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Midterm Elections and the Promise of a Non-Functioning Democracy

Somewhere at the core of the idea of democracy is the notion that the people -- or their representatives -- get together for a dialogue out of which insight and vision may emerge. Sharing ideas means listening as much as talking.
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America proudly sees herself as the leader of the democratic world. Democracy is on the rise around the globe. Forty years ago, think tank Freedom House published its first annual report ranking the world based on democratic freedoms. A mere 40 countries had free elections. Back then, Spain and Portugal were military dictatorships. Today, Freedom House counts 87 nations as "free countries," a doubling in less than four decades. An additional 60 countries are "partly free," leaving 48 countries still labeled "not free."

Good news. However over the same forty years America's own democracy has been eroded. First politics became a terrible money game with candidates having to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get elected based on sound bite simplifications of all important issues. And ultimately that money game has ended in a stalemate on Capitol Hill where two parties now only agree on one strict rule: If they want "yes" we will certainly and clearly say "no" -- no matter the arguments.

Somewhere at the core of the idea of democracy is the notion that the people -- or their representatives -- get together for a dialogue out of which insight and vision may emerge. Sharing ideas means listening as much as talking. From Washington, DC that high road of politics has faded in a distant horizon. Meanwhile the electorate has become disillusioned and disappointed.

Still the current frustration bodes more good news as further democratic reforms are unavoidably coming closer with every next day of standstill in the US capital.

Let's first remember that the democracy we know in the western world is a "representative democracy" where the people are represented by the officials they elect. That's not the democracy the Greeks invented. That was "direct democracy" in which all free men -- yes, no women, no slaves -- participated.

The Founding Fathers of the United States didn't do much better than their Greek ancestors. Despite the beautiful and inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence their inclusive thinking was far from perfect either. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second US president John Adams, argued in vain with her husband and his friends to have the now famous words "that all men were created equal" replaced with "that all people were created equal".

Furthermore direct democracy was deemed impractical from the 19th century as democracy spread inspired by the American and French revolutions. That made sense given the poor communication infrastructure that existed at that time. Today 40 percent of the world population has Internet access and all these people "vote" on a daily and continuous basis on what they want to buy and which services they prefer. Powerful multinational corporations that only decades ago were used to dictate demand, have learned to listen to the consumers.

Barack Obama was first elected as president as a relatively unknown senator through the existing, old-fashioned, democratic channels. However his team masterfully used the Internet to create a powerful base of individual voters. No American president will be elected anymore without similarly using the web to bring voters together. From there it's only a small step to involve people not just in the election of their candidate but also in the issues that are at the heart of the political debate.

We're not talking about instant mass opinion polls that can only work with oversimplification of complex issues, not about the kind of "yes-no" referendum that the Scots could have given their independence a few weeks ago; not even about the Swiss democracy that since the middle of the 19th century has been the closest example to direct democracy in the world.

We're talking about a radical transformation of democracy whereby technology will allow the people to take back much of the power from elected officials. Experiments with electronic town hall meetings are already happening. And the interesting thing about such experiments is that it's quite possible for ordinary citizens to find a common perspective in the unavoidably complex matters that drive our modern societies.

If jurys of ordinary citizens can agree in complex legal cases, similar "jurys" can come together to find the answers to the challenges societies face. We are on our way to a democracy where the issues of the times -- gay marriage, abortion, climate change -- will be discussed in electronic town hall meetings wherein a random selection of people will participate. I think all of us will feel much more represented by such meetings than by the current political battleground polluted by too much money and too much simplification.

So when you wonder whether your vote matters tomorrow and when you feel frustrated about the lack of vision and decision coming from Capitol Hill, rest assured that the electronic and digital revolution that continues to shake every corner of the economy and society won't pass by Washington, DC and all the other capitals of the proud western democracies. Just wait and see.

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