My last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey. It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.
18th Century London
In the 18th century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head, the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities, celebrities, and toy poodles.
How people communicated, the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their 18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole purpose and meaning of elections and voting?
People living in feudal times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have been viewed as treason.
The 18th century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate, his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus different from those in the 18th century.
18th Century technology
The expectations we have about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the governed and the policies of those in power.
Elections have fallen on hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be, directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates, consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and upgrade the weak signal.
Elections are staged events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads, interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.
I suspect no one under forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.
Thailand is an example of the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash payments.
Those who protest against elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a different cultural and political tradition.
Elites suffer from the old devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this 18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated given the current technological and information revolution?
We’ve inherited election from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems everywhere there is an internet connection.
What do people want from their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was slipped on the black box.
Elections voted representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016 presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a consensus.
This raises a number of hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon. The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens. They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test of resolve and commitment.
Governments in their international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
We are left with the blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down. No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a political system.
18th Century Voters an exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males
Not only are elections incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry, “Look, there’s a squirrel.”
Elections and voting were created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an 18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo. There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.
18th Century French cannon
In time, the 18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known. Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues, products, events, and personalities every day.
When the military assumes power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making, legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information, and the economy.
In another context, Thomas E. Ricks wrote,
“Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link: https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2015/06/hierarchy-does-not-work#sthash.LjOWQZqZ.GahTqApd.dpuf
We see some outlines of direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support. John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil forfeiture.
He’s hit a cultural sweet spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change as there will always be a group that will resist change.
In modern, contemporary life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.
We are at a major crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the past.
What will the new digital generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role. What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.
Once consensus is the product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they want.
In this world, voters are a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the government should do with plastic bottles.
In this brave new merged buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the governed.
We aren’t at that point and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies. Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many powerful people around the world.
A new generation is already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions. They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in TheTruman Show, are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die, and a new era will begin.
The one most people know is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.