What Was Democracy?
If information technology turns out to have world-historical significance, it is not because of its economic promise, still less because it may facilitate the toppling of dictators. It is because information technology makes plain that the story democracies have told about themselves for more than two centuries has been a bluff.
Democracy, as we know it in the modern world, is based on a peculiar compromise. The word to which we pay such homage means the “rule of the people.” But insofar as we can claim to govern ourselves at all, we do so in a remarkably indirect way. Every few years, the citizens of modern democracies make their way to the polls to cast their votes for a limited set of candidates. Once they have acquitted themselves of this duty, their elected representatives take over. In the daily functioning of democracy, the public is marginal.
This is not what democracy once looked like. In ancient Athens, the citizens constituted at most one-fifth of the population—the rest were women, children, resident aliens and slaves. But those Athenians who did count as citizens had a direct voice in matters of justice and war. The idea that a people should meet in public to discuss what to do was not unique to the Greeks—several indigenous societies across the world deliberated in similar ways—but nothing approaching direct democracy has been tried on a mass scale in the modern world.
The American founders were adamant that it could not be otherwise. The body of the people, John Adams declared, “can never act, consult, or reason together, because they cannot march five hundred miles, nor spare the time, nor find a space to meet; and, therefore, the proposition, that they are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true. They are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all.” Adams was dismissing one of the last gasps of the radical republican tradition—the Anti-Federalists, mostly composed of farmers and minor artisans in the colonies. Their arguments for making political life in America as local as possible were trumped by the founders’ superior propaganda and their vision of a republic that would encompass a much larger territory. Since then, for more than 200 years, almost every political thinker has conceded that the constraints of time and space make direct democracy impracticable. Even those who did not share the founders’ contempt for popular rule—Robespierre, Bolívar, Lenin—have acknowledged that representative institutions are unavoidable.
As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner.
The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves. The very word “democracy” indicts the political reality of most modern states. It takes a considerable degree of delusion to believe that any modern government has been “by” the people in anything but the most incidental way. In the digital age, the claim that the political participation of the people in decision-making makes democracy a legitimate form of government is only that much hollower. Its sole lingering claim to legitimacy—that it allows the people the regular chance to remove leaders who displease them—is distinctly less inspiring. Democracy was once a comforting fiction. Has it become an uninhabitable one?
* * *