Unrest is brewing in republics worldwide. As nations are ravaged by socioeconomic crises, the people no longer feel served by their elected officials. Is this a temporary hiccup, or an inevitable result of traditional representative democracy?
Across the world, people left disenfranchised in the face of their leaders’ decisions have begun to lash out. It’s happening peacefully in Spain, with the nonviolent protests of the indignados. It’s happening violently and chaotically in Britain, with riots, looting, and arson. Greece is somewhere in between, fluctuating between peaceful protests and police-provoked violence. All are results of an elected leadership that seems not to care about the problems of its people.
Yet in the United States — one of the most disenfranchised and democratically disillusioned nations in the world — there has been relatively little response. In the US, the problem is so bad that it has gone past making the people angry and frustrated, and made them hopeless and nihilistic. Two superficially different parties control everything, and are propped up by bribes and manufactured consent from monolithic corporations. To many, it seems pointless to revolt, let alone vote.
But corporatocracy in the US and out-of-touch reactions to social inequality in Europe are just symptoms of the real problem. How did it get to this point? Why don’t the people stop things like this before they happen?
In a representative democracy, citizens are fundamentally disconnected from the decision-making process. Their powers of self-determination end once they have pointed at somebody and said, “lead us.” Until the next election, their opinions no longer matter. The process of making, enforcing, and interpreting laws is left entirely up to the rulers.
Theoretically, a leader has an incentive to do a good job and actually represent the interests of the people; if they don’t, they lose the next election. In practice, the disconnect between politician and citizen leads to apathy.
The bourgeois argument in favor of representative democracy asserts that the “unwashed masses” lack the knowledge and intelligence to properly govern, and therefore must allow only the most educated to make decisions. This ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy; representatives, being actively involved with the process of governing, have more information from which to work with than their constituents.
In reality, the constituents are more than capable of understanding all of this government-y stuff, if it were only explained to them and opened up to them. This often doesn’t happen. The people aren’t kept in the loop, and don’t feel that their voices are heard. They have no way of knowing whether or not their leaders’ decisions are truly for the best. With all of the information technology we have at our disposal today, it’s absurd that there are so few avenues to make a real connection with elected leaders.
But simply slapping the Intertubes on top of representative democracy isn’t enough. Representatives have had plenty of easy avenues of communication open to them for decades. Letter-writing, phone calls, personal meetings; all of these allow representatives to open a dialogue with their constituents. Yet the disconnection remains. No matter how much citizens can communicate with their leaders, they still must put their full faith and trust in an authority above themselves to make decisions. Outside of an election, citizens have no real power, and they know it.
This lack of power breeds apathy and ignorance. Until it breeds violence.
The process of making, enforcing, and interpreting laws isn’t a part of most people’s lives. They don’t see it, they don’t experience it, and therefore they don’t feel invested in it. And they don’t notice when it’s about to go wrong, until it’s too late. How long before a well-run, functioning representative democracy stumbles and falls prey to the disenfranchisement of its citizens? Corruption can be fixed, but how long until it just comes back again?
As this cycle continues, people are hurt, environments are destroyed, wealth is hoarded, futures are ruined, and it becomes harder and harder to fight each time. How much longer can this go on?
This cycle can be broken. The dichotomy between “the government” and “the people” needs to disappear. No more pointing at people, telling them to lead, and sitting back while they have the fate of society in their hands. Governments need to be built around citizen participation and inclusion. Informal representatives might emerge organically on a case-by-case basis, motivated not by a cushy job but by a desire to help their fellow citizens achieve goals. Everyone would have a hand in their future.
It would be a government by the swarm.