Change2010_05: Voting scope and democracy 2.0

Case study 3 of 3: voting in a borderless world

In this sixth article: an old slogan of democracy is “no taxation without representation”- in various forms, at least since the late XVIII century; but this principle is not as widely followed as most people would expect.

Any developed country has some form of “Value Added Tax”, often embedded into prices: it is a form of indirect taxation, usually higher in countries with a larger “unofficial economy”.

In Europe, gradually almost every member country is starting to apply the principle that, if you are a EU citizen, you can vote at least for the administrative elections (mayor, town council) of the place where you live.

But this principle often does not extend to legal aliens who hold a long-term residency permit (and pay taxes, both direct and indirect), or other people who exercise an activity without being legally resident (wherever they are coming from).

And it will be a long time before (if ever) voting for the local parliament will be considered part of your basic rights as a long-term resident, not something associated to your citizenship.

Voting also ignores two other dimensions: the time and space of legislation enforced by people that you elect; e.g. if our local legislature votes to ship our nuclear waste to developing countries, are the current citizens of the recipient countries considered (to say nothing about the future ones, never invoked)?

The influence of our “borderless” online communication on the political debate is still at its infancy, but it starts to produce results.

Political parties without borders

In the European Union, members of the European Parliament often belong to a political grouping on two levels: in their country, and at the European Parliament (albeit usually the latter choice is actually done by the party they belong to in their home country).

We still do not have “European” political parties with a unified political programme or platform, as European Union is still on a long run toward cultural and economical convergence, something that I have to remember once in a while to my non-EU friends: we call ourself a “union”, but often member states still assert the right to act independently.

Since I first was a teenager observing how the European institutions worked, in the early 1980s, meeting few times around Europe with other Europeans, and non-European colleagues and classmates, I saw an emerging convergence- not toward unified political parties, but toward creating transversal networks, often linked to specific issues.

Shifting from the elected to the voters, logistics and costs until the 1990s made next to impossible to achieve the same level of convergence; also when, in 1982/1984, I joined others in meetings in Nice, Strasbourg, Paris, Brussels, we had no way to keep in touch in-between meetings, except through letters.

Nowadays, if something happens on the other side of the world, I am instantly notified either via SMS (from a really small circle) or e-mail, twitter, facebook.

And, by removing the technological complexity, and allowing instant, direct, free access to expertise far more advanced than the one that you can usually access in a local library, to produce campaigns with long-lasting effects usually you just need few people willing to spend time to act as a “communication bridge” (i.e. create an online group, free website, blog), constantly drumming up support (albeit too often self-appointed “Lord of the flies” take over).

The upside is that, after an initial resistance, also professional politicians are seeing the benefit of blending their knowledge of law making with the unbiased access to volunteers, able to provide not only the usual logistical support, but also access to expertise, creating potentially a new dialogue.

Democracy 2.0 (and beyond)

The risk is there: the spontaneous online aggregations are too often “taken over” (e.g. by providing “information poison pills”- fake, distorted, illegal information) by people manipulating the online organization toward specific ends- sometimes, just to undermine the online organization through negative visibility; sometimes, to create multiple outlets proposing some far-fetched ideas.

The aim? “simulating consensus”, by using a “viral” approach to push an agenda without disclosing its side-effects: until it becomes part of the common political background, and, instead of being discarded as lunacy, it is considered a viable option: sounds familiar, isn’t it?

The extreme visibility and constant feed-back will require also getting used to a constant stream of vocal and sometimes not-so-civilized dissent: but expanding venues for dissent makes easier to prevent troubles, while pushing dissent underground would require to create other ways to observe; with the risk, that those who are sent to monitor the underground, to acquire credibility, are involved into actions that actually support the nefarious purposes of those they are supposed to prevent from doing anything damaging.

Most people joining politics on a temporary basis… never go back to where they came from; sometimes it is a gain for the public, sometimes it is simply because they have the will to do it, also if they have neither special skills or political acumen- risking to become at best elected “yes men”.

We are gradually shifting to permanent broadcasting of parliamentary sessions worldwide, and eventually probably also the real law making will be visible, launching again politics as a profession- you will need both the will and the skills, learned on-the-job and through coaching from more experienced politicians or political organizations.

It is actually similar to the reported relationship between some NGOs and industry experts. By joining the access and professional expertise of full-time politicians with access to online communities could we probably create a kind of wikipolitics?

Maybe. But achieving positive results will require professional politicians to act first as a facilitator, then a decision-maker, not the other way around (so, first listen and then decide): online democratic participation requires an open bidirectional communication.


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