Renovating democracy from the bottom up

Nathan Gardels at the Washington Post: “The participatory power of social media is a game changer for governance. It levels the playing field among amateurs and experts, peers and authorities and even challenges the legitimacy of representative government. Its arrival coincides with and reinforces the widespread distrust of elites across the Western world, ripening the historical moment for direct democracy.

For the first time, an Internet-based movement has come to power in a major country, Italy, under the slogan “Participate, don’t delegate!” All of the Five Star Movement’s parliamentarians, who rule the country in a coalition with the far-right League party, were nominated and elected to stand for office online. And they have appointed the world’s first minister for direct democracy, Riccardo Fraccaro.

In Rome this week, he explained the participatory agenda of Italy’s ruling coalition government to The WorldPost at a meeting of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. “Citizens must be granted the same possibility to actively intervene in the process of managing and administrating public goods as normally carried out by their elected representatives,” he enthused. “What we have witnessed in our democracy is a drift toward ‘partyocracy,’ in which a restricted circle of policymakers have been so fully empowered with decision-making capacity that they could virtually ignore and bypass the public will. The mere election of a representative every so many years is no longer sufficient to prevent this from happening. That is why our government will take the next step forward in order to innovate and enhance our democracy.”

Fraccaro went on: “Referenda, public petitions and the citizens’ ballot initiative are nothing other than the direct means available for the citizenry to submit laws that political parties are not willing to propose or to reject rules approved by political parties that are not welcome by the people. Our aim, therefore, is to establish the principles and practices of direct democracy alongside the system of representative government in order to give real, authentic sovereignty to the citizens.”

At the Rome forum, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio, a Five Star member, railed against the technocrats and banks he says are trying to frustrate the will of the people. He promised forthcoming changes in the Italian constitution to follow through on Fraccaro’s call for citizen-initiated propositions that will go to the public ballot if the legislature does not act on them.

The program that has so far emerged out of the government’s participatory agenda is a mixed bag. It includes everything from anti-immigrant and anti-vaccine policies to the expansion of digital networks and planting more trees. In a move that has unsettled the European Union authorities as well as Italy’s non-partisan, indirectly-elected president, the governing coalition last week proposed both a tax cut and the provision of a universal basic income — despite the fact that Italy’s long-term debt is already 130 percent of GDP.

The Italian experiment warrants close attention as a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. It reveals a paradox for governance in this digital age: the more participation there is, the greater the need for the counterbalance of impartial mediating practices and institutions that can process the cacophony of voices, sort out the deluge of contested information, dispense with magical thinking and negotiate fair trade-offs among the welter of conflicting interests….(More)”.