Something is going on in our democracies

Something is going on in our democracies. And it’s probably not what you think.

In Britain, a majority of voters chose to leave the European Union in an advisory referendum. In the Netherlands, a majority of voters rejected an association treaty between Ukraine and the European Union. In the United States, people chose Donald Trump as their 45th President.

These three cases have something in common; each of these outcomes are the result of a democratic process. Their outcome is the will of the majority of the people, and should be respected. We could stop right there. But by doing so, we would not only embrace the idea that the majority governs our society, but also reject the possibility that our democracy is so much more than just casting a vote.

But hold on — these three cases have more in common.

Each of these decisions essentially came with two options, each with pros and cons, and neither perfect. And whatever the outcome would be, it was never clear what the implications would be. In each case, the dominant narrative was that one option was a vote for ‘the establishment’, or ‘the elite’, and that the other option was a vote either against ‘the establishment’ or ‘the elite’, or for getting back a certain lost sovereignty. In each of these votes, highly complicated matters were reduced to binary options. Remain or leave. Yes or no. Clinton or Trump. Binary choices that make for easy Twitter polls and clear camps in media coverage, dramatic split-screens and catchy soundbites, ideally not exceeding the 8-second attention span modern-day humans have according to science.

I am not arguing that any of these outcomes are right or wrong, or I would fall victim to the same kind of over-simplification of incredibly complicated topics, and I would disregard the very democratic principles I so believe in. But I would argue that the way we come to a decision is broken. And unlike many people, I don’t believe it is ‘the establishment’ to blame, or ‘the banks’, or ‘corrupt politicians’, or ‘the media’.

I believe it is us to blame.

We, as a people, have built a society that is great in so many ways, yet so fundamentally flawed in one aspect in particular that it could disrupt everything else. In fact, that is exactly what is already happening.

We are gradually losing our ability to properly filter information, separate facts and fiction, assess the accuracy of information, stick a degree of relevance to what we find and then come to a balanced conclusion. At the same time, the amount of information is exponentially increasing, the number of sources is rapidly growing, whatever viewpoint is being re-enforced by our social media networks and and the pace of information supply via all these channels is very quickly speeding up. As a consequence, we increasingly suffer from decision fatigue and information overload. This is not just a wild guess — it is backed by science.

Over the past months, I think I’ve seen it all in regards to this challenge. There are people who complain about “not being heard”, while they refrain from a decent conversation based on facts. Some complain about “lack of transparency”, without actually making an effort to find the information they need. There are people who accuse ‘the establishment’ for “maintaining the status quo”, without backing up their accusation with facts, or without accepting facts at all.

I understand people are mad as hell when they’ve lost their job and can’t make ends meet and want to see more jobs being created. I understand people are concerned about their safety if their town sees an influx of refugees from an unknown land far away, and want to be sure these people are screened. I understand people want to have a real say in the society that affects their everyday lives. But what I don’t understand, is that they don’t take the time to properly inform themselves about these challenges, but rather absorb a random selection of information about the topic and decide based on sentiment.

The paralysis of fear, the overload of information we are absorbing and our decreasing ability to come to a balanced conclusion make it harder to understand complicated challenges, to challenge populist politicians, to question the media and eventually to question the validity of our own intangible gut feeling.

And this is where we get to the solution of this huge challenge, which is as complicated as the challenge itself. We need to better educate our children to handle information and make well-informed choices, so they grow up to become responsible citizens. We need to teach ourselves and each other more discipline when it comes to handling information and taking decisions on complicated choices, so we can responsibly enjoy the rights that come with democracy. We need to embrace and rely more on public service media that are primarily focused on their crucial role in a healthy democracy, because they reduce the interference of financial interests. And we need to come to terms with the notion that the process that goes before going to the polls is as much a moral obligation as it is to exercise one’s democratic right to vote. It is a long process, in which we should all play our part.

I may be wrong — either completely or partly. In that case, share your thoughts below. It is through discussion we get to better understand different views. That’s democracy as well.