Political Parties in the Digital Age

Political Parties in the Digital Age

Speech by Dr. Will Derks on 15 July 2017
Fifth Forum of Young Politicians of the South Caucasus and Ukraine
Tbilisi, Georgia

Ladies and gentlemen!

Some two weeks ago, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) lost the regional elections for the parliament of the Japanese capital, Tokyo. It was a devastating defeat, most likely caused by a general dissatisfaction among the Japanese over Mr. Abe’s cover-up of a corruption case through the LDP majority in the national parliament. The LDP lost almost 60% of its seats to a party called ‘Tokyo Citizens First’, led by the Tokyo Governor Ms. Yuriko Koike, who will now be in charge in Tokyo. Remarkably, the new party is just one year old. Seventeen candidates on its list were women – which in a Japanese context is almost unheard of. And ever since the party’s inception, other groups calling themselves ‘Citizens First’ have been founded throughout Japan. Analysts now speculate that this new movement is not just a serious threat to the old, established LDP on the national level, it might also be the impetus for a radical change in Japanese politics as such.

These recent developments in Japan are not unique. One is reminded of similar phenomena elsewhere in the world. Also in Asia, for instance, where there is the so-called Aam Aadmi (or Common Man’s) Party (AAP) in New Delhi, India, that has its roots in an anti-corruption movement there. Although only three years old, it won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections for the Delhi Legislative Assembly with no less than 67 out of 70 seats, while the well-known Congress Party lost all seats. Interestingly, the AAP wants to reverse the way that government accountability operates and has taken the Gandhian concept of swaraj as a tenet. The swaraj model lays stress on community building, decentralization and self-governance – which is what the word swaraj actually means. The AAP believes that through swaraj the government will be directly accountable to the people instead of higher officials.

If we look to Europe, what might first come to mind in this connection is the Spanish political party Podemos, which translates as ‘We Can’. Podemos was only a few months old when it gained five seats in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. A little later, it won a landslide victory in the regional and municipal elections and became the dominant political force in some of the main cities in Spain such as Barcelona, Madrid and Cádiz. From there, it has introduced sophisticated forms of participatory democracy. And, in the 2015 general elections for the national Parliament, it gained well over 20% of the votes. This changed the Spanish political landscape dramatically, from a de facto two-party-system with either one of the two major parties in power, to one in which forming a coalition government is unavoidable.
It may be significant that Podemos has its roots in the 15-M insurgency – the protests of the so-called Indignados or outraged citizens on 15 May 2011 in response to the severe impact of the 2008 financial crisis on Spanish citizens and the way the Spanish Government handled it. Tellingly, the current mayor of Barcelona is Ms. Ada Colau, the first woman ever to have held this post, who was formerly a grass-roots activist and has been arrested by the police while defending mortgaged citizens evicted from their houses. As a mayor, she has furthered and implemented sophisticated forms of participatory democracy.

Perhaps even more spectacular is the emergence of the French movement and later political party En Marche! of President Macron. Within a year or so, Mr Macron has managed to set up a grass-roots movement that has not only brought him the presidency of France, but also the majority in Parliament. It is not too much to say that, after this incredible double victory, the established political parties are in shatters and the old political order has been brushed aside.
50% of the En Marche candidates were women and the lion’s share of its MPs are total newcomers in politics, from all walks of life. In early July, President Macron announced that he will change the political system drastically, with a new election law; a much smaller, more flexible parliament; and a law on ‘morals in politics’ which, among other things, will stipulate that one can hold public office for maximum of three terms only. The idea behind this is that politics should not be a profession, but a service that one renders to society, after which one returns to one’s former life.

This list could be easily extended. Most of us will have heard about the tech-savvy Five Star Movement in Italy that has also changed the Italian political landscape almost overnight and, amongst other things, implemented innovative recruiting methods through which, inter alia, two women in their early thirties have become the mayors of Rome and Turin. In Reykjavik, Iceland, the Pirate Party – also an avid user of digital technology for collective decision-making – has become a considerable political force following the so-called Pots & Pans Revolution following the financial crisis of 2008. Personally, I have a weak spot for Alternativet or The Alternative in Denmark, which endeavors to crowd-source its policies on the basis of six core values, namely: Courage, Generosity, Transparency, Humility, Humour and Empathy. Founded in 2013, it managed to win nine seats in the national Parliament after the general elections of 2015. Outside Europe the Partido de la Red or Net Party in Buenos Aires, Argentina, could be mentioned. It has, among other things, developed its own open source digital platform called DemocracyOS to consult its members – a platform that is now also used by a variety of organizations the world over. Lastly, and also in Latin America, there is the Labour Party of Porto Alegre in Brazil, that was behind the first ever implementation of participatory budgeting, an innovative democratic impulse that has since been copied by hundreds of cities and towns across the globe.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have taken some time to focus on what I would like to call examples of democratic innovation, and more particularly of innovative political parties, which stand out against the background of what seems to be a growing international consensus that democracy is in crisis. Just to give you a few examples: in 2013, senior journalist Philip Coggan’s published his book The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy; and in March 2014 The Economist published an essay entitled ‘What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy’, while its 2015 Democracy Index was entitled ‘Democracy in an Age of Anxiety’. One recent contribution to this discourse came from two well-known authorities on democratic developments, Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs, of the Carnegie Endowment, who published an article in April, with the ominous title ‘Democracy Is Not Dying’. Indeed, they argue that ‘The state of democracy around the world is very troubled’, because of ‘resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, rising populism, and contagious illiberalism.’

Anyone who is abreast of events these days will most likely agree with this, and I will certainly not start an argument with two democracy experts of such renown. Still, I would like to try to put things into perspective a bit here as I am convinced that too much pessimism really clouds the issue.

My first remark would be that the whole world in general is changing fundamentally and at a crazy speed. Until recently, change took place at a relatively slow, linear pace. However, driven by modern technology, we find ourselves today in the midst of a transition that is taking place in a much faster, exponential fashion: The processing power of computing devices doubles every eighteen months. This means, for instance, that within the next ten years or so, the standard laptop computer will be capable of processing information at the rate of the human brain. Again, some twenty years or so later, in 2050 say, that single laptop’s capacity will be equivalent to ‘all the brains of the entire human race’ (Diamandis and Kotler, Abundance; The Future Is Better Than You Think, 2012).

It is, of course, totally unpredictable what consequences this will have. And against the background of phenomena like Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning algorithms, the Internet of Things, robots, self-driving cars, 3D-printers for living tissue, virtual currencies such as bitcoin and ethereum, virtual and augmented reality, drones – and whatnot – I will not even try to sketch the contours of the systemic change on all levels we are witnessing.

However, what we already know and experience every day is that information and knowledge are distributed effortlessly to every nook and cranny of the globe, in a split second, and at almost no cost. This has fundamental consequences for the way people assemble into groups, form communities and are able to share, cooperate and take collective action. It has fundamental consequences for democracy.

In this connection, I may point out here that representative democracy as we know it, together with the nation-state and the political party (with which it is strongly related), are 19th century solutions to 19th century problems that reflect a 19th century state of technology, epitomized by the railway, the newspaper and the telegraph. In other words, if, under the influence of modern, transitional technology, the whole world is experiencing a revolution with a magnitude it has never seen before, it should be no surprise that the political system we designed some 200 years ago cannot possibly remain unaltered. It may be a cliché to say that one should not let a good crisis go to waste. But it seems to me that with all these profound and bewildering changes going on, we shouldn’t be too gloomy but rather appreciate that a whole range of exciting possibilities is opening up to us and we have been given a real opportunity to recast the way we govern ourselves.

Democracy has many hidden strengths. Not the least of these strengths resides, no doubt, in democrats themselves, who may have lost their trust in traditional politics, feel disenfranchised and perhaps have turned away from a democratic system that is failing them, but who are experimenting with new possibilities for deliberative and participatory democracy. This becomes especially clear if we manage to transcend ‘the perspective that uses the nation-state as chief protagonist and the main unit of analysis’ (Moises Naím, The End of Power, 2013). If we go down a level to observe what is going on there, the prospects for democracy may seem a lot more optimistic.

The global pattern of rebellions and street revolutions in major cities across the globe – think of Kiev, Hong Kong, in São Paulo or Guatemala City, or indeed Madrid and Reykjavik – suggests that considerable numbers of citizens anywhere in the world are willing to show active political commitment, often at great personal risk.

This is echoed by citizens’ initiatives in deliberative democracy that may not be as risky as taking to the streets, but that require a lot of the committed participants’ time and energy. In the last 10 to 15 years or so, we have witnessed an outburst of local initiatives that, each to a certain degree, show a worldwide longing for local rootedness. Citizens are increasingly organizing themselves around new values surrounding energy, climate, food, health, etc., and they are doing it on a local level. Using the advantages of modern technology, they form communities with like-minded individuals in their neighborhoods, be it out of discontent with what happens on a global level, or, reversely, because they are inspired by it. In any case, they act with the intention of improving the things immediately surrounding them.

Typically, new terms are created for these novel forms of citizens’ political engagement. With a linguistic blend of words, the simultaneity of global cooperation and local participation characteristic of such activities and initiatives is now sometimes called ‘glocalization’. In this connection, one also comes across a term like ‘interdependence’, as opposed to ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’, terms that are considered to be ‘irrelevant to new transnational realities’ (Benjamin R. Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, 2013). Further, the phrase ‘civic tech’ is also sometimes used to denote a large movement for democracy, which encapsulates many smaller segments, including data access and transparency, voting, visualization and mapping, public decision-making, peer-to-peer local sharing, civic crowd funding, et cetera. Later today, we will get more details in the presentations by our friends from International IDEA, Socioneers and ELVA. But here we can already say that in the phrase ‘civic tech’, the term ‘civic’ is the operative word, meaning ‘us’ and ‘we’ — that is, people and communities, along with their hopes, dreams and needs, and the decisions that they make together to realize them, using technology as the means to an end.

Ladies and gentlemen, earlier I referred to an international debate dealing with the systemic crisis of our democratic political system. In his important contribution to this debate, published in 2013 as The End of Power, the author Moisés Naím surprisingly pleads in favor of the political party as the means to overcome this crisis. But to be able to play this role – and given that the established political party often seems a relic from a bygone age, increasingly bypassed by new forms of participation – Naím emphasizes that political parties should first adapt their structures and methods to a more networked world. They should boost their allure by rethinking their role and function; modernize their recruiting methods; and retool their organization and operations. ‘We need stronger, more modern democratic political parties that stimulate and facilitate participation’, as Naím puts is, adding that, in his view ‘adapting political parties to the twenty-first century is a priority.’

Put differently: In the twenty-first century, established political parties are not only quickly losing the trust of the people, but also their relevance among an increasingly sophisticated, connected citizenry. The grand narratives from the 19th century have lost their explanatory powers and the classical political party – which is based on them – has come under siege. Perhaps it is safe to say that, under the influence of the exponentially growing importance of technology in our society, we are witnessing the revoking of a social contract that was valid until recently, but that is now considered inadequate. Modern citizens, in any case, do not feel represented by the established political parties any longer and demand an extent of political influence that goes far beyond merely voting in general elections every four or five years. Many traditional political parties seem to be transfixed and petrified by such developments, they are lagging behind, don’t seem to know what to do, or are in a state of denial that turns them into mere passive onlookers.

However, as I tried to suggest at the very beginning of my talk, in recent years some political parties and movements have indeed started trying to do things differently. Podemos, Alternativet, Tokyo Citizens First, La France En Marche, the Common Man’s Party, the Pirates, the Net Party and their peers, might be called ‘laboratories of political innovation’ that adapt to the twenty-first century by taking a fundamentally changed relationship between politician and citizen as a starting point. Typically, these 21st century political parties and movements – which often seem to emerge fast and unexpectedly – are, or try to be:

•​Deliberative and participative
•​Open and porous
•​Inclined to further self-governance, community building and decentralization
•​Inclined to tap into the cognitive surplus of citizens
•​‘Glocally’ oriented; that is, inspired by the simultaneity of local participation and global cooperation
•​Horizontally rather than vertically organized
•​More transparent, especially financially
•​Idealistic and pragmatic, rather than ideological
•​Tending to combine indirect democracy with forms of direct democracy
•​Cheerful, inventive, young (at heart), digital and tech-savvy
•​Inclined to ignore old political distinctions such as left and right
•​Inclined to establish and maintain a genuine, full gender balance

Theirs is a new vision of democracy in which the democratic state develops into a democratic society and in which the citizen has become the co-creator of public value and contributor to community resilience, using modern technology to spread messages and influence outcomes in ways that until recently would have required the infrastructure of classical parties. As far as I can see, these new and innovative political movements and parties constitute a democratic vanguard. They are forerunners that pave the way to the resurgence and increased effectiveness of the classical political parties in the digital age, first and foremost by sharing power with a sophisticated, well-connected citizenry and thereby regaining the ability to inspire, energize and mobilize people to work together for the common good.