Governance futures

1/n: What will democracy mean in 2040?

James Plunkett
6 min readNov 8, 2022

Lately I’ve been part of some fascinating conversations — partly in the US and partly in the UK — about the future of governance in 2040 and beyond.

The backdrop to these conversations is the fact, stunning in its significance and yet increasingly clear to anyone paying attention, that the social democratic policy settlement is reaching the end of its life. i.e. the governing arrangements we inherited from the 20th century are proving incapable of governing an emergent 21st century incarnation of capitalism.

To put this another way, the uneasy vibe we’re all experiencing is what it feels like to live at an ending.

Endings, though, are also beginnings. And what I’ve found most interesting about my recent conversations is that they’re characterised less by doom and more by tentative optimism at the new thing that’s emerging.

The new thing being a form of governance that is capable of governing digital/late/surveillance capitalism and of harnessing its power to build a better future.

When I wrote about this topic a little over a year ago, I titled the post Goodbye social democracy. Hello [X] because the new thing felt so unclear it was little more than a placeholder.

Now, though, [X] is gaining in strength and coherence. Which made me think it’s worth sharing some reflections on the way people working at the frontier of this debate seem to think about the future of governance.

To avoid this becoming a 10,000 word mega-post, I’ll post these reflections one at a time, so consider this post 1/n.

And just to stress: almost all the insights I’ll share are from other people and are unattributed only to respect Chatham House rules. So this is really just an act of curation.

1/n — What will democracy mean to us in 2040?

When people talk about governance in 2040 and beyond one of the main things they talk about is the death of democracy, or at least the need to rescue democracy from its doom-spiral.

I’ve noticed there are two ways into this conversation, the first more familiar and focused on the risks to democracy and the second more interesting and focused on opportunities. Let’s take them in turn.

Downside risks

The glass-half-empty way into the debate about democracy is the familiar concern that social media/digital modes of engagement imperil democracy.

This starts with the observation that democracy isn’t just about elections; it depends for its health on certain civic enabling conditions, many of which relate to the way we receive and exchange information and make meaning together as a society.

Do we strive to make true claims about the world, based on evidence? Do we engage in faithful dialogue with each other? Do we have common sources that we trust, so that we can adjudicate disputes? Do we have a base level of respect for each other’s visions of the good?

We can think of these as the civic/functional pre-conditions of democratic pluralism, and of course the argument makes itself from here. A meaningful proportion of our public realm now takes place in/through social media platforms, and these platforms work to a logic that undermines the pre-conditions for democratic pluralism.

Social media platforms seem to foster informational/social dynamics that destroy shared ground/trust, muddy truth, and reward extremism/conspiracy/controversy.

These dynamics don’t arise because the bros who run social media platforms are evil or anti-democratic; it’s more systemic than that. The dynamics reflect the business model for social media platforms, which is in turn a product of the technological form of platforms and the fact that platforms are commercial enterprises designed to make a profit.

As a result, when our public realm is relocated into Digitalland/onto social media, the civic pre-conditions for democracy don’t just fail, they get swapped for their evil twins. Truth, for example, is swapped for conspiracy.

This then means that the formal mechanisms of democracy — e.g. the elections that we use to select people for power — are themselves subverted, so that we risk electing people based on how well they play this new and dangerous game, for example on the basis of how well they generate outrage/controversy or spread compelling conspiracy theories.

And so mechanisms that were previously democratic risk becoming anti-democratic, opening up a path to autocracy.

So the glass-half-empty conversation ends with a warning: unless we can work out how to reconfigure social media platforms to create prosocial dynamics, democracy could fail.

Upside opportunities

That’s all very gloomy and familiar. So what about the glass-half-full debate about the future of democracy? Personally, I find this more interesting.

This conversation pushes off from a similar point but in a slightly different direction. Democracy isn’t just a bureaucratic procedure; democracy is — or at least should be — a value-based system and an aspirational state for society. It’s a guiding star, not an end point destination.

Once we see democracy as an unfinished project, we see that 20th century democracy was just a step along the way — and one that still falls far short of any aspirational conception of democracy.

Think of how we’ve come to equate democracy with its skeleton. i.e. these days we tend to think about democracy mainly in terms of elections/putting crosses in boxes/Parliamentary procedure, which are really just bureaucratic mechanisms. We’ve lost sight of the living flesh that makes democracy human and meaningful.

Once we acknowledge this, we see internet-era technologies in a new light.

Rather than being a threat to democracy, the internet-age presents us with a whole new family of technologies that offer precisely the kind of capabilities we would need in order to flesh out a living human democracy.

What could this richer and more human conception of democracy look like? Maybe it would entail:

  • Creating deliberative spaces in which we can come together as communities to talk about important issues
  • Fostering authentic dialogue, so that it’s easier for us to listen to other people and understand where they’re coming from
  • Holding time together to reflect on how things are going, or to process traumatic or joyful shared experiences
  • Making legitimate decisions in a host of different ways, based on the various cadences/complexities of different issues
  • Pooling our communal and historic knowledge to do things together that aren’t only about turning a profit
  • Finding ways for us simply to be together, enjoying the messiness of our improbable coexistence

Granted it takes an open mind to think about this richer form of democracy, given where we are now. As with any imaginative work about the future, you need to keep alive the possibility of a world that’s very different to today, like holding a baby bird in your hand.

But if we can do that, we end up with a powerful thought. Imagine if, when we said ‘democracy’ in two or three generations’ time, we didn’t just think of elections but also of a whole suite of human experiences like the ones above.

In this future, internet-era technology turn out to have been less a threat to democracy already perfected and more a chance to perfect democracy as-yet-unrealised.

And so this glass-half-full conversation ends not with a warning but with a question: if that’s the direction we want to go in, what work would we need to do now?

Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s a project I’d like to be part of. And it also feels to me a far more powerful counter to the alternative models for a digital society that have emerged on the global stage as alternatives to democracy, e.g. China’s digital authoritarianism.

If the world’s democracies want to counter these functioning alternatives, we need a vision that’s compelling. And that means our plan for the 21st century needs to be something better than just not screwing up the gains we made in the 20th century.

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best conversations I’ve had in recent weeks have started from this second, more positive place. It’s just a more generative and motivational framing.

For now, though, let’s stick to my promise to avoid mega-posts and finish there. In the next post I’ll situate all of this more soundly in the history and present of technology policy choices.

This post is part of a year-long series on how we govern the future. To read along, follow me on Medium or support the project for £3 a month on Substack. And for a big optimistic take on where politics goes next, read my book End State.