Populism, Youth Stoke Moves Toward Direct Democracy

 With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court and political ads flooding the airwaves before the November 6 midterm election, it’s time to take a deep breath and consider innovation in government, including the direct democracy experiment underway in Italy. It could be the next disruptive idea to invade our own political landscape.

Understanding the Italian political scene is not easy or obvious. At the moment, Italy’s ruling coalition government is led by a group of parliamentarians nominated and elected online under the political slogan, “Participate, don’t delegate.”  They are members of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a political party started in 2009 by a comedian, a blogger and a web strategist.

In March elections this year, M5S won the largest share of votes (38 percent) because of its populist appeal and attraction to young voters. It is reportedly the first time an Internet-based movement has gained political power. Its success wouldn’t have been conceivable without the advance of technology

One of the new government’s first moves was to appoint Riccardo Fraccaro as perhaps the world’s first minister of direct democracy. As reported in the Washington Post, Fraccaro said, “Citizens must be granted the same possibility to actively intervene in the process of managing and administrating public goods as normally carried out by their elected representatives.” In a partyocracy, he added, elected officials hoard decision-making at the expense of the “public will.” 

Through referenda, public petitions and initiatives, Fraccaro sees direct democracy guiding policymaking alongside representative government “to give real, authentic sovereignty to the citizens.” The Five-Star Movement exists on an online platform called Rousseau, an Enlightenment-era philosopher who influenced the French Revolution and believed in citizen involvement in politics as a wedge against tyranny.

The Five-Star Movement appears to be more than a protest of governmental process, as reflected by its coalition partner, the right-wing League party, best known for its anti-immigration positions. The Five-Star Movement leader is Luigi Di Maio, who is 32 years old and the son of a member of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The early months of the coalition’s time in power have unsettled more traditional political players with calls for both a tax cut and universal basic income for Italians, despite Italy’s long-term debt that stands at 130 percent of its GDP. However, the direct democracy experiment has spurred the European Union to reduce the signature threshold for citizen-proposed legislation. The next step would be to institutionalize a role for citizen engagement, possibly a Citizens’ Assembly with a role in reviewing what is passed by the European Parliament.

Nathan Gardels, editor of The World Post, notes other direct democracy experiments around the world. One is crowdlaw, an intelligence gathering platform intended to help government officials engage with citizens in use in diverse countries such as Iceland and India.

Taiwan has employed an online platform to form citizen working groups that define public problems and identify possible solutions. “In more than 80 percent of cases, publicly defined issues have led to government action. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of Uber, telemedicine and online education, have been discussed with more than 200,000 participants.”

Steps toward direct democracy would undoubtedly alarm another Enlightenment-era political thinker, James Madison. He believed populist passions could overwhelm the cool restraint of deliberative reason. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers. “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

Madison and other Founding Fathers lived in a time before telecommunications, jet airplanes and the internet, which have altered perceptions about representative government and direct democracy. The hot-plate Kavanaugh confirmation process, whether you view it as a circus or a sham, is likely to kindle more thoughts about the role of citizens in a government, of which George Washington once described the “senatorial saucer” to cool the passions of the directly elected members of the House.