Source the crowd, don’t rouse the rabble: Crowdsourcing as a modest response to populism

Many political actors have experimented with ‘crowdsourcing’, or in other words, the testing and gathering […]


Many political actors have experimented with ‘crowdsourcing’, or in other words, the testing and gathering of policy ideas online. Public authorities have conducted online consultations on such matters as road building.

Candidates in elections have used the internet to crowdsource ideas for manifestos. The Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake has even crowdsourced ideas for a European Parliament report. But can crowdsourcing really contribute to public participation and debate? Can it even help answer and defeat populism?

Populism is, above all, a criticism of representative democracy. No one, populists tell us, can represent the authentic views of the people. Certainly not a professional, elite class of representatives, made unrepresentative precisely by the detachment from the people that follows from making a profession out of representation.

Representing complex societies

Yet there is no obvious (democratic) alternative to representation. The political scientist Robert Dahl famously demonstrated that any group of more than 60 people would struggle to apply even the most basic democratic standards – such as voting and a minimum of discussion- to all its decisions without relying to some degree on representatives.

Still, populists may have a point. Representative democracy is in trouble. Society has become complex and hard to represent. The relationship between representatives and the represented was always one of trust. Yet, it is no longer trusted. The need to fund elections means that, in some systems, representation is easily bought.

Although representation is supposed to be the main way of doing politics, it often seems depoliticized and technocratic. Representatives, it is complained, offer little choice in competing for the people’s vote. Globalisation and Europeanisation seem to make things worse. As more problems need to be managed internationally, ‘representative government’ seems little more than an opportunity to be represented in only semi-visible forms of intergovernmental bargaining or in technical forms of policy co-ordination between states.

These are huge problems and crowdsourcing can only be a tiny response to them. Indeed, crowdsourcing could make things worse. Representation is supposed to represent each person equally. It must avoid forms of consultation that create unequal opportunities for those with strong opinions. Like Shakespeare’s joke about alcohol, the internet has been a ‘great equivocator’. It has ‘provoked the desire’ for more public debate. Yet it has ‘taken away the performance’. It has encouraged more people to debate with strangers. It has also fragmented public debate into so many echo-chambers of those with self-confirming views.

Crowdsourcing as the answer

Still, got right, crowdsourcing could help. Crowdsourcing is a form of recognition. It recognises that citizens are not just passive objects of representation whose views are only consulted on the one day every four or five years they are able to vote. Here, crowdsourcing can respond to a difficult challenge. Representation needs to be a continuous interaction between representatives and the represented. Yet that cannot be at the expense of debate between representatives. So, representatives need to form – and justify – their views both in debate with one another and in interaction with the represented. Crowdsourcing can help form that triangle, informing the represented of where their representatives stand in the debate between them, as much as up-dating representatives with the changing views of the represented.

Indeed, crowdsourcing can deepen knowledge of the public and its problems. In a world of fluid, complex and conflicting opinions, representatives cannot easily know what to represent. Yet, the solution is not in populists’ claims that there are authentic views of the people discoverable independently of any process of representation. That claim is itself a shameless bid for domination. It licenses those making it to claim public views are whatever they say they are. In contrast to the wholly unsubstantiated claims of populists to know the authentic will of the people, crowdsourcing can leave a trail of evidence of how views have been formed by debate. It can visibly nail the lie that representatives impose limited policy choices on the public without consultation. More prosaically, crowdsourcing is suited to building knowledge of problems and of opinions through trial, error and experimentation. Political parties, unsure of reactions to their proposals, and anxious to proof them against populist misrepresentation, might be tempted to use on-line debates to test policy ideas.

As much of this suggests, crowdsourcing can help deliver the idea of democracy as trial by debate. John Stuart Mill wrote of the importance of testing all opinions in ‘adverse controversy’ with all others. John Dewey later added that, for sure, majorities should get their way. However, they should get their way with difficulty. First, they should be expected to make their case to others: to hear the other side and provide reasons for opinions. Structured and moderated by such norms of public debate, crowdsourcing may have a small but significant contribution to make to a further standard that populists can neither abide nor provide: respect.

Photo © Lucky Team Studio / Shutterstock, Inc.
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