A chronic issue haunts democracy: the issue of its definition. From democracy’s original definition, understood as the rule of the people, arise the following questions: Who are ‘the people’, and how can they come to rule themselves?
Democracy arose and acquired its definition in the Greek city of Athens, where citizens congregated, deliberated, and held elections within their city’s agora. Such congregations were open to all citizens of Athens who were not women, outsiders, or slaves. The population was small, everyone knew one another, and space was controlled.
When the democratic system took hold in modern times, however, populations and geographical bounds had grown and expanded immensely. No longer the city-state, the political unit had become the nation-state.
Democracy, thusly, became representative, made possible through the mediation of a few representing the many. The following questions come to mind: Can this representative democracy of mediation be a true expression of the interests of the people or the electorate? Can parliaments, as houses of the law and overseers of governments, function as microcosms truly representative of the people, as Founding Father John Adams put it? Are representatives able to forgo their personal and factional interests and the interests of those in power, lest the representative democratic system should lose its integrity and credibility?
Other types of mediation exist alongside that of the parliamentary, such as the mediation of experts in decision-making processes, out-of-court arbitration in the resolution of disputes, and political parties in the political organisation of citizens and the nomination and mobilisation of candidates throughout political campaigns. Indeed, differing political parties have emerged to express equally differing interests and ideologies. The political pluralism expressed by parties, therefore, is the very basis of the democratic system.
Yet, parties in our countries have a different point of origin, as they emerged during colonial times to organise and mobilise people towards the common goal of independence. When the national goal is one, there is little justification for political pluralism and multipartism, for in them are divisions within a class that ought to remain united. This thought can explain the consistent existence of large political parties at the hearts of national movements, such as the Wafd Party in Egypt, the Constitutional Liberal Party in Tunisia, and the Istiqlal Party in Morocco, whom all viewed other parties as meagre dividers of national unity. The independent state, in turn, inherited this aversion to political pluralism and, hence, the hegemony of the single party as the state party and its leader as the national leader.
Even in the world’s oldest democracies, however, parties today face an imminent threat to their existence due to the communications revolution and the wide propagation of social media networks which have weakened the role of parties in the political platforming of citizens and the nomination and management of candidates and campaigns. Rivalled by modern social platforms and networks, political parties have become shells of their former selves.
Moreover, and amidst waning confidence in the parliamentary system and its mediation, where the accountability of representatives had been seasonally invoked, taking place only during election campaigns, it is now through social media become a daily occurrence capable of happening at any time.
Modern social media networks have also harmed the independent professional press, a pillar of democracy. Several newspapers and magazines have ceased to exist, the sales and subscriptions of many others have dwindled, and numerous journalists have become at odds with their profession. Fake news has taken hold, and the quality of social commentary has declined; anyone with a computer can now proclaim themselves a journalist, analyst, or commentator at the expense of professionals and experts. At a time when economic and social issues and international relations grow ever more complex, two-and-a-half billion Facebook users circulate amongst themselves undependable news in more than a hundred languages.
It has been speculated that the communications revolution will finally bring upon us an era of direct democracy without mediation: without the mediation of political parties, the professional press, or the aristocracy of expertise, money, or power. People may now state their unmediated opinions, demands, and criticism through modern means of communication. It is, indeed, direct democracy, and its time has come. Did the Yellow Vests not descend upon the streets of France, mobilised by social networks, all but to voice their demand for direct democracy?
The paradox here is that this era of increasingly complex economic, political, and societal issues is simultaneously one when anyone with a computer can have their voice heard. The truth is that what emerges from our computers carries nought but what others upload to them with their levels of knowledge, expertise, and morality.
Our modern means of communication have brought politics to the street, but this is an unhinged street driven by zealous impulses and volatile circumstances with no clear alternatives nor conventions. Such was the case of the uprisings that had been ignited by social networks in countries such as Lebanon, Sudan, and Algeria, where people stood against tyranny and corruption, demanding to overthrow regimes while offering no alternatives, leaders, or roadmaps for democratic transition.
Networks & Populism
The widespread popularity of social media networks has been associated with a rise in populism in various countries worldwide that is working to destroy all forms of the mediation of the aristocracy, parliamentary systems, political parties, and the professional press.
Populism, especially in Western countries, has regressed to a fanatical form of nationalism that rejects globalisation and is hostile to immigrants and their bloodlines; to Muslims above all. It is a nationalism that views globalisation as an attack on national sovereignties and a threat to national economies by means of its influxes of foreign goods and transferences of capital and companies abroad.
When the West held dominion over most of the global economy, it pressured other economies to open up their markets, accept Western goods, and export raw materials to benefit the West. Where the West had once been an advocate for economic openness, its populist movements call today for isolationism and seclusion from globalisation and the encroachment of immigrants, especially Muslims, whom they view as a threat to the values and institutions of the West.
Democracy Without Mediation?
Some were optimistic about the advent of the era of direct democracy brought about by the communications revolution, which has removed all mediators standing between people and democracy. What really happened in this era of the communications revolution, however, is that democracy has regressed in the West and East, and tyranny has revealed itself without opposition. The masses brought out to the streets through the modern means of communication have stood and protested against authoritarian regimes without plans for democratic transition.
Many rejoiced during the uprisings of the Arab Spring: It has been said that the winds of democracy, which have long eluded the Arab region, finally blow in its direction. The real outcome, however, is what we are witnessing today in the countries of the Arab Spring, where states have collapsed and societies have disintegrated or reverted to authoritarian regimes.
The problem was not with the Arab Spring; its masses’ demands for justice, freedom, and dignity are still valid and legitimate. The problem is that the societies of the Arab Spring were not prepared to sustain such demands, as they did not have an adequate societal basis capable of providing the democratic values and culture necessary to achieve the democratic transition.
Direct democracy remains a dream far from being achieved. There can be no democracy without mediation, yet this mediation must be transparent and credible. Neither can there be democracy without political parties that express pluralism: a reality of society and politics. Nor can there be democracy without a parliamentary system; the issue is that of bridging the gap between citizens and their representatives for the democratic system to retain its integrity and credibility.
Where the communications revolution and social media networks have become a part of our reality, the best bet of democratic institutions, including parties, parliaments, and the professional press, is to acknowledge, manage, and tame the modern means of communication, to take a stand, and play their role in facilitating the democratisation of democracy.