The concept of democracy has been around since at least the 4th or 5th century BC. It has flourished in the past couple decades and has become the main hope for all fledgling nations by the international community.
Yet, is our concept of democracy in the West outdated? Does it need to be changed and altered to be more inclusive, and more representative of the People it supposedly represents? Rule of the people hardly seems to be reality in Canada, the US or Europe. We elect representatives, who rarely actually represent the average person, let alone even listen to us or address our needs in government. Many politicians come from privileged backgrounds or enormous wealth, which aids in their campaigning ability– especially at higher levels of office. How often do our letters or calls go unheard by our MPs or other representatives? How often does the average representative even spend time in their constituency, and how much of that time is spent at fancy galas or openings or campaigning with public pat-on-the-back photo-ops for themselves instead of actually talking to those in their region about what THEY would like to see happen in government? How much of their policy is based upon their own personal belief system and not the wishes of their constituency? How much research and polling do they do of their constituency prior to voting on a subject in governmental forums? Considering I lived in Canada the vast majority of my life and have yet to actually be polled or asked about my opinion on an issue by my MP, let alone received an adequate response back to my written or verbal inquiries or concerns, I’d say, not much.
The average US House member represents more than 640,000 citizens, and this number is rising with the population. When the first census was taken, this ratio of citizens per district was closer to only 30,000 for each representative, a much more manageable number for them to actually “represent”. An older research study found that most representatives spent an average of only 101 working days actually in their districts in a year, or just under 28% of their time and I’d argue that lobbyists are much more likely to get the ear of a Representative than their constituents are.
Considering we now live in the electronic age of computers, cellphones, blackberries and the internet, I am always amazed at how little our “representatives” use these technologies to actually consult with those they profess to represent. In 2004, it is said there were more than 762,000 computers for every million people in the US (and similar statistics for most of the western world), and that nearly 75% of Americans spend more than 3 hours a day online (Stone, 2005:62). For those between the ages of 12 and 18, computer and internet usage actually approaches 100% (Levy, 2004; 14). When one includes those with wireless capability on blackberries, cellphones, iphones and other such devices, the vast majority of the population is wired and using Internet capabilities on a daily (if not hourly) basis. For those who don’t have personal access at home, nearly 95% of public schools have computers with internet access; and nearly 99% of public libraries have public access to the Internet with most offering formal or informal technology training to those looking to enhance their tech skills. Not only do I think that our so-called representatives should be using this access to technology to actually engage with their constituencies on the issues, I think that the time has come for a complete overhaul of democracy itself so that it can truly be “representative” of the population.
A survey of US Representatives and Senators showed that 38% of House Members and 39% of Senators were registered with Twitter, and although these Members sent an average of one “tweet” every other day– those “tweets” were mostly spent on securing their own “brand” and image. What were these Representatives using this communications for? Well, certainly not polling their constituencies, as this was not even mentioned as a possible category of types of “tweets” sent by Representatives. No, instead, the Reps were talking about their position on a policy (18% of the time); reciting information about a public policy; talking about their own media or public relations campaign (34% of the time); talking about their own trips, visits or events in a home district; talking about what official congressional actions they did (14% of the time); or talking about their own personal life or campaign (5% of the time). Only 3.7% of the tweets were direct replies to others. These “representatives” are so concerned with securing the next election or sticking to the party-line– that actual consultation of those who are to be represented is barely even considered. Why are we not being polled on what we, the People, want? Why are we not being consulted and truly “represented”?
Electronic surveys are not without their flaws; however I believe even despite the flaws, regular public polling via technology would give a more accurate opinion of the People than what is currently being done. Some would argue that access to technology is more prevalent among the rich and educated, with the poorer, less educated folks less likely to be online and therefore less likely to participate in surveys or polls. I don’t argue that fact, however, I’d be remiss to say that traditional polling most likely excludes many of these folks as well. How often do the representatives send their lackeys to take polls on public issues in the slums right now? How many of the current written surveys on policy issues exclude those who are functionally illiterate? None of the current polling methods are without their flaws and exclusions, but online polling and consultation could demonstrate a more accurate picture of what the People want.
Some would also argue that the over 65 years of age population is less likely to be online or have computer access or skills. Again, true. However, are these also not currently the most politically active participants in our democracies and most likely to be letter writers or callers to their representatives? Also, considering that the baby boomer population IS highly versed in technology, this statistic is likely to dramatically change over the coming years, as the boomers move into this age bracket.
How can we also ensure that a non-voter (ie. too young) isn’t voting; or that a person isn’t voting at multiple computers. Simple. Have everyone vote using their public IDs such as Social Insurance or give them a public voting ID on their voter registration card and cut them off after one vote for each topic. There is also the possibly of hacking, which is a legitimate problem if polling is online. Not being a computer expert, and seeing how many national systems have been broken into, I have no solution for this. But is it not better to have a general idea of what the People want, as opposed to just ignoring them?
I think our democracy has become outdated, flawed and unrepresentative, which is incredibly problematic if we are to spread this type of “freedom” across the globe. There’s got to be a better way.
Some sources mentioned in the above article:
Brad Stone, “Hi-Tech’s New Day”, Newsweek, April 11, 2005, p. 62.
Steven Levy, “No Net? We’d Rather Go Without Food.”, Newsweek, October 11, 2004, p. 14.