Direct democracy: Spinning its wheels?

When I first contemplated the possibility of direct democracy channeled through the internet, the idea seemed to me obviously brilliant. The old concept of direct democracy exercised by millions of people just seemed like a perfect match for the internet. Add to this the mechanism of liquid democracy, that is, a hybrid system that allows both representative and direct voting, and the idea made even more sense. The convenience and knowledge specialization of representation together with the control and purity of direct vote.

In an ideal world, the delegation graph would tend towards optimality in the sense of processing information efficiently and reliably. Efficiently in the sense that those with the best knowledge necessary to cast votes accumulate delegated votes. Reliably in the sense that those that best represent voter’s interests accumulate delegated votes. Hence optimal: combining transparent goal representation, the what, with the best means of achieving those goals, the how.

For these reasons I began researching the mathematics, algorithms and in general technologies necessary to create a secure platform to enable liquid democracy through the internet. This research was done on behalf of a local spanish political party whose aim was solely to establish a direct democracy channel within the current political system, that is, without having to make any changes to existing law.

But despite it’s apparent great potential, direct democracy remains a fringe idea that few people take seriously. Until recently, the great difficulty in implementing it practically would have been a good candidate to explain why. But with the development of enabling technology, i.e. the internet, one could expect the concept to take off instead of just spinning its wheels. Now, I’m not going to pretend to believe that the world is the ideal place I’ve sketched above. Direct democracy has many potential drawbacks, and so does its electronic incarnation; I’m aware of many of the sound criticisms that can be made.

However, the point I am trying to make here is that electronic direct democracy fails to attract the population at large for different reasons.

In fact, for a different reason, singular. And that is related to my previous post on politics as rationality catastrophe. If politics can be understood from the vantage point of evolutionary psychology, and political attitudes therefore framed in terms of identity and tribe, then it becomes immediately clear why direct democracy has not had a greater following.

The concept of direct democracy exists at the system level, whereas ideologies normally reside at the policy level. Put simply, direct democracy seems for most people ideologically empty. There is nothing to identify with, no hooks, no content to be part of, and thus tribal adaptations leading to allegiance and group forming are not triggered. Political affiliation is not driven by an intellectual response about what can technically work, but by an emotional one about what one identifies with on a gut level.

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