Ideal Democracy Includes Discussion and Voting

The dominant model of electronic democracy is a web site that presents some options and allows us to vote. The worst complaint about this style of electronic democracy is it is not democracy from a political theory perspective. The vote-only type of electronic democracy was criticized in 1982 by Jean Betheke Elshtain, a political scientist, as being an “interactive shell game [that] cons us into believing that we are participating when we are really simply performing as the responding end of a prefabricated system of external stimuli.”

Elshtain complains that these systems are plebiscites instead of democracies:

In a plebiscitary system, the views of the majority...swamp minority or unpopular views. Plebiscitism is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with the connivance of, majority views. That opinion can be registered by easily manipulated, ritualistic plebiscites, so there is no need for debate on substantive questions.

Another political theorist, Brian Fay, has said about democracy that what “is most significant is the involvement of the citizens in the process of determining their own collective identity”. Thus, the primary activity of a real democracy is discussing, not voting. In an ideal democracy, there would be facility to bring up issues, exchange opinions, poll ourselves, re-discuss and re-poll until consensus is reached.

Consensus, although not always a practical form of democracy, is the ideal. Majority-rule divides a group and stifles discussion; consensus-rule unites a group and produces well-supported compromise decisions. In an ideal democracy, every participant is offered equal opportunity to bring up new issues, equal opportunity to participate in every discussion, equal opportunity to vote in every decision, every opportunity to change his vote in response to discussion and equal weight in each decision.

Ideal, direct, consensual democracy isn't always practical, not even on-line. However, our computer networks offer the means to implement systems that support this ideal.

Source: Elshtain, Jean Betheke, “Interactive TV—Democracy and the QUBE Tube”, The Nation, August 7-14, 1982, p. 108.