Responsible Democracy & The Future

The Democratic Republic established in the United States was a revolutionary concept of what the human experience could be at the present state in time. A nation comprised of smaller sub-nations (states) each acting as a laboratory of experimentation for different ways of being in accordance with the desires and needs of their constituents. Elected representatives would meet together to work on policies, programs, and legislation that would help to further the interests of the citizens they represented while putting the greater good of the nation first. Representative democracy was a necessary feature of our democracy at the time of its inception because both resources and information traveled very slowly by today’s standards. Fast forward 240 years, and we can observe the unintended consequences that have arisen from our institutions, one of the most dangerous being a lazy and reactive democracy. By shifting our institutional structures to support and empower a more responsible and proactive democracy that encourages the participation of the individual would be a significant step in transitioning the United States towards the next stage of our economic, technological, political, and social progression.

Elected Misrepresentation

Representative democracy in its current state has failed to achieve its intended goal due candidate reliance on both corporate and private donations to become elected. What was designed to be a system of fair, just, and thoughtful representation has become a battle between different sponsored ideals and policies intended to benefit the moneyed interests investing in the candidates. There are candidates in office today who openly support policies that are both harmful to, and unaligned with, the best interests of their constituents — this is especially true in America’s most impoverished regions as explained in Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas[1]. “You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before… It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”

So how did we end up in our current scenario of having to convince the poorest members of our society that the concentration of wealth and cutting of social programs is harmful to them? The quality of education given to these sections of our population has played a significant role in manifesting our current situation. According to Statistician and Columbia University Professor Howard Friedman “The link between poverty and education can be seen at all educational levels. From the earliest stage,  poorer Americans start disadvantaged.” [2] The data we have available demonstrates that poverty is linked to poor education and that education is directly linked future earning potential.

Education faces a systemic challenge in the United States that creates a self-perpetuating system of poverty, resulting in the oppression of opportunity for our poorest citizens. Programmatically the problem is a result of the linking of school funding with local municipality (property) taxes. Nearly ½ of property taxes in the United States are used to fund our primary and secondary educational institutions. [3] It’s no surprise that the poorest regions have the lowest performing schools, which produce lower performers, limiting their earning potential and ability to contribute more in taxes for better schools, resulting in a repeating cycle of both poverty and reduced earning potential. It would be logical to conclude that representatives from our poorest states would be fighting for programmatic agendas that would fundamentally re-imagine the educational institutions within the U.S. One possible solution could be the decoupling of education from municipal taxes, drawing the funds from a national program that coordinates deeply with the state and local levels. Instead, we observe the opposite. The 2018 house funding bill cuts 2.3 Billion dollars from the U.S. Department of Education with the current Administration’s proposed tax plan cutting another 3.6 Billion. [4] Defying logic, the most prominent supporters of these cuts are elected representatives from our poorest rural areas. Education is the cornerstone of a successful democracy and is just one example of many potential scenarios that all point to the same conclusion, relying on elected representatives to act in the best interest of their collective constituent base is no longer a viable option.

These actions are supported to some extent because Americans as a collective have become complacent and lazy with our democratic responsibilities. It is essential that we recognize that all Americans own this problem, not just our poorest members. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the strife of fellow citizens when we are not sharing their challenges. However, if there is a lesson to be learned from our current circumstance, it is that there are numerous external factors such as the purchasing of representatives to third party agents who benefit from sowing discord among our national population. This discord poisons the minds of well-meaning individuals who are just looking for an opportunity to be more human, that is to live a life of opportunity without the constant stress and strife of being economically disadvantaged by design. The path forward should be a more responsible approach to democracy focused on a higher degree of institutionalized collective collaboration among the states instead of the current competitive model practiced today.

More Democracy

In times of social and political unrest like the present it is easy to seek more extreme measures as solutions; we observe this in the current political climate with ideologies arising in support of authoritarianism on the right and socialism on the left. The extremes of these solutions are economically impractical and politically impossible, although as we can observe the current administration is certainly trying. What is left is the most practical pathway to success which also happens to provide the least resistance, that solution is more democracy.

To put democratic participation in the United States into perspective we can observe recent data. In the 2016 Presidential Election, a little over 55% of eligible voters chose to cast a vote, the lowest percentage since 1996. More recently in my home state of New Jersey, our gubernatorial election turnout was approximately 37%. When we view our participation through a global lens, the U.S. ranks 28th out of 35 of the nations included in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed democratic states. [5] Internationally, Belgium had the highest participatory rate in its most recent election at 87 percent, followed by Turkey at 84 percent and Sweden at 82 percent. Note that in both Belgium & Turkey citizens are required to vote by law. If we desire to create a more responsible democracy, we must empower more individuals to participate by making information and access easier and more convenient. This can be achieved through legislative and technical innovations.

Legislatively the U.S. lags behind other advanced democracies in how we prepare our citizens for elections. Advanced democracies such as Sweden incorporate automatic voter registration at the age of 18. We could make Election Day a national holiday for all individuals with the caveat of mandatory voting legislation that assigns monetary penalties for not participating like those implemented in Australia. If we’re all against an additional national holiday, we could follow in the footsteps of countries like Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, and others who hold elections on either weekends or holidays. While not solutions for our lazy democracy, these legislative changes would open the door for more individuals to participate in local elections without fear of missing work and administrative requirements. Legislation could be accompanied by nationally sponsored and locally organized education campaigns providing materials to schools and local organizations. Increasing participation is a requirement of a more responsible democracy and legislative changes based on other prosperous democracies are an excellent place to start.

While legislation is a substantial initial step in the right direction towards a responsible democracy, it pales its impact pales in comparison to the potential that modern technology could create within the U.S. Technology has the potential to disrupt the most oppressive and corrupt aspects of our current Representative Democracy — Money. Organizations around the U.S. are experimenting with innovative methods of increasing citizen engagement via apps and websites. In understanding the lazy democracy dilemma, we must focus our efforts on allowing citizens to participate via a path of least resistance. An example would be the non-profit OurSociety Experiment (Disclosure: I am the Founder of the OurSociety Experiment). At OurSociety we’re working on creating a free and open election campaign platform with the intention of eliminating the financial barriers to entry that come with running a political campaign. We believe that removing the financial requirements will empower more individuals than ever to run for elected office from the hyper-local to the national stage. Also, we’ve developed a “Social Value” matching algorithm that allows even the most disinterested voter to make better decisions in the voting booth based on their values. This empowers more voters to make decisions based on the issues that are important to them, not arbitrary political parties. Finally, we aggregate the anonymous value data to identify potential trends for cooperation among the populace and share our research with the public. These efforts focus on creating a path of least resistance to encouraging democratic participation, agency in decision making, and cooperative social projects. Critics of our concepts may suggest that the value matching fosters an even lazier democracy but that argument assumes that the only path to responsible democracy is a 0 to 60 leap into engagement which is both unlikely and improbable from a solution driven standpoint. OurSociety is just one of many organizations out there using technology to solve civic engagement issues but no matter which solution ends up becoming adopted by the masses the future of democracy depends on its merging with technology to empower more participation. This is key to the success of the progressive agenda and a concept that if wholly embraced will allow us to reach more individuals than competing ideologies.

Gaining Consensus

The argument for a more participatory and engaged democracy is a progressive vision when compared to the current state of the union. However, it should be presented as a central position. Regardless of ideologies, the belief in the potential of American democracy is deeply rooted within the populous. The progressive path forward should be framed under a vision of a more cooperative and collaborative world; merging our social institutions with technology to remove barriers to participation, connect individuals deeply, and create a more collective vision forward while still enabling the states to act as laboratories of experimentation. A collaborative civic empowerment project focused on building a more responsible and participatory democracy could transcend ideological barriers and present an opportunity for a tangible collective victory for all Americans. While the Progressive agenda has a long path forward focusing on small collaborative projects is a great way to open the eyes and minds of individuals across the U.S. to the concept that we have more in common than we’re given credit for and united we can achieve more than we ever could divided.

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