Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”. A seemingly cynical statement, but not quite so bad if we take a moment to deconstruct it.
Underlying Churchill’s proclamation is the acceptance that humans are fundamentally flawed, especially when it comes to governing ourselves, and because power inevitably corrupts, our least worst option is to deconcentrate power by spreading it as broadly as possible. The working premise is that democracy, it its optimal state, exerts a positive force that balances and dilutes power enough to subdue corruption. Conversely, we run into problems whenever imbalances or concentrations of power emerge.
As an idealistic form of government, democracy is morally attractive, calling to mind the golden rule and the values of fairness, equality and empathy. It is hard to mount an argument against one-person/one-vote that isn’t grounded in some form of supremacy. The great challenges facing Democracy as an ideology are not ones of morality, but of real-world feasibility — the logistical hurdles of operating a government that is literally “by” the people so that it will be “for” the people.
Our founders created an institution that sought, in part, to address the logistical problem: a “congress” comprised of representatives who presumably act as our proxies, exercising their will in line with our wishes, or at least the majority of our wishes. It is a noble and well-intentioned vision, but as we have seen, it is not immune to the insidious desire for power that is, at varying degrees, part of human nature. Democracy, and in fact, any form of governance, will always be under siege by our lesser angels — the forces that seek to corrupt and fulfill their exclusive desires, to game the system and shift power, however slightly, in favor of one’s individual interests over the greater good.
Our elections are meant to maintain the balance of power and exert a corrective influence that sustains our way of government, but they can only do so much. Because democracy is a government “by the people”, we typically believe that it can work better if we just have better people, with “better” most often being defined purely by which ideology or party we side with. But regardless of which side we choose, we are still left with people — individually flawed and inevitably corruptible people that are only so capable of executing our will even with the best of intentions.
So, the proper question is not about how we can get better people to represent us, but instead, how can we get fewer people to represent us so that they are no longer part of the equation. To cut to the chase, how can we represent ourselves, thereby increasing the odds that the public good will survive as it passes through the giant sausage factory that is legislative government?
To continue the metaphor, consider that sausages were once entirely made by hand, and in addition to what may have been intentionally added to the product, every once in a while, someone lost a finger. As we reduced the human element in the process through greater technology and automation, the product improved — a dynamic that has been replicated time and again throughout every industry. But why have we not applied that same principle to government? Why have we not sought opportunities to reduce the flaws of humanity within government by reducing the presence of humans?
This is the essence of disruptive progress — the mitigation or replacement of human flaws and limitations with technological proficiency; but because progress is so often driven by economic forces, it will succeed only if it is in the economic interests of those who control its emergence. And because the automation of governing is not in the interest of anyone who actually controls government, it remains one of the last bastions of really bad sausage making.
The dynamics of securing and maintaining power favor status quo processes whenever possible because, in so many cases, those who are in power have found a way to control those processes. If there is no economic incentive for those in power to improve the process, it will not happen, no matter the level of technological progress or moral imperative those improvements might deliver. A free and healthy marketplace facilitates progress because it limits control of any one player from impeding it; if you own a company and you don’t seize an opportunity to innovate beyond the status quo, someone else will and you will be out of business. This alone explains why the private sector is constantly oriented toward progress.
In the case of government, status quo has a death grip in large part because governing is not a marketplace. For Democrats and Republicans, apathy and cynicism are the opium of the masses — an inertia-infused equilibrium in which all of us are disempowered enough to accept the status quo, but not too much that we cause a ruckus. Yes, elections remain the last possible way in which citizens can exercise meaningful power over their elected officials, but that explains exactly why those officials have worked so hard to control, and oftentimes corrupt the process we know of as democratic elections. Gerrymandering, voter restrictions and campaign financing are the most obvious symptoms of this dynamic.
Meanwhile, outside of government, progress forges on at a stunning pace. The automation of the industrial revolution has given way to the disintermediation of the digital revolution. We have lived through mass economic disruption that, despite the upheaval for many, has advanced our human knowledge and capabilities throughout almost every industry and institution in ways that we could never imagine.
Now, finally, it’s time to imagine the same thing happening for government. It’s time to cause a ruckus.
It’s time for the Proxy Project.
What is the Proxy Project?
The Proxy Project is grassroots government that is based on the vision of a pure democracy and our greater ability to achieve it. It begins with a technologically enabled congressional district and relies on a populace that is ready to step up to a much higher level of engagement and empowerment.
In our scenario, a district elects its Congressman in the conventional manner, but with the binding obligation of that representative that they will act as a “proxy” for their district, voting on bills in strict accordance with regular and relatively frequent internet-enabled votes on those same bills by their constituents. In its most basic form, any bill that comes to the house floor also comes to the smartphone or computer of a constituent, and they do the voting.
It’s really that simple. The rest is manageable through technology, data management and security protocols that are well within the capabilities of our greatest minds.
Why will this work? Consider the number of people who have smartphones today. With a unique identifier — a phone number, a social security number, or perhaps something new that will ensure greater privacy — all people have the opportunity to learn about an issue, gain a deep understanding of a bill and vote their will. The result: an execution of self-government that brings us closer to a form of democracy that is better than all the rest because it expands on Churchill’s premise: by distributing power to its maximum extent — a feat that is technologically achievable — we dilute the concentration of power and reduce the potential for corruption. The Representative becomes a true proxy, and by doing so, he or she becomes immune to the barrage of lobbyists, special interests, money and the substantial political influence of their surrounding colleagues.
This raises the question: if you are going to disintermediate a Congressman, why even have them?
In our scenario. the role of a Congressman-as-proxy will be dramatically transformed and potentially more meaningful than it is today.
Bear in mind that the legislative process is, for better or worse, extremely complex, with bills that ramble on in language that no human actually speaks. It will be up to the Representative to synthesize, summarize and frame each and every bill for their most important audience: their constituents. They might make a recommendation based on additional information that is not commonly shared, but ultimately, their most important role is to tee-up each and every bill as a mini-referendum prior to the congressional vote. It is a critical function — a matter of making the process transparent, comprehensible, and therefore accessible to all the people of the district.
Before we address the potential pitfalls and criticisms of the Proxy Project, lets acknowledge the coming onslaught of objections upfront: this is a highly disruptive concept that targets some of the most powerful people in our country for disempowerment, and exactly because of that, every effort will be made to obstruct this undeniable march of progress to maintain the status quo. So let us present and address the objections one-by-one in advance.
People will never be engaged enough to take part in voting for bills.
We live in a country in which more than half of eligible voters do not participate in the democratic process. The general displeasure with our government has, over time, brought us to an unfortunate state of mass apathy and cynicism leading to nationwide inaction and disengagement. This is the status quo to which we are shackled, and the powerful benefit directly from our sense of powerlessness.
The Proxy Project is an attempt to turn that status quo on its head by redistributing congressional voting power to the masses. There is a leap of faith here — a belief in the simple power of empowerment to engage people and drive them to participate in the actual governing of our country. The working premise is that mass disengagement has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that mass re-engagement can reverse it.
Realistically, we know that high levels of participation will not happen overnight. As people recognize their newfound responsibility and become more familiar with the workings of what is now their government, they will naturally become more involved in the control of their destiny. As technology lowers the barriers to participation, apathy and cynicism will melt away. Constituents will be able to download a mobile app (call it the “myGOV” app) or access a secure site at a public computer in a library or community center, enter their unique identifier and vote securely with no transmission of personal information.
How can you promise security?
The integrity of our democracy is at great risk in the wake of our last election — a sign that the security of our voting system will be the battlefield for good and evil technologies for years to come. The reality is that we can never promise a foolproof vote, whether within a district or nationwide, and typically, with any breach of security, we don’t know what hit us until after the fact. That is when we belatedly ask: If only we had rigorously tested our system ahead of the vote, we could have seen it coming!
The Proxy Project offers a reduced-risk incubator for the latest security technology through a system of ongoing testing. The reduced risk comes from the fact that we are isolating it to one of 435 congressional districts, and if a breach is discovered prior to the actual floor vote, the congressman can choose to abstain. No, it’s not a perfect system, but through repeated voting, review, analysis and refinement, the Proxy Project will pave the way for best practices and new technologies that can be adopted on a much broader scale.
The alternative: throwing up our hands and saying this is impossible. That would be an acceptance of failure that is spiritually un-American — a denial of our human and technological potential to preserve the integrity of democratic values.
A congressman doesn’t just vote on bills. There’s a lot of other activities and duties too.
If we proceed from the principal that the most important role of a Representative is to represent us, then we must ask, how important or relevant are those other activities that are outside of the scope of just plain voting? Appearances in parades, meetings and phone calls to campaign financiers, observation trips to faraway places? When the need to “run” for re-election and raise money to fund it is taken off the table, we can expect a dramatic reduction in the scope of work for a proxy representative running for re-election because they will have already developed a direct digital relationship with the large majority of their constituents.
Imagine a town hall: all of the railing and rancor that we’ve become accustomed to would be replaced by what will probably be an enlightening discourse with a level of civility that the rest of the nation will envy. This is because the questions of how a representative has voted or will vote will be answered upfront and with unvarnished clarity: because it is a directly quantifiable representation of the will of the people.
What about being able to write and introduce laws? An entire district can’t do that by itself.
Why not? Let’s go back to that townhall meeting, which is now both virtual and in person. Why not allow any citizen of the district to craft and introduce a bill that could be discussed, debated and voted on for consideration by the constituents? Not only is this process well within reach, but the new digital infrastructure will allow ongoing polling about various issues that will keep a real-time finger on the pulse of the district. If a bill passes a vote of constituents, the proxy representative would then be obligated to bring it to the floor or appropriate committee of the House.
You’ll put all of our lobbyists out of business!
Exactly. Consider the sudden disempowerment of money and influence that will result from proxy congressmen that are bound by their constituents. As other districts choose to elect their proxies, the power of special interests will drain and flow toward collective interests, since, after all, you can’t shower an entire district with dinners and boondoggle trips. Instead, the authentic hopes and dreams of actual citizens will take precedence, all because they elected men and women to Congress whose most courageous act is exercising the will of their constituents.
Over the longer term, imagine a third party that is bound by nothing more than the will of their constituents — a Proxy Party, that is immune to special interests. Perhaps one day the roles of our two major parties will be confined purely to electing leaders in the Executive branches of cities, states and the country, leaving the Legislative Branch as the most direct example of governing by the people that the world has ever seen.
It is a radical, disruptive vision of what we could be some day, but no less audacious than what has come to pass with our “world-wide web” had we tried to imagine it just 30 years ago.
This is a great fantasy, but how do you make it a reality?
Calling all Silicon Valley multi-millionaire libertarians who are frustrated by government and looking for a legacy project: this one’s for you! One or more of you can develop and license the app, raise funds for the first candidate and spark a movement in government that is ideologically agnostic and universally appealing.
Our digital technologies have changed the world and made billions of dollars, but they have yet to confront one of the world’s most vexing problems: how humanity governs itself. It can start with a single district, with a house seat election that will gain unprecedented attention, and as people begin to taste empowerment, it will spread with each cycle.
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
The threat to power that this approach represents has the potential to reveal what our leaders really think of their constituents — that they may not be smart or sophisticated or motivated enough to govern themselves. What better campaign message for a proxy candidate about their opponents than the naked exposure of elitism that is the consequence of too much power.
If we recognize and accept that there is a direct relationship between the concentration of power and the abuse of it — something that should be more obvious now than at any time in our history — how can we not revolt against the gradual erosion of our individual will? As with so many challenges throughout our over 230 years of existence, technology presents the opportunity to overcome this one, and because we are the example of freedom and democracy to the world, because we are America, how can we not seize it?