The Democratic Interface

Last night I read: The democratic interface: technology, political organization, and diverging patterns of electoral representation by W. Lance Bennett, Alexandra Segerberg,  and Curd B. Knüpfer. The piece was recently published in the journal of Information, Communication, and Society. 

Bennett et al. argue that democracy is slipping due to the radicalization of citizens  with less centric parties. More radical forms of leftist parties are unable to organize and perform in a way which appeals to the radical left. As a result, the right is able to take control of more governments bodies because it’s organization conforms to typical vertical power structures within government. Technology has the opportunity to bring more horizontal structures of power into government with more citizen participation and lower-level engagement. However, the development of this technology is very complex and runs into a lot of barriers. The technology needs to answer difficult questions like who has control and when, in order to find a balance between inclusive engagement and sharing authority. So far this type of technology has not been successful, so they technology/parties are not meeting the demands of the citizens like the radical-right parties are. Thus, the radical right parties are winning.

The arguments in the paper can be split into two investigations:

[1] Electoral Imabalance

The first is an investigation of self-identification of political parties in comparison to a survey that independently judges political party affiliation. Using the European Social Survey Data (ESS), a cross-national survey of european electorates, and the Chapel Hill Expert Survey, which looks at party positioning of citizens in Europe, the researchers established a baseline measure to determine where citizens lie between radical left and radical right parties, and how that compares to their self-identification. They identified political identification by asking participants to measure their party using a 1-10 scale (0-2 was radical left, 3-7 was center, 8-10 was radical right) and confirmed by comparing answers to the scale with self-identification with certain party names. They then compared this identification to party vote shares in each country. They found a substantial electoral imbalance.The radical right is overrepresented and the radical left underrepresented in relation to citizen identification“.

Bennett et al. then tried to answer why this imbalance existed. They hypothesize that “organizational and engagement preferences on the left are not matched with supply of parties offering the requisite organizational and engagement opportunities“. To prove their hypothesis they provided five counter-hypothesis and disproved four of them….

[This part really stumps me. Can you real prove your own hypothesis by disproving counterhypothesis that you just made up???]

By disproving their counterhypothesis, they claim to prove their own hypothesis that the supply of parties on the radical right are better able to meet voter demands for types of organizational engagement than parties on the left.

[2] Connective Parties

The second part of this paper investigates five different european parties which they define as ‘connective parties’, meaning they (1) cannot function without technology (2) engage supporters to effect party actions (3) are extensions of older connective action frameworks (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013)

[I don’t really know how this last one fits]

Bennett et al. observe these parties, which all claim to pursue “a new way of doing (party) politics”.

[I’m really bugged by the face that Bennett et al.  say “All of these parties… explicitly reject ideological positioning on the conventional left-right scale”. So if they reject being far left and far right, how can you compare them to the first part of this paper?]

All the parties want to be more inclusive to citizens with a ‘bottom-up’ approach to politics. They try to “build technology solutions to enable collaboration and decision-making at large scales in combination with executive action.” The analysis of this was not split into the 5 parties, but about a collection of key findings when investigating all 5 parties.

[I was a bit bummed they didn’t provide a description for each party and what those parties were doing in each country]

The biggest challenge I saw the authors point out was one of developing “complex systems of meaningful engagement” Who can participate and under what specific conditions? Should citizens be making all the decisions or only certain ones? What type of input is accepted and how? How can technology utilize and aggregate this input? How does this compare to ideas like the ‘stealth democracy’ (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse) which favors efficiency and expert input? These are very hard questions that have no real answers, but they will need to be addressed in any technological system designed for more horizontal organization of political parties.

Overall, they found “connective parties trying to implement innovative horizontal organizational formats  at scale offer interesting responses to to citizen demands’ but still face significant challenges” 

[Why do they use the word ‘interesting’???? What does that mean. Do these new innovative formats fail? In what ways?]

The paper ends concluding that emerging far-left citizen are demanding more direct democracies (i.e. a change in organizational preferences to more horizontal organization), but our current system of government and technologies are not build to meet that demand, and run against current party standards. So the vertical party models demanded more by the far-right have better supply of traditional organizational structures to meet the demand.

Ok, comment time. 

[1] It is still unclear to me how the two investigations link. If all the parties claim not to be on the radical left/right spectrum, how can you compare them to the citizens on the spectrum?

[2] I’m glad they pointed out all the challenges in building technology based systems for direct democracy. From this point, I would wonder if we need to explore deeper questions as to whether direct democracy is better and whether technology can even meet the demands of a direct democracy. The authors hint at the end, that the answer may be more ‘passive democratic feedback’ (Karpf, 2012) technology, but that is VERY different from a direct democracy which allow citizens to be in the decision making process, and not in the post-decision making process.

[3] Overall, I think their final conclusions about democracy from an organizational structure are true and very interesting, but I feel like their actual investigation does not match their conclusions. I feel like the examples were attempting to fit claims that they authors already wanted to say before the investigation.

[4] This is another paper that focuses on elections and not as much internal processes once parties are in power. They claim elections are “the most important institutional interface with society”. However, their claims for a more direct democracy seem to be focusing more on problems outside the election. Ofcourse, citizen input matters a lot to policymakers during elections, but the harder questions are how does that inclusion change once parties are in office?


Food for thought.