I wrote a rather lengthy post-cum-essay earlier this year speculating that MPs and elected politicians might be out of a job within the next 10 years time.
My argument was based purely on my own thoughts about how the participatory web is rapidly overcoming barriers which made full participatory democracy (as opposed to the representative democracy we have currently) more viable as a political system.
This contrasts the populist line you get in mainstream media where journalists and others like to ride the band-wagon that the Internet and ‘Web 2.0 tools’ such as blogs, YouTube, Facebook etc is allowing people to reconnect with politicians and politics. David Cameron is the usual UK example trotted out with Obama now the figure-head in the US.
I’ve said all along that technology itself is not capable of reconnecting politics with people. People feel politically disenfranchised because the political systems in most Western democracies are specifically designed to keep most people removed from processes of empowerment. In the same way that businesses traditionally kept ‘consumers’ at arms length.
If politicians and political parties want to reconnect with people then they need to change the way they do things. Doing the same old thing using new technology *will not* politically re-enfranchise people.
This is a slightly contentious view but since posting it I’ve discovered an unpublished PhD thesis by Kerrill Dunne from Sussex University which examined the role and effectiveness of political forums in renewing political engagement – or rather stemming political disengagement.
Kerrill’s research takes an empirical look at the value of using online forums to reverse political disengagement and it concludes that political online forums will not reverse political disengagement. More specifically discussion forums do not fail because of some inherent design fault, but because political disengagement is tied to citizens’ dislike of liberal thin democracy (i.e. British democracy based on representative
democracy, liberalism and a free market economy).
In discussion about his research on the DoWire E-Democracy forums, Dunne, explained his findings in more details. Political disengagement he argues boils down to two main theories: firstly a reaction to the fact that in representative, liberal democracy as long as enough people vote (or engage in the process) then the system works thus by its very function it fails to maximise participation. But secondly:
“political disengagement is growing because modern democracies do not support strong participatory or direct democracy [...] this theory argues that political disengagement is a disease of the liberal thin democratic model. (i.e. representative, liberal democracy)“
Offering a favoured theory in light of his research, Dunne remarks that:
“I agree with the latter [second theory, because research (see chapter 4 of thesis) has shown citizens are dissatisfied with the current political system and are turning away from it because representatives are unresponsive to them the political system does not support any form of direct democracy and individuals are not interested in politics because they do not identify with political parties or trust politicians [...] Offline citizens are saying that they are not satisfied with the current political system and online, they are less likely to participate in forums rooted in it.”
Based on Dunne’s study it would appear that public disengagement is not something that web 2.0 tools can solve alone. Rather the political and social system in which these tools exist must change for people to reconnect with politics.