Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Digital Democracy, Participatory Democracy and Consumer Democracy: An Uneasy Balance

Jihad vs. McWorld offers a unique perspective on digital democracy

Howard Dean could have been president. In the eyes of many, Howard Dean should have been president.

If the 2004 American presidential election had been conducted exclusively on the internet, Howard Dean probably would have been president.

Unfortunately, the election wasn't conducted exclusively on the internet, and Howard Dean may never be president. But those who overlook Dean's performance in the 2003 presidential primaries also overlook the incredible blow that he managed to strike in favour of participatory democracy, particularly digital democracy.

By way of blogs, messaging boards and youtube videos, 2007's slate of would-be presidents has clearly taken notice of the near-miracle pulled off by Dean and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi. And for good reason.

It's a winning formula, one built upon a formula that is constantly refreshed by the utter indifference of all too many politicians.

In many ways, digital democracy is an internet-specific version of classical participatory democracy, wherein it is concieved that every man and woman of voting age (or at least old enough to be politically active) has a right (and a responsibility) to be engaged in the political process. Digital democracy is only a slight variant: through it, every man and woman of voting age (or, again, at least old enough to be politically active) has the power to participate through the many tools the internet offers.

Most western democracies haven't been participatory in decades. The traditional style of democracy has seemingly been replaced by consumer democracies, wherein political ideas have been reduced from something that the average person engages with personally, to something that is merely produced, packaged and marketed by politicians and bought by voters.

Voters are disempowered in consumer democracies. Instead of telling politicians what their interests are and what they expect, they are instead told what their interests should be and what they should expect. What eventually emerges is a democracy wherein voters are offered fewer real choices.

Periodically throughout history, political movements are catalyzed around dissatisfaction with this brand of consumer democracy, often based around populist ideals (in Canada, the Reform party was only the most recent among a historical lineage of such movements).

When examined from the point of view offered by Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld model, demands for digital democracy represent a very deep and, at times, gutteral reaction to the dominant model of consumer democracy.

According to Barber "jihad" movements often emerge out of identity politics, while the "McWorld" institutions they oppose emerge out of globalism and consumerism. Populism, favoured by many digital democracy advocates, tends to have deep roots in identity politics, although the identity it refers to tends to be a broader "big tent" concept. The "McWorld" institutions are often mired in elitism (itself a form of identity politics), but promote themselves stringently.

For many, the first impulse while examining phenomenae according to the Jihad vs. McWorld model is to villainize or demonize one side or another. Yet, a good deal of villainy is perpetrated both by "jihadist" movements and by "McWorld" institutions. The watering-down of political discourse under consumer democracy should probably be considered such an act of villainy. It disempowers ordinary voters to the benefit of political elites, undermining the kind of citizenship engagement necessary for a healthy democracy.

On the other hand, neither side is excusively villainous, either. The horrific violence perpetrated by the 9/11 hijackers constrasts very differently with civil rights activists, as does the heartless profiteering by irresponsible corporations with the philantrophy of the United Way.

The "jihadist" agitations of digital democracy advocates tends to come out overall as positive.

In regards to participatory and digital democracy, the "jihadist" movements are not necessarily universally positive. Often, such movements can tend to run hand-in-hand with other "jihadist" movements that don't necessarily have the noblest intentions. Consider, for example, the Reform party's experience with attempted subversion by racist organizations (which are solidly grounded in identity politics). Likewise, the "McWorld" institutions are not universally negative. Canada's hate crime laws have helped to stem the tide of racial propaganda spread by such groups.

Sometimes, such "jihadist" movements even achieve their goals by subverting "McWorld" institutions. Consider the irony of Pierre Trudeau's promise of participatory democracy against the fact that he has, both pre- and post-humously, been one of the world's most mass-marketed politicians. The two concepts really don't seem to be very compatible.

However, throughout Trudeau's early years, he was clearly a "jihadist" (he was actually an avowed Quebecois separatist, actually to a militant degree). In his case, however, he was eventually subdued by the "McWorld" institutions, which he actually served to increase the power of.

Digital democracy is slowly starting to worm its way into the dominant model of consumer democracy. However, those who champion it must steadfastly guard it against potential subversion from the "McWorld" institutions, lest it become simply another tool of consumer democracy to manipulate the electorate to the service of elites.

Sadly, Howard Dean will probably never be president. But if the liberating power of digital democracy can be preserved, perhaps someone will be able to take over where he left off, and strike another blow for participatory democracy.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to come back and comment after a more thorough read.

    There is so little time these days (even to maintain one's own blog) .... curses, curses, curses ...


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