Social media politics: are the new movements, from Quebec to Wall Street, compatible with representative democracy?

Author:Milner, Henry

Overall, electoral participation has been declining in democratic countries for the last generation, as has party membership. (1) Many factors have been blamed for this weakening of the foundation of representative democracy--including the lack of clear distinctions between the political choices offered to voters and the constraints on political discretion in an age of globalization.

My own work, beginning in the late 1990s, focused on the relationship between political participation and political knowledge. I found that the decline in one tended to be accompanied by a decline in the other (see figure 1). Moreover, countries with relatively high levels of political knowledge--I use the term civic literacy--tended to exhibit high levels of political participation. I argued that effective policies in education (including related institutions like libraries), the structuring of political institutions (including proportional voting systems as opposed to first-past-the-post) and--most important of all--the media (2) could ensure a reasonably high level of political participation.

In recent years it has become clear that the decline has a significant generational component, something we observe in the mitigating role of the family. Hence, whether young voters live with their parents matters in explaining their participation. (3) A case in point is the apparently positive effect of Austria's reduction of the voting age to 16. This is confirmed by data from Norway, which experimented with voting at 16 in selected municipalities in its 2011 local elections and attained 58 per cent turnout among those 16 and 17, compared to 45 per cent among those 18 to 30. (4) Other data have shown that civic education targeted at those lacking the requisite family background can also have a positive effect. (5)

But such measures, it would appear, only slow down the generational decline. While the causes of lower participation may be multiple, a universal factor is the radically changed media environment for those who reached maturity in the years of the Internet, relative to previous generations. This is not a matter of technological fixes like e-voting, whose effect so far is marginal, but of something more profound. For previous generations, policies such as state support for newspapers and public service radio and television boosted political participation in the high civic literacy countries. But we do not have parallel measures that could have a similar effect on the Internet generation at our disposal. (6)

Just what can we expect from this generation? This is the question I pose here, inspired by recent events in Quebec. My contention is that there is an incompatibility between "social media politics" as understood and experienced by the Internet generation and representative democracy as we have known it. Furthermore, I reluctantly conclude that addressing this incompatibility may entail adopting some form of electronic direct democracy. These are contentious assertions that need, first, to be placed in historical context.

Changes over time

By the 1920s a consensus had emerged in Western societies: everyone should be educated and every adult should be able to vote. In exceptional cases, such as a few Swiss cantons, this took the form of direct democracy (for men only). But the norm became a combination of universal suffrage and party-based representative democracy: educated adult citizens had the ability and interest to distinguish among party programs and cast at least minimally informed votes.

The norm survived some glaring anomalies, most notably the totalitarian politics of left and right in the 1930s. At the time, movements that rejected representative democracy enjoyed a great deal of electoral success. The New Left of the 1960s contained elements opposed to electoral politics, but by the 1970s most radical movements sought not to overturn representative democracy but to make the system live up to its billings. It is tempting to see a resurrection of this ideal in the actions of the Internet generation. However, I contend that we are seeing something different: a passive rejection of representative democracy, comparable neither to the 1930s nor the 1960s and 1970s. The crucial difference is the media environments in which the respective movements emerged.

The mainstream of the youth movement that emerged in the 1960s sought student representation in the halls of academe and worker representation on corporate boards. While it took aim at establishment politicians, it did not reject party politics. In Canada, the best-organized generational movement was the "Waffle," a faction within the NDP. In the United States, the movement embraced antiestablishment candidates in the Democratic Party: Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Robert Kennedy. In this it reflected the position that participatory democracy was a supplement to representative democracy, as articulated in Students for a Democratic Society's 1962 Port Huron Manifesto:

Two genuine parties, centered around issues and essential values, demanding allegiance to party principles shall supplant the current system of organized stalemate ... What is desirable is sufficient party disagreement to dramatize major issues, yet sufficient party overlap to guarantee stable transitions from administration to administration ... Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged. Political parties, even if realigned, would not provide adequate outlets for popular involvement. Institutions should be created that engage people ... organized around single issues (medical care, transportation systems reform, etc.), concrete interest (labor and minority group organizations), multiple issues or general issues. In the 1960s the reform politics of the United States was not exceptional; this was, as Daniel Bell famously labelled it, the time of "the end of ideology." Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was not unlike reform programs in Canada and western Europe, and many of the demands of the youth movement found their way into policies, especially those that sought to end discrimination based on race and gender.

This is not to deny the subsequent emergence of an American exceptionalism. Prior to the 1970s, the U.S. South was a partner, albeit an uncomfortable one, with other elements of the Democrats' New Deal coalition. In the 1970s the expanding South became Republican, which simultaneously weakened the Democrats and brought a more conservative Republican Party closer to electoral predominance. Bolstered by institutional perversities that gave large powers to legislators from small states and to well-financed narrow-focus lobbies, the American right achieved an ideological prominence far greater than that of its counterparts in most industrial countries. This dynamic, manifested most recently in the Tea Party movement, has been legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling which, as one commentator put it, made it impossible to stop the flow of "legally laundered cash in Washington" that "soils everything it touches." (7)

One reaction to U.S. Tea Party politics has been Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which not inaccurately has cast the United States as a plutocracy of the I per cent, potentially rendering representative democracy meaningless. Given the institutional inertia, there may be some objective grounds for seeing representative democracy as unable to bring about change in the post-Citizens United USA. But OWS has failed to find much fertile ground outside the United States, where the 1 (or 5 or 10) per cent is nowhere near as institutionally entrenched. In representative democracies outside the United States, generally speaking, the system continues to perform. Despite public perception to the contrary, Elin Nanrin shows in her recent study of 11 countries that parties that gain power in fact keep most of their election promises--roughly 60 per cent on average. (9)

The challenge we face

At least outside the United States, objective factors do not explain the democratic deficit reflected in declining voter turnout and party membership. Instead, we need to return to generational developments, specifically to the media...

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