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Don’t Look to the Web for Direct Democracy

In the Times Week in Review Anand Giriharadas seems surprised that the Obama team has had more success with the Internet during the campaign than in the White House. As the article tells us, the results of the “Citizens’ Briefing Book,” an online policy proposal initiative, were less than one might have hoped for:

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

I was not aware that the legalizing marijuana lobby was so well organized online, but less surprised by the popularity of online poker or anti-Scientology efforts: Both of those movements have an larger presence on the Internet than outside it, in particular the anonymous movement against Scientology.

The Internet is great at organizing campaigns and protests (in the US and abroad), but it will not, at least in the near term, have a huge impact on day to day governance in the way that some in the tech field had hoped. This is particularly true for those that believed the Internet would lead to direct democracy and fundamentally change our form of government in the US. It won’t. Most democratic societies have republican forms of government where we elect representatives to carry out the day to day affairs of state – because for all the problems its problems, this is still the best way to run things when the rest of us have full time jobs. This is more than anything an indictment of direct democracy as opposed to an indictment of the Internet. One need look no further than the mess that Californian voters have created by trying to manage a budget process at the ballot box – this has lead to a situation where nobody wants to pay higher taxes or have deficits, but everyone, especially during the economic meltdown, wants more government services. It’s impossible.

This doesn’t mean that the Internet isn’t having a huge impact on democracy, from campaigns to government transparency to allowing new voices into the process to increased fact checking of government, media and interest groups. Just don’t expect direct democracy to take hold because of technological innovation.

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