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The Abstract

Full Lenght | Abstract

Using IT to Develop Deliberative Democracy

What is the problem with democracy? The question ignites various answers, most of which relate to, and reflect, last century's split of democracy into participative and representative rule. This separation highlights a distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a form of government. The debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in the 1920's explicates this democratic split. Whereas, Lippmann's books, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), raised doubts about the possibility of developing a true democracy in a modern, complex society. Dewey's work, The Public and Its Problems (1927), defended democracy and suggested that "when the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own...(p184)" In its embedded ambiguity, 'democracy' encompasses a broad horizon of definitions. The various and ever-changing societies develop unique forms of 'democracy,' all forms depend on the conditions and ability of each particular society. Therefore, the result of the argument between participative and representative rule cannot be universally applied, but must be reasoned with the particular societal conditions and ability in mind. The purpose of this article is to bring awareness to Iceland's possibility to develop a form of deliberative/participatory democracy unprecedented in history.

When the great philosophers of our past imagined what would be the ideal national administration, they used the language of 'equal rights to all' and 'rule of intellect.' As a solution to various conditional constraints, most democracies have developed and adopted a form of representative rule. This form of rule entails that the citizens elect decision-makers, a ticket of people mostly unknown to them. The citizens employ politicians, but then, due to the organization of representative rule, the employee assumes control of the nation - the citizens as a collective. The citizen's access to political decisions is not denied on the grounds of her individual lack of political competence, but because she belongs to that class of people who can be labeled as mere 'citizen,' thus dismissed. The organization of representative rule enables politicians to monopolize decision-making power - an institutionalized categorical inequality that reinforces the distinction between politicians and citizens - and results in a rule that is more vulnerable to corruption or inappropriate relations with financial investors. Moreover, with representatives, the citizens do not rule at all, and should therefore not be defined as 'democratic.' For example, in January 2005, a survey revealed that 84% of Icelanders never wanted to support the war in Iraq and demanded to be withdrawn from the coalition. The public was never asked for an opinion, the prime minister at the time, David Oddsson, spoke down to the people and said that [the citizens] were incompetent to make that decision.

With the idea of 'equal rights to all' out the window, one would think that we could at least aim for the 'rule of intellect,' which would exhibit a concentration of smart people, of each society's most brilliant intellects, in the field of politics. Is this so? No. However, a transformation to participatory rule would make citizens the primary source of political power and enable a nation to tap into society's most brilliant intellects. If politicians question the citizens ability to make decisions, then how can they justify the citizen's ability to vote on a ticket of people to make those very same political decision?

A multi-party system, which prevails in Iceland, can avoid demagoguery if the process calls for rhetorical approval of all parties before questioning the citizens. It's a fact that most people are driven by their passions and not their light of reason. Therefore, in order to tame our passions, let reason structure the framework of rules and laws. Make it so that passion and majoritarianism are unable to carry the nation into a huge deficit or disorder. One of the means employed to prevent our administration from plummeting into majoritarianism, or mob rule, is the 'double majority' requirement -- it ensures the legitimacy of any citizen-made law. A double majority is the name given to a vote which requires a majority of votes according to two separate criteria.

New technology would mediate and disseminate information directly from politicians to citizens. Politicians publish a political report by means of journals, essays, question ares, and digital video. When citizens are presented with a question, they must have access to a video and an essay from each, and every, political party. This information should reveal the stance taken by that particular party on that particular matter. The digital database collected could easily be computed and used to advance political science. The media can report the news based on these political reports. Today, much of the necessary information dissemination is through the media and we all understand that any communication is more at risk to be distorted or abused when mediated through more entities. This method of information dissemination will make it much easier for the citizen to approach the necessary information, it also enables her to make a deliberated and a responsible decision on that particular matter. Interesting consequential developments include: the elimination of paper bills and receipts all together, and developing an economy without cash - all transactions digital - an important step towards eradicating the black market.

The author contests that Iceland's conditions and ability serve as a favorable landscape for a proto-transformation to deliberative democracy. By utilizing the broadband and fiber optic networks, available to all citizens 2007, Icelanders can make participatory democracy practical and efficient in use.

Thorsteinn Gestsson