct democracy is based on the belief that every citizen is entitled to an equal voice in public policy and the management of government.

As information technologies truncate time, most citizens instinctively know it’s absurd to leave third-rate Burkes completely in charge of the political system for years. That growing belief will form the basis for the new electronic elitism.

As consumers, voters also know the Internet has enormously empowered them. In their millions, elector-consumers can research, complain or bargain-hunt with the click of a computer key Torrents of information slosh through cyberspace every nanosecond.

Soon, voters will demand the same power in the political marketplace they have in the commercial one. Citizens will no longer accept the Burkean demarcation between governors and the governed. That line has disappeared forever.

Participatory democracy was one of the glittering goals of the ’60s, but was impossible because appropriate technologies to achieve it didn’t exist. Now they do. The Charlottetown Accord referendum whetted Canadians’ appetite for direct democracy Smug elites joined the “surefire” Yes forces, but were stunned when the people rejected their betters’ advice. Canadian democracy would never again be the same, as the Mulroney PCs discovered in 1993.

Democracy transformed

The greatest coming challenge for political institutions -in Canada and elsewhere – will be to transform the very nature of democracy itself. Indeed, creating a new means for citizens to be involved in decision-making may be the only way to stem voter cynicism and the meaningless changing of political guards.

Burke reincarnated might then say: “I owe you not just my diligence, but decisions that are based both on my opinions and upon your properly – and scientifically – collected views. You are owed nothing less than a true, transparent and direct democracy

“Cybergovernment of the people, by the people and for the people is here at last.”