Present-day voting aid applications have sometimes been – justly – called “opinion supermarkets” . We believe that the Debating Encyclopedia (DE) will increase citizens’ ability to make their voting decisions on the basis of true understanding rather than on an impulse. This is vital – the future of the world is, in any case, largely in the hands of the politicians we elect.
Support for Democracy Has Declined Dramatically
In the autumn of 2016, a global study was published according to which support for democracy has collapsed, especially among young people.
An excerpt from the New York Times article:
“Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.”
Bengt Holmström, a Finnish economist, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the 2016 Nobel laureate in economics, cited the study in an article in a Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat on 13 June 2017:
“The survey asked young people around the world how important they consider democracy. Just over 20 years ago, 75 % of the respondents considered democracy absolutely essential, now only 25 %.”
Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the same topic on 7 June 2017 with reference to a survey conducted in Finland: up to two out of three Finns “long for a strong leader who would restore order – –”.
The decline in the support for democracy is reflected in the triumph of various populist movements and leaders (the Brexit victory in Britain, the illiberal governments in Poland and Hungary, Trump’s election to the US presidency, Le Pen’s advance to the second round of the French presidential elections, etc.) and, on the other hand, a steady decline in voting activity.
The latest example of the decline in voting activity were the French parliamentary elections in June 2017: traditional parties suffered a crush and less than a half of the voters bothered to go to the polls.
How to Counteract Populism and Increase Confidence in Democracy?
The significance of democracy and the importance of defending it and its development are emphasized widely.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch organisation, writes about the importance of defending human rights against the threat of populism:
“What is needed in the face of this global assault on human rights is a vigorous reaffirmation and defence of the basic values underpinning these rights.” (HS 3.6.2017)
He notes that “there are important roles for many to play” in resisting populism and its by-products – for civil society organisations, media outlets, governments and “ultimately – – the public.”
But he has no concrete new means to offer.
In its editorial on June 7 2017, Helsingin Sanomat defended democratic decision-making and criticized the view that sees the rule of experts as a better alternative:
“The rule of experts, as it is understood by political scientists, would lead issues into an oligarchical direction, away from common decision-making and public debate. When decisions need not be justified to the general public, many will turn to populism longing for a strong leader.
That is why hankering for the rule of experts and populism nurture each other. Between these two, there should be made room for open democratic decision-making also in the future, even though that decision-making itself needs, of course, to be renewed.”
But how should democracy be renewed? – Helsingin Sanomat has no answer to this.
DiEM25, which was set up in February 2016 and aims to democratizing the EU, swears strongly by democracy in its manifesto: its goals are, for example, ”a surge of democracy”, “democracy-from-below”, “to throw open the corridors of power to the public”, “to emancipate all levels of government from bureaucratic and corporate power”, “authentic democracy”, “a fully democratic, functional Europe”.
The means to strengthen democracy in the EU or in the member states remain undefined.
The former chairman of the party Finnish People’s Democratic League Ele Alenius wrote about the importance of democracy in the society of the future in the newspaper Kansan Uutiset on 4 June 2017. According to him, the transition to “purposefully controlled development” requires giving democracy a full status as the guiding factor in the society’s development.
Alenius noted that the philosophy of a capitalist free market economy has required independence in relation to the political system, and thus far democracy has accepted it. In order to increase political guidance in economic life, according to Alenius, “the financing system needed for development” must be transferred “under the state responsibility”.
Democratization of economic life is in itself a legitimate claim. But how can this happen if citizens’ confidence in democracy falls? In today’s circumstances, creation of state banking suggested by Alenius only increases bureaucracy and oligarchy.
The Crisis of Democracy Is a Crisis of Political Discourse
Brexit, Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, and Le Pen’s advance to the second round of the French presidential election are examples of the crisis of representative democracy.
The crisis of democracy is a crisis of political discourse. Political discourse crystallizes in electoral and other political debates.
At the time of the Brexit referendum, both sides lied: the pro-Brexit side put forward false promises, and the pro-EU side said nothing about the EU’s problems.
In the US presidential elections in 2016, representative democracy hit a kind of rock bottom – at least if we look at the level of electoral debate. An example: In the TV debates Donald Trump made a lie about once a minute.
For to the French presidential election, The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède summed up the debates of the main candidates like this:
“If this final French presidential TV debate offers any lessons, it is that alternative facts, used as a political weapon, are here to stay in the fabric of western democracies.”
“If this TV debate showed something, it is that rational, constructive, argumentative discourse, of the sort that liberal democracy must rely on to exist, increasingly looks like an endangered species.”
Social Media – a Threat and an Opportunity for Democracy
In June 2017 Bengt Holmström presented an interesting view blaming social media for the problems of democracy (in Helsingin Sanomat on June 7 and later in a Finnish business daily (online only) Taloussanomat on June 12).
“According to Holmström, one of the reasons for the rise of populism is greater transparency in decision-making and better access to information. This has led the citizens to imagine that they have all the information they need to evaluate the decisions of policymakers.”
“According to Nobel Laureate Bengt Holmström, misunderstood and misused transparency is a problem in democratic countries. It reinforces in vain suspicions towards politicians. In the era of social media, the amount of information has increased tremendously, but understanding has not.
– People think they have information, but they are looking only through a small keyhole, says Holmström.
According to Holmström, it would be ideal if people were to trust the democratically elected decision-makers, even though their decisions would sometimes seem strange. In that case, the voter should trust that the decision-maker has some information on the basis of which s/he acts and which the voter does not have.”
Shouldn’t the democratic decision-makers tell that “some information” to their voters so that these could base their support to the decision-makers on understanding instead of blind faith?
Holmström further noted that “for us, the economists, it has been a surprise how hard globalization has hit a part of the people”. It certainly has not been a surprise for all the economists nor for all the politicians – and certainly not for those who have been hit. – The latter may be illustrated by the fact that in 1958 73 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing “always or most of the time”. In, 2015 (just before Trump) only 19 percent of people did.
In that case, citizens had better knowledge of the consequences of globalization than Holmström and the economic school he represents – or the political leadership of the U.S.
However, Holmström is not entirely wrong. The “amount of information” in social media – even when there is not a question of knowingly or unintentionally spread fake news – does not in itself increase understanding of the subject being dealt with. Rather, vice versa. The most popular channels in social media share “information” to an increasing extent as “through a small keyhole”. Information becomes one-sided.
According to Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, Margarethe Vestager, the EU Competition Commissioner, criticized Facebook and its peers, because they “tend to sort people into political and ideological filter bubbles and silos, destroying, as Vestager sees it, the chances of meaningful debate.”
“If political ads only appear on the timelines of certain voters, then how can we all debate the issues that they raise? How can other parties and the media do their job of challenging those claims? How can we even know what mandate an election has given, if the promises that voters relied on were made in private?”
In the Debating Encyclopedia, both voters, economists and other scientists and politicians have to define the concepts they use, justify the information they present, place it in its historical and logical context, and expose it to civilized, systematic critique.
The DE is a tool for gathering views – of globalization, for example – of all sides involved for evaluation.