Democracy is a reality

Photo Cred: Flickr / Library of Congress

In the spirit of 2012, I write about democracy. Because it is the grand assumption that America is built on, it is supposedly what will be taking place over the course of next year’s elections, and thus it is the foundation upon which I will take on ‘political journalism’ as I travel to New Hampshire for the GOP primary in a few weeks.

And, for the first time, it doesn’t have to be only an abstract concept the ancient Greeks took a good shot at and the founding fathers nodded toward.

Here’s why:

of the people

In human history, the public has never been more informed – or at least had more potential to get informed. Going into the 2012 presidential (and gubernatorial, and state legislative) election, the general population of the United States will never have more access to information on the candidates and issues. Technology in media has revolutionized our access to knowledge of public affairs:

NY Times election 2012 app | This is a traditional news source with a new spin: an app. So it’s at your fingertips, tailored to political news, etc.

Twitter | There is really no better way of finding out up-to-date information on what’s happening in politics. I’ve shared my ‘politics’ list as somewhere to start following, but individuals can customize their own feeds to reflect candidates – or their PR people – journalists, columnists, pollsters, or anybody also interested in politics. I also do “mini-curation” of political reporting @TonerProgram.

• Websites | From traditional news orgs like WaPo, who knows Washington better than anyone, to politicians’ websites (I picked Newt because he’s recently popular) so you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

by the people

Simultaneously in history, the high point of ability to collect public opinion is being reached:

Gallup, when it comes to politics, is a given, though there are lots; They are the longest-standing pollsters out there and just keep collecting opinions to add the wealth of knowledge they have about public opinion and trends within it.

With Patchwork Nation, you can zoom in to *every county*

• I have to mention Patchwork Nation — it is one of my favorite websites. It’s data, pure and beautiful and granular.

for the people

Despite circumstances that would otherwise point to democracy’s success, America is gridlocked in the politics of a republic that hardly seems representative of the demos.

How do politicians get away with misrepresenting their constituencies and acting on behalf of anything but the people who elect them?

Politics are a national arena, but somehow individuals’ opinions and votes are grouped into what we all know are arbitrary parties and locales. Do you remember learning about the Electoral College in elementary school? In my experience, everyone was outraged, claiming it was outdated. I’d take it one step further and say that we don’t even think about national political issues as local communities anymore, so dividing votes in that manner doesn’t make any sense anymore.

And who is a staunch supporter of either of the only two political parties in this country? Many people think the two-party system either severely misrepresents individuals (and they identify themselves as independent), or they are moderate, able to list a few caveats to how their beliefs align with Democratic or Republican platforms.

So why do we let it stand? What needs to change?

As I mentioned, it’s worth re-envisioning what makes a community. Secession used to really appeal to me: Let’s just go anti-fed, break apart the Union and redistrict our communities into manageable sizes. As much as small government has a whole lot of appeal, it’s hardly practical because of undying nationalism, 200 years of important development and the positives that come from precedents in law and politics. Perhaps more importantly, if we are headed in any direction, it’s a global government and economy. It’s too late to deny or turn our backs on that trend – and it would probably be dangerous.

What really appeals to me then, is imagining a solution, something that actually works for the people:

A voting app.

It would require accessibility, self-identification and trust, obstacles that are hindered by our own concerns over security, privacy, conspiracy, and ownership.

Yet, if democracy is really the cornerstone of society (and I’m willing to consider that maybe it isn’t) the opportunity of instating a system of mobile voter expression is certainly an idea no more disillusioned than the current system of voting, flawed with hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, absentee ballots and, well, politicians. Maybe technology will offer a new set of male-namesake glitches.

But maybe it won’t – or maybe the opportunities will far outstrip the costs.

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2 thoughts on “Democracy is a reality

  1. A friend of mine had some interesting comments on this post that I wanted to share, along with my response, which will follow:

    One major assumption you are making in that post is that everyone has the same accessibility to the latest technologies. According to consumer reports, 35% of Americans own smart phones (http://news.consumerreports.org/electronics/2011/07/more-americans-own-smart-phones-than-passports.html). So now the “democracy” is limited to 35% of the population, of which, who knows how many would actually vote. I agree that there is an exorbitant amount of information available, but it is difficult for the layman to be able to differentiate between trustworthy sources and bullshit. It’s the whole battle between quality versus quantity. I would rather have fewer trustworthy options (or limited accessibility) over readily available opinions posted by any Joe Schmoe with internet access.

  2. 35% is a lot, and that percentage is only getting bigger: http://gigaom.com/2011/08/25/by-2015-smartphones-will-rule-the-mobile-planet/

    My post here is intended to point out that smart phones (and similar personal, mobile technologies) are not any less accessible and error-prone than other technology that voters use, let alone the laws and regulations in place that limit Americans from voting.

    I think it’s very important to address the concern you bring up, though, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that technology is not going to become any LESS accessible. I see smart phones in the hands of more people. Two of my friends got them for Christmas. None of my friends got non-smart cell phones.

    Additionally, look at the pervasiveness and expansion of cell phones in general. They become popular commercially in our lifetime, and now they are said to be used by 82% of Americans (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Cell-Phones-and-American-Adults/Overview.aspx.)

    1 in 4 households use them as their sole telephone number (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1601/assessing-cell-phone-challenge-in-public-opinion-surveys — note that only 2 percent DON’T have phones at all.)

    People adopt better machines for better practices. Just as we have moved away from landlines, we’ll move away from cell phones, and smart phones when something better comes along. It’s natural. I am unabashedly making that assumption.

    I make many more than one major assumption. I make assumptions all day every day. I’m aware that I made the assumption that everyone would have access to the necessary technology and I stick by it. That doesn’t mean everyone would have to own a smart phone. I didn’t mean to suggest that as the only option, but rather an awesome opportunity.

    I don’t think that current voting procedures be scrapped in favor of solely using apps, but the addition of apps would be beneficial, and ultimately lead to a better shot at democracy than we have seen in this country.

    I purposely made suggestions about sources for information, because like you say, it is valuable to have few trustworthy opinions ringing out over a million voices among the noise.

    And I often hear the “any Joe Schmoe with internet access” complaint. Presumably, in a democracy, any Joe Schmoe SHOULD, indeed, have a soap box. The Internet is the closest thing to that we have ever had, particularly for a governed body of such great size.

    I toyed with introducing Aristotle’s opinions on democracy in this post. In “Politics,” he demonstrates that a democratic government is a government by, of and for the indigent and uneducated, and therefore is not the best form of government.

    So, the argument is out there that it’s a good thing democracy is such a joke (how can everyone vote on every issue?) because people are a bunch of lunatic idiots who can’t govern themselves properly anyway. That’s why, in America, the Electoral College exists, right?

    Yet, if we, as a society, have agreed that democracy is nonetheless the most suitable for the masses, then we are charged with actually upholding that decree AND we are at no better a time to have an educated population in order to do it.

    A kind of neo-Aristotelian view counters that even with the sufficient information and opportunity for education, people are too stupid to decipher any of it.

    I don’t think they are too stupid. I think they are more intelligent and capable than ever.

    Moreover, I would definitely not want few options for information, even though it can be difficult to sift through it all. The mainstream media, as is said and heard very often, is prone to failure. While it’s important that we have news organizations and individuals who have already gained credibility and trust – the only information providers I assume you mean are “quality” – they shouldn’t be the only sources with access to information and to an audience to give it to.

    The Internet isn’t a roomed filled with equally bad voices, it is a room filled with varying voices and pitches and human being – some of which may indeed be pretty damn awful. Still, a free marketplace of ideas allows people to swim and pick through the muck on their own instead of relying solely on a few sources for information.

    I do support some mainstream media, but I would never want information limited to those sources alone and instead embrace the opportunity that the Internet affords us to seek out our own information, even if ANY marketplace of ideas is limited by our current imaginations, norms, money, resources and a number of other factors. No system is perfect, but I’m suggesting the opportunity to have one that is more perfect, or at least more in line with what we hang our hats on as the best system for everyone.

    I am making lots of assumptions and maybe I’m going too far out on a limb, but I am excited. I’m daring to imagine a different system: That means, yes, imagining everyone with a mobile device. Imagining major political and economic decisions virtually in the hands of everyone. And those people actually taking advantage of the opportunity.

    Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe I’m naive. But I’m not ashamed to dream.

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