The beginning of every year seems to shift the world toward a new maximum and in 2017 the world, again, for better or worse is going through a change. The democracy of many influential countries in the world is being called to question, most recently with the impeachment of South Korea’s Park Geun-hye. Voter confidence in the ‘system’ seems to be waning. And the question of where minorities fit when the fundamental morals of the majority are met with the resistance a powerful few, has come to the forefront again and again. But this year, the internal structure of governments and the sentiment of those in charge is becoming more clear to see. By asking whether democratic politics is more transparent, the effectiveness of public engagement with the government can grow and how it will change in the modern age may become easier to understand.
The premise, however, that politics is increasingly transparent is flawed, not only because this perspective is demographically subjective, but because transparency could be defined as either a right to information or how one accesses political information, where information is defined as but not limited to legislature, foreign diplomacy, budgeting, changes to jurisdiction, court rulings and how laws are processed.
In democratic societies, right to information is always assumed to be a right of the people. The Right to Information Act in 2005 in India, mandated by the Department of Personnel and Training is quoted to ‘empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense’ . The UK, in 2000, also established the Freedom of Information Act and hosts the gov.uk website to present clear government information. In 1997 when proposing this Act, public authorities explained “Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state” and “ Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making.”
Even though rights have not changed in 20 years, accessing and understanding political information has, at a faster and globally extensive pace.
Political sentiment too is easier for the public to engage with, all the way from Gordon Brown’s 2010 ‘bigoted woman’ comment to Donald Trump’s lewd sexual harassment remarks. The sentiments, however, a politician or governing body are intangible, broad and not necessarily representative. Although they can fuel policy making such as in Slovakia, where mainstream political approach to immigration has been impacted by extremist far right groups to appease the voter base, who share similar conservative views, with hope that they remain with the majority parties.
The easiest gauge that public understanding of politics is growing, is seen in the increase in protests, polling numbers and coverage on a range of political commentary; a by-product government becoming in some ways more transparent.
The largest protest of this year spanned more than three countries and was a response to President Trump’s impromptu ninety-day Immigration Ban. Most people already disagreed with Trump before he even signed the executive order; at a rally at Royal Holloway University of London one anti-trump marcher, said, “that Donald Trump represents the biggest threat to the world today. We’ve seen this repeated before in history and I refuse to be complacent” But the transparency of the legal motions of the executive order were clearly reported, and caused many others to protest too.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Immigration and Nationality Act which, banned all discrimination against immigrants on the basis of national origin. Donald Trump’s determination, however to reverse this, to ban entire nationalities, shows no rational link that justifies ignoring the 1965 Act and therefore it is unsurprising that so many rose up to disagree.
The GDELT gathered georeferenced media reporting on the number of protests over the past 34 years, lead researcher John Beieler wrote “There are times when the amount of protests behaviour goes up and is higher than average. The past few years is actually one of those times”. Although data gathered only came from published sources so on the ground permanent waves of protests characteristic of the third wave of democratization in Latin American, which are quite socially complex, countries for example were not reported. Protest numbers and frequency are a good indicator that the public have been able to more clearly see how their governments actions will impact their lives, and an increase in these numbers is significant in understanding how public access to government activities has changed.
Poll numbers too show public engagement with politics, over time, has gained traction a clear by product of people understanding what policies will mean for them.
The voting system in democratic societies, still, is not completely representative. Larry Lessig stated in his 2015 Tedtalk ‘Our democracy no longer represents the people. Here’s how we fix it’ that,‘ As the percentage of average voters supporting a proposal goes from 1–100 that doesn’t change the probability that that proposal will be enacted. When the preferences of the economic are counted; the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near zero statistical non-significant impact upon public policy, in a democracy’. James Smith, a History student at Durham University also said of the power of the voting system, ‘ is becoming increasingly diminished, especially with the current political unsettlement and the weakness of all [UK] parties except the Conservatives, which makes it easier for them to act regardless of public opinion as they know the alternative for voters is even less popular’
The nature of social media with politics, as described by Lord Paddy Ashdown in a Tedtak tilted ‘Why Democracy is failing’ 2014, has provided an outlet for political discourse but can tear down the basis of progressive politics with ‘vociferous call that can be put together almost in a flash, using the system of the social network, that will appear on the streets and disappear’
Poet, Zariya Allen, has described the liberal trend of social media activism as detrimental when protestors are motivated only on ‘being on the right side of history’. She wrote, ‘It is the commercialization of activism and it’s tendency to breed a population of desensitized and apathetic, bandwagon protesters that are vastly uneducated on the complexity of causes being marched for and their inability to admit that has the potential to be immensely detrimental if the issue is not rectified, soon.’
In addition, social media fake news articles lessen the transparency of actual government reports Professor Stephen Lewandowsky, lead author in a psychology study on fake news has said, “At a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action”
Therefore, the credibility of voting systems, media coverage and protesting when holding governments accountable needs to improve for a more effective democracy; especially in a time when the actions of governing bodies are clear to see. Otherwise this grants politicians a unique position of infallibility, when they don’t deliver on promises. For example, leading from Brexit many Leave-voters look forward to the Prime Minister May’s decision to end free movement of labour from EU countries, but this solution is only partly responsive to the demands made by Leave voters because agriculture, health and social care sectors depend on an influx of migrant workers. The environment secretary suggested farmers should still be able to hire staff from the EU even though periodic increases in foreign labourer is exactly what Leave voters didn’t want post-Brexit.
Current proposals to improve the access to political information and news is Facebook partnering with the International Fact Checking Network . “Fake” tags negatively impact the story’s score in Facebook’s algorithm, meaning that fewer people will see it pop up in their news feeds. . German politicians however would rather engage legal measures such as Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabrial, ‘if the perpetrators form part of state-sponsored efforts to undermine society and democratic institutions, then they could be prosecuted under anti-espionage legislation.’
To create a more representative voting system firstly, nominations for parties must be selected without a money biased or threat of other foreign interests as was protested in Hong Kong in 2015, and voting accessibility should be clear Senator Bernie Sanders has in the past proposed a designated voting day holiday to give working class more chance to vote, as explained by Larry Lessig in 2015. In democracies people must vote but if the nominations are only capable of the same actions, governments relationship with people is self-perpetuating, even if it becomes clearer to understand government policy.
Ultimately the narrative of politics and the way government works may become easier to read along for the public, but the public has a responsibility to engage with the democratic system as we gain more access to how government works. In democratic politics even if we clearly see the spaces policies create, it is still unknown how those spaces will be filled, as the world changes: the SNP calls for a second referendum that could destabilize the United Kingdom, neo-facist parties in Europe win more seats such as the Slovak Revival Movement. But as seen as with the Dutch General Election outcome and the repeal of President Trump’s immigration ban, when a public engages with democratic politics that is electronically at our fingertips and slowly becoming more transparent than before, positive outcomes are possible too.
This article was originally written in the June of 2017.