The world is changing ever since. Due to new information and communication technologies (ICTs), this change is happening a lot faster than ever before though. The era the world is in at the moment is often described as the digital age. It is characterised by the shift from traditional industry to an economy based on information: “Like the steam engine during the First Industrial Revolution, the ICT has completely changed the way society organizes its economic activity” (Humbert, 2007, p. 2).
However, this change does not only affect the economy, but nearly all spheres of people’s lives including society and politics. Democracy, or rather plebiscitary democracy is nowadays the most common form of government in the world. Plebiscitary democracy describes a mixture of indirect democracy with little parts of direct democracy (Schallehn & Haun, 2013). Yet, the acceptance of democracy is declining worldwide. As the non-profit organisation Freedom House describes in their latest report, democracy as a form of government is at its lowest level since 1989. The developments in 2014 show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines in democracy as registered gains, 61 to 33 (Aghekyan et al., 2015).
Within the field of political science, but also emerging from other fields and civil society itself, there is a groundswell of people calling for new models of democracy. Their biggest argument is that the form of plebiscitary democracy most countries are executing nowadays routes in the circumstances of the ancient Greece which means it is not fully applicable anymore nowadays (Jochmann, 2012). This results in, for instance, decreasing voter turnouts and political apathy. Thus, with the possibilities of the digital age, also new models for democracy are required.
First and foremost, in order to put this essay and the two chosen democracy models (Lasswell’s policy scientist of democracy and liquid democracy) into the right frame, the term democracy should be explained and an elaboration on the democracy spectrum is needed. A very simple definition of democracy could be: rule by the people (Clawson & Oxley, 2012). Becker and Raveloson (2008) explain that democracy in a nutshell consists out of certain key elements, namely fundamental freedom and rights, elections, rule of law, separation of powers, a parliament, democratic pluralism, a government and an opposition, public opinion, and freedom of the media. Larry Diamond (2004), Senior Fellow at Stanford University adds that next to elections and the rule of law, also active participation of citizens in politics and the civic life and the protection of human rights are crucial in a democracy.
However, democracies can look very different from each other. First of all, there is the distinction between direct and indirect democracy. Direct democracy is an umbrella term covering a variety of political processes which allow citizens to vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office. Forms of direct democracy can include town meetings, ballot measures, propositions, referenda, or legislative measures (Matsusaka, 2005). Indirect democracy, or more often called representative democracy, whereas, is the government by representatives of the people (Lijphart, 2012).
Moreover, one can distinguish between three theories, namely elitist, pluralist, and participatory (Clawson & Oxley, 2012). Democratic elitists see elections as the primary mechanism with which citizens can express their preferences. The elected officials or political elites can be held accountable to the public via periodical (re-)elections. Hence, the representatives have an incentive to truly represent the will of the citizens which will be reflected, to some degree, in governmental decisions. “Yet the daily decisions are made by the elites, who, by their knowledge and expertise, are better able to make these decisions”, as Clawson and Oxley (2012, p. 7) explain.
Likewise, pluralists see elections as an important mechanism for accountability. However, they emphasise the role of interest groups as intermediaries between the public and the elites in representative democracies. Those interest groups are supposed to represent certain segments of the public including their issues and concerns. Consequently, they attempt to influence elected officials and other governmental decision makers (Clawson & Oxley, 2012).
The newest among those three theories is participatory democracy. This theory emphasises political participation of citizens on a nation-wide level. This is the case especially in order to address issues such as inequality. According to Clawson and Oxley (2012), participatory democracy evolved during the US protest movements of the 1960s and “represented dissatisfaction with the democratic elitist and pluralist models that were dominant at that time” (Clawson & Oxley, 2012, p. 11). This links to Hajer’s (2003) claim that nation states are weaker than ever and that it is far less obvious that governments are the only ones to agree on policies which will be further elaborated on during this essay.
This essay provides a debate about Lasswell’s policy scientist of democracy (1948) in comparison to the model of liquid democracy (21st century) based on the question if the digital age requires new models of democracy. These two models were chosen because when looking at them from a broader angle, they allow an extensive comparison between, on the one hand the democratic elitist view and, on the other hand, the democratic pluralist view. In comparison to Lasswell’s model which is purely based within representative democracy, liquid democracy shifts between direct and representative democracy. Moreover, unlike Lasswell’s PSOD, liquid democracy can not only be applied to a democracy itself but also within organisational and institutional structures.
Harold D. Lasswell
Harold Dwight Lasswell was born in 1902 and was a US-American political and communication scientist mainly interested in sociology, mass communication, and propaganda. He was one of the most influential political scientist before 1945 and a pioneer in his field (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006). His research into propaganda like the formation of public opinion, the roles of political leaders, or the content analysis of mass media became highly politicised over the course of time (Graham, 2007; Rogers, 1997).
Lasswell belonged to the Chicago School which had a deep influence on US-American as well as international political science. When the US took a leading role in world politics, many political scientists, like for instance Lasswell, followed this path (Berndtson, 1987). Farr, Hacker, and Kazee (2006) describe Lasswell as “a giant within political science” (p. 580). He was surrounded by chosen young political scientists that formed a famous and promising group. During his life time, there was much at stake within politics like the Second World War and the Cold War. Hence, Lasswell was of the opinion that political scientists or experts should advice policy makers which was one of the reasons he developed the Policy Scientist of Democracy (PSOD). He was definitely not a theorist only sitting behind his desk. He was rather convinced that political science is “the policy science, par excellence” (Lasswell, as cited in Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006).
Lasswell’s Policy Scientist of Democracy
According to Farr, Hacker, and Kazee (2006), the PSOD, a disciplinary persona, emerged during the 1940s based on Lasswell’s own concrete life experiences and was first mentioned in “Power and Personality” in 1948. It is a model which knows all about the process of elite decision-making, advises those in power, and strives for the individual’s dignity. The PSOD can be seen as an expert that is intelligent, comfortable in and around power, and prepared for struggle. Moreover, he is strategic, innovative, forward looking, and especially relevant to governance in the times of crises. Threats to the PSOD are characterised as communism, tyranny, and its propaganda (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006).
Lasswell himself commented on the PSOD and his strategic plan to it as follows: “My ultimate objective in the field of science is far from modest. I propose to contribute to the systematic theory of the political sciences” (Lasswell as cited in Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006). According to Berndtson (1987), Lasswell wanted to turn political science into the science of democracy. This is consistent with the questions that arose in connection to the PSOD: “What is the role of the political scientist in a democratic society? Do political scientists have any obligation to inform or shape policy?” (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006, p. 586).
After publishing the model of the PSOD, Lasswell was exposed to a lot of criticism by fellow scholars. Many described his approach as being unrealistic and difficult (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006). Consequently, Lasswell altered his model, including functions of the decision-making process, intellectual tasks, and eight goal values of policy of the PSOD. Those goal values are: “wealth, power, respect, rectitude, skill, well-being, enlightenment, and affection” (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006, p. 584). When looking at those eight goal values of policy, it becomes clear why Lasswell’s approach stands in sharp contrast to the later in this paper explained model of liquid democracy. Many have criticised Lasswell for his elitism and the use of experts, which neglects the aspirations of democratic citizens (Hajer, 2003). Yet, Lasswell did not deny that, describing the model himself as being “elitist”, although grading it down to “realist” later in time (Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006, p. 587).
Another point at issue is the lacking explanation for applications of the PSOD by Lasswell. How should a PSOD look like in real life? Apparently, Lasswell thought of policy scientists being those experts. But who exactly are those policy scientists and how can they be fostered and trained to fulfil the tasks and goals of the PSOD? Eventually, Farr, Hacker, and Kazee (2006) come to the conclusion that Lasswell’s vision of the PSOD is far too heroic to be acceptable.
The other side of the democracy spectrum is represented by liquid democracy. Basically, liquid democracy is a collective term to describe a more “fluid and responsive participation of citizens in the democratic process through the use of both online and offline networks” (david, 2013). As Norris (2004) explains, political communication in general is about the transmission of information among politicians, media, and the public. This process operates either top-down (from governing institutions to the public), horizontally, or bottom-up (from the public towards governing institutions). The original influence on liquid democracy stems from the aspiration to replace the top-down chain of command within the political system. Consequently, what all the different approaches calling themselves liquid democracy have in common is the concept of delegating your vote for certain subject areas or topics. Hence, it is possible to actively participate in one topic while delegating one’s vote to someone else for others (vprotest, 2012). It is this fluid rotation between direct and indirect democracy that characterises the model of liquid democracy (Jochmann, 2012).
In order to understand why some people claim a new form of democracy in the digital age, one has to take a look at the context in which modern democracy was developed. According to Jochmann (2012), in ancient Greece all men came together on a designated hill in order to discuss current issues and create policy solutions. The word on the street was transformed into politics. Nowadays, in modern nation states there is no possibility for the common public to regularly meet somewhere. Additionally, today’s problems are a lot more complex than those of the ancient Greeks. This especially has to do with globalisation:
Globalisation is the ongoing process that is linking people, neighbourhoods, cities, regions and countries much more closely together than they have ever been before. This has resulted in our lives being intertwined with people in all parts of the world via the food we eat, the clothing we wear, the music we listen to, the information we get and the ideas we hold. (UNESCO, 2010, para. 2)
That may be part of the reason why many people today feel that they do not have the adequate expert knowledge about the issues at stake anymore in order to contribute to the political sphere (Jochmann, 2012). However, it must be acknowledged that next to critical and engaged citizens, there is also a big group of people who consider themselves to be powerless, marginalised, and disenchanted about politics (Christensen, n.d.). Therefore, most modern democracies have designated representatives who devote all their time to be professional politicians. The public is informed on the issues being in dispute by mass media, as well as social media and other sources of information, but only the appointed people are in the position to shape the political arena (Jochmann, 2012).
The technological progress of the last few decades has made global communication a lot easier and faster. Liquid democracy focuses on a dilemma that more and more citizens face – they are actively involved with organisations and networks of all kinds, personally as well as professionally, but at the same time, many people have the feeling that they lack the opportunity to effectively influence and campaign for their stance on a higher level (vprotest, 2012).
Paetsch and Reichert (2012) distinguish three different dimensions of liquid democracy. First, the field of application, which could be for instance an institution or organisation initiating a liquid democracy process. Second, the specific objectives to be achieved with the help of liquid democracy, like for example agenda setting, consultation, or participation. Third, the participants included in the specific liquid democracy process, which could be certain organisation members or the general public.
In order to include liquid democracy into an organisation or institution, there are a lot of different tools with numerous advantages and disadvantages. As claimed by vprotest (2012), there are many approaches that work relatively well in small groups such as wikis, forums, or just face-to-face meetings, but as soon as it comes to larger groups these come to a limit. This might lead to situations where either only a few participate or where the transparency of the process begins to decrease (vprotest, 2012).
A form of organisation that many organisations involved in liquid democracy use is adhocracy. It is defined as an organisation with barely any structure being flexible, adaptable, and informally operating in an opposing manner to bureaucracy. It was first mentioned by the US-American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970 (Travica, 1999). Mintzberg (1989) describes it as a complex and dynamic organisational form. It is, for example, utilised by the Federal Government of Germany for their online platform “www.enquetebeteiligung.de” (translation by the author: survey participation) which was launched on February 24, 2011. On this website, for the first time, the public is being provided with information and documents not yet agreed on by the commission as a whole. The aim of the website is to incorporate citizens’ suggestions in the national decision-making process with the purpose of making public participation possible on equal terms (Bundestag, 2011).
The maybe most famous example within Germany for an organisation using liquid democracy is the German Pirate Party. It was founded in September 2006 and is part of the international movement of pirate parties. Simon Weiss, former member of the parliament of the federal state of Berlin for the Pirate Party, argues that the structure of the Pirate Party had to adapt with the further expansion of the party. The system of liquid democracy is in jeopardy in the context of much larger memberships. “They [the systems] were designed to fit fifty people, not thousands” (Weiss as cited in Meyer, 2012).
As stated by Meyer (2012), the platform used by the German Pirate Party is called Liquid Feedback. It builds around the concept of liquid democracy and could be described as an advanced version of adhocracy. To put it into a nutshell: it is about competition and decision-making. Since the software is openly accessible for any of the more than 29,000 members of the German Pirate Party (reading 2014), anybody can use it and propose a policy. In the ideal case different people work on the same topic proposing different policies so that a healthy competition is created in which the best will win the poll. Hence, people stay involved in the topic (Meyer, 2012).
As formerly mentioned, every member has one vote which can be delegated for everything, for certain topics, specific proposals, or not at all, to someone else. In order to avoid votes being passed up the chain leading to a person obtaining most of the votes and consequently a lot of power, every delegated vote can be reclaimed at any time. It is a trust-based approach as explained by Bormuth (as cited in Meyer, 2012): “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them” (para. 16).
However, some questions and issues at stake are just too complex and important to be only a decision on Liquid Feedback according to Weiss (as cited in Meyer, 2012). Sometimes, there is a decision needed at a conference by an elected group of people. He gives the example of implementing a basic income or not. “You can’t have a system that maps the whole discourse that has to happen for this kind of democracy. But you can have quantified feedback that shows you where the majority lies on a given point” (Weiss, as cited in Meyer, 2012, para. 19). Liquid Feedback, thus, makes it easily possible for public representatives of the party to present in only a couple of seconds where the opinion of the party concerning a given topic lies (given a significant number of party members participates in an opinion poll). Imagine how long it would take any other of the traditional parties to do so.
In general terms, Lasswell’s PSOD could be described as being top-down and the model of liquid democracy as working bottom-up. Lasswell wants experts, namely political scientists to advise policy makers and liquid democracy aims at asking basically everyone. There is no denying the fact that involving everyone in a nation’s decision-making process is more desirable than only letting a few being behind the wheel, is it not?
Already in the 1990s Jonathan Rauch (2008) coined the term demosclerosis which is the “post-war democratic government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt” (p. 125). For him, it is the most important governmental phenomenon of our time describing the decreasing capability of governments to deal with problems and consequently decisions that become more and more complex in our widely globalised world. According to Rauch (2008), many people think that demosclerosis is treatable with political reforms, but it may be inherent and irreversible, nonetheless manageable. Consequently, does it not make more sense to let someone like the PSOD guide us through these convoluted times instead of a public that might not be educated enough to make far-reaching decisions concerning millions or even billions of people?
No it does not because the speed of decision-making is not the only aspect that matters. Rauch (2008) may be right about the fact that many issues require faster decisions nowadays, but that is no justification for excluding the majority of people. Marcus, van Dam, Medhurst, and Perdeck (2012) describe both the speed of decision-making, as well as the acceptance of a decision on a scale where authority and unanimous decisions mark the far extremes. They come to the conclusion that an authority’s speed (e.g. Lasswell’s PSOD) is much faster than a unanimous decision (e.g. liquid democracy) regarding decision-making, but that the acceptance of a decision is much larger in the latter case than under an authority.
Also Hajer (2003) thought about the PSOD and whether or not there is a need for new democracy models nowadays or not. He is of the opinion that nation states are weaker than ever when it comes to (decision-making) powers and it is far less obvious that governments are the only actors to agree on policies. To his mind, persistent problems cannot be solved within the boundaries of sovereign states only because established institutions often lack the power to truly affect a vast amount of people. Thus, transnational, polycentric networks of governance in which power is dispersed become more important. “The weakening of the state here goes hand in hand with the international growth of civil society, the emergence of new citizen-actors and new forms of mobilization” (Hajer, 2003, p. 175). Dryzek (as cited in Farr, Hacker & Kazee, 2006) goes into the same direction. In 1989 he already mentioned that there needs to be “a policy science of participatory democracy” (p. 585) meaning greater citizen involvement including public discussions. Providing a space for more citizen involvement on a global scale is exactly what liquid democracy wants to convey.
What Hajer (2003) predicted and analysed more than ten years ago, is indeed happening on a global scale. Sriskandarajah (2015) explains that global civil society has flourished in recent years which is also recognised by the UN who are facilitating civil society participation. However, Sriskandarajah (2015) also claims that civic space is shrinking in all parts of the world due to repressive actions. The organisation Freedom House agrees. “For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline” (Aghekyan et al., 2015, p. 1). Among the worst affected categories of democratic indicators is civil society (Aghekyan et al., 2015).
If a global civil society is the aim, than another case in point has to be social exclusion. Lasswell only takes academics into account which obviously excludes people without a university degree. Moreover, his theory is based upon political scientists excluding cross-disciplinary fields with relevance to political change. Liquid democracy, whereas, excludes media illiterate people. Castells (2003) describes this term as people who are excluded by no or only limited access to the Internet, as well as those unable to use it effectively. This leads to a global digital divide which increases “the gap between the promise of the digital age and its bleak reality for many people around the world” (Castells, 2003, p. 247).
The digital divide often also reflects the inequality within a nation. Castells (2003) supports that with data from the US where in August 2000, 70.1 percent of people earning 75,000 dollars and above had Internet access compared to 18.9 percent for those with less than 15,000 dollars. The same data gives evidence to the fact that also ethnical inequality is reflected in the access to Internet. Worldwide 40 percent of the people access the Internet. Yet, this number shrinks to 26.5 percent when looking at Africa only (Internet World Stats, 2014).
Social exclusion is widely discussed among scholars and bloggers. In order to overcome social exclusion, Paetsch and Reichert (2012) propose to connect online possibilities such as Liquid Feedback to already existing offline participation methods. Bödecker (2012) adds that especially people with a high educational level and high income make use of political participation possibilities. Consequently, Ertelt (2012) claims that participation is an educational process and not primarily a matter of software. Thus, from nursery school on constructive participation needs to be trained so that everyone can take part in the development and design of our world.
However, liquid democracy might collide with political apathy because it cannot be assumed that every media literate person is also politically engaged. Thompson (2013) alleges that one can distinguish between four types of citizens: inactive apathetic citizens, inactive latent citizens, active critical citizens, and active engaged citizens. The group of apathetic citizens is characterised by being much less active than any other group, even in comparison to the inactive latent citizens (Thompson, 2013). Christensen (n.d.) adds that there is a difference between critical and disenchanted citizens. The first are critical towards authorities, but nonetheless are interested in political matters and believe that they can make a difference. The latter, on the other hand, has given up on politics and lost faith in the authorities.
This definitely needs to be taken into account when talking about democratic models. On the one hand, the PSOD requires citizens to cast their vote only once every four to five years, which might correspond better to inactive citizens. On the other hand, disenchanted citizens might not react to any form of democratic participation. Thus, political apathy needs to be taken seriously within the whole democracy debate. Yet, this needs to be discussed separately.
Concluding, one can say that both Lasswell’s PSOD and liquid democracy have their drawbacks and benefits. Admitting more direct democracy tools within representative democracy, like liquid democracy does, can help providing people with more spaces for participation and decision-making. Furthermore, it can help to better represent the will of the people especially in issues of topicality. There are also fewer opportunities for abuse of power, corruption, and lobbyism. On the other hand, there might occur organisational or technical problems which might jeopardise the efficiency of the political system due to the fact that liquid democracy tools still need to be tested on bigger scales. Moreover, minorities could be deprived of their rights by the vote of the majority and the media obtains more power which leaves room for manipulation (Schallehn & Haun, 2013). These arguments are in favour of a model like Lasswell’s PSOD which is led by political experts who are able to grasp the complexity of our world probably to a higher degree than the ordinary population is able to.
Nevertheless, this should not be an argument to withdraw the model of liquid democracy. Since there are new technologies available in the digital age, we should make use of them for the public good. But in order to not exclude anyone, there should be a mix between traditional and technology-based methods. Eventually, media literacy has to be ensured from children’s earliest days, so that everyone has the same chances in becoming heard keeping in mind the topic of general political apathy. Thus, there might not be a need to overthrow all the existing models of democracy, but there should be space created for an amendment bearing in mind new developments and technologies, as well as the changing needs of citizens.
The author declares that they have no competing interests.