The era of political disaffection — and how technology can help

We live in strange political times. In recent years, we have seen victories of candidates, parties and ideas that would, in the recent past, be regarded as well outside of the mainstream. Though the world economy continues to grow, there appears to be widening gaps between the haves and have nots. Parts of the national consensus have started to unravel in country after country where previously unthinkable ideas, such as dismantling the social safety net, closing borders to trade, withdrawal from security alliances, renationalisation and reducing international cooperation, are gaining adherents. At the same time, long standing and seemingly intractable challenges such as climate change, inequality, global insecurity and the mountain of international debt pose underlying risks of deeper crises.

In short the political challenges we face are pervasive, accumulating and above all else, ever more difficult. Yet at this moment, when the political process is as important as ever, faith in the same political process is at all-time lows. Approval ratings of political parties, politicians, parliaments and legislatures are plumbing unprecedented depths. Many people have dropped out of political participation entirely. Others have abandoned long standing, often familial, support for political groups in favor of disruptive and noisy new entrants from the fringes. Yet many of these newer, more extreme voices also fail to command widespread support, and appeal only to factions. At all corners, disaffection of politics seems to continue to grow.

There is an intensifying, ongoing international debate about what is happening and why. Some people blame the ability of the traditional centrist, broadly social democratic, political parties to address the fallout of the global financial crisis, and rising inequality. Some take this further to a broader attack on social democracy, or “neoliberalism”, in entirety — perhaps illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s leftward critique of the Blair doctrine, and Steven Bannon’s self-proclaimed war on the Davos set from the right. Changes to media and social media have also been highlighted. “Fake news” is becoming both a major weapon and boogeyman in the drift from the political mainstream. Experts and traditional narratives about science and economics are increasingly mistrusted.

There is certainly merit to each of the above perspectives. However, I wish to make a slightly different, more technical point. Might it simply be that the standard norms and practices of parliamentary democracy have become outdated in our modern world?

To understand why I would make this argument, I’d like to go back to a meeting I attended in late 2008 in The Hague with Dutch pollster Maurice De Hond. The Dutch political system is notoriously complex. Mr. De Hond has earned the reputation as something of an oracle in the Netherlands through his ability to make sense of this complexity to produce more or less accurate predictions on the political winds in the country. At this 2008 meeting, De Hond stated that, for the first time in his career, he was noticing growing disillusionment towrds the established parties of all sides. The popularity figures were at all-time lows and had been trending downward for a number of years.

A closer look at the data prompted De Hond to conclude that people were comparing politics, often sub-consciously, to developments in their private and professional lives. Due to the proliferation of new technology and business practices, citizens were able to obtain great convenience and control over their jobs, their homes and their private lives. Improvements in communication, travel, paying bills, shopping, entertainment and obtaining information had created a new normal for people by late 2008. In each case, individuals were able to achieve more, in a faster and more convenient fashion, often more cheaply than before. Compared to these daily experiences, politics had begun to seem complex, messy and evasive. The gap between what was promised and what ended up happening was becoming more apparent. The timelines needed to achieve anything seemed increasingly glacial in comparison to the instant fixes available online.

Remember that this is 2008. Lehman’s had gone down earlier that summer, and the credit crunch was well underway. But at this stage, the crisis was mostly contained within the financial system. In the Netherlands, the nationalisation of Fortis Bank and ABN Amro was still months away. Across Europe austerity and mass redundancy had not yet begun. In short, the gravity of the situation, and the depth of European depression was not yet clear. Yet Dutch voters were already becoming fed up with their political system.

It’s also worth noting how relatively immature technology was at this stage. The improvement in citizen’s convenience and control since 2008 has probably more dramatic than all previous history up to 2008. At that stage Facebook was only 2 years old, and the iphone less than a year old. The apps revolution had not yet hit. Mobile shopping, banking, ticketing, messaging, pre-ordering, payment and ride hailing were not with us. Movies came from a set-top box, and music came from a round piece of plastic called a compact disk, or CD. Smart homes, voice controlled devices and robotics were the stuff of sci-fi movies, not everyday household items.

With all these powerful technology tools, we are better informed about most things that are important to us, and empowered to take whatever action we see fit. Now contrast this with the common experience of the political system.

If an issue is important to you, you must first seek out an elected representative. You can make your case in writing or in person, but it is entirely at the discretion of this individual as to whether your issue will be taken any further. You always have the opportunity to band together with other voters to present a collective argument or petition to an elected assembly. Yet they are quite free to note and then ignore your petition. At which point your remaining option is to wait until an election, which may be years away. Even then, we all know from repeated experience that politicians are all too willing to make promises at election time that become forgotten about in office.

If you were to seek out a periodical from 100 or even 200 years ago, you would see similar complaints being made. Our system of parliamentary democracy is a Victorian innovation that pre-dates the phonograph or the electric motor. There is no question that this is a system that has served us well in the past. It is also true to say that complexity and disagreement are inherent in something so contestable as politics. But surely at this stage we can do better than a system that relies on delegated decision making, scarce citizen interaction or oversight and only very occasional sampling of the opinion of the electorate?

Technology makes it possible to sample the beliefs and opinions of voters at huge scale in real time. Placing digital tools in the hands of local communities can decentralize decision making, thus allowing citizens to direct and supervise local issues. National technology platforms could allow direct citizen oversight of national decision-making. Other transparency tools, like blockchain, could provide an immutable record of appropriations, allowing citizens to provide direct input on government spending, while making corruption virtually impossible. Analytics and data tools can provide citizens of projections of their tax, pension, health liabilities and benefits. Interactive content could provide information in an intuitive and easy to follow way, in contrast to byzantine tax and emigration portals of today. Techniques from social media could allow governments to better grab and hold attention for important debates and measures.

These are solutions that are already being deployed in the tools and services we all use on a daily basis in our private and professional lives. The cost of these technologies is plummeting, just as the power of technology is increasing. So why are so few of these solutions part of our experience with the political system?

The problem has less to do with the technology skills of government officials, and more to do with a lack of political innovation. Simply putting in place new technologies that perpetuate the same political processes we have today is not enough. We need leaders and thinkers who can reimagine today’s political framework around the possibilities technology can create. Only then can we reduce the democratic deficit, provide citizens with control and information and properly decentralise the activity of government.

Yet appetite for such radical changes appears limited among political leaders. Many leaders are ignoring technology change completely, preferring familiar ideological solutions to today’s challenges.

Ignoring technology is this way is irresponsible, not least as technology naturally poses risks as well as opportunities. The use of personal data, and the similar concerns about how digital communications are being used for criminal purposes, is a problem we have not yet grasped. Ongoing waves of technological disruption promise mass automation and artificial intelligence which threaten millions of jobs. The “network effects” of large platforms, where barriers to entry become so high as to make competition effectively impossible, may create a new layer of monopolies. While the dawn of bioengineering and nanotechnologies is about to make the human body and our natural world a new technology frontier.

All of these issues require enlightened, common-sense regulation that encourages productivity and rising living standards, while protecting citizens from adverse harm, and ensuring equality of opportunity for all. This is no simple undertaking, but political leaders will be forced to engage with technology change sooner rather than later. It would be better to take radical steps now, to identify the areas in which technology can be used for the good of citizens while preparing for momentous changes ahead.

The best way to navigate the changes, while building greater inclusion and control for citizens, is to rewire our political systems, both figuratively and literally, around digital technologies. The task is not easy. It will require the best minds, greater leadership and a firm understanding of the new technology landscape. Sadly, this has been lacking amongst the political class across the globe. Too many cling to the self-serving status quo, or fail to engage with new technology entirely.

Into the vacuum has poured strong willed forces who would seek to warp and subvert the political process to serve their own interests and beliefs, to the detriment of the community at large. Hence we have fake news peddled for profit from hacker kids in Southern Europe, and the more malevolent behaviours of state actors who seek to undermine democracy. If this is the new status quo, we can expect faith in politics to continue its downward trajectory.

A different path is possible but not until such time as politcians get their act together and figure out how to make technology work for their citizens. The promise of a more inclusive, empowering and decentralised state could only enhance the participation in and perception of the political system to reverse the worrying trendline of recent years. To do nothing would be reckless and potentially catastrophic. To deliberately misuse an old political saying — you may not be interested in technology, but technology is interested in you.