Trust between politicians and electorate hits an all-time low. The internet is a major cause for this, but it provides unique opportunities to develop new structures of e-democracy through which to engage with citizens and empower them. The October 2016 S&D Convention provides a golden opportunity to re-engage with the natural partners of European social democrats: by setting up professional online networks this coalition can strengthen the sharing of mutual feedback and reach out to disillusioned citizens.
Mutual Mistrust Eroded Consensus
The consensus that expected centre-left and centre-right parties to battle for electoral majorities throughout the Western world is gone. Now the biggest electoral cleavage in the Western world seems to divide those still supporting “the establishment” from those supporting radically different policies and leaders. What left-right divide? People are looking for new alternatives, new faces that they consider closer to themselves.
The mutual trust between electorate and elected is gone. Trust for politicians is at historical lows, but the mistrust is two-way. Hillary Clinton just called “half of Trump supporters deplorable: racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or Islamaphobic.” Not smart, but this is also just another sign of a larger trend. Were British voters who voted to leave not also reportedly “mislead and wrong”? Political elites show increasing signs of mistrust in the electorate, and the electorate has less and less trust for those perceived as being part of the political elite.
The moderate left – the once majoritarian social democratic and labour parties – is particularly affected by this development. Of all, it is especially their electorate that is turning its back to the established parties. And if anyone, it is especially those at the left side of the political spectrum who you hope would have some trust and sympathy for the politically disengaged electorate.
The Internet: From One-Way to Two-Way Communication
In order to respond to this, we need to understand the reasons behind this development. Of course, globalization, the economic crisis, Islamist terrorism may be contributing factors. I argue, however, that it is the rise of internet, smartphones and social media that has changed our poleis more than any other crisis or revolution.
While until one decade ago, states and elites could control direct information flows through television, radio and printed media, it is with the rise of the internet, and especially with the rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and of the spread of online commenting of articles, that communication has become two-way.
Online algorithms work in such a way that people only read news sources that will confirm their political views: polarization. Everything can now be fact-checked by citizens, but while everything that is said by politicians is fact-checked, ordinary citizens can comment freely often without any counter opinion: loss of trust. And everyone can comment, Tweet, have a say: democratization of opinion, but often also ‘de-expertization’ of opinion.
The Five Stars Movement
Italian comedian Beppe Grillo understood before many others the power of internet, not only as a propaganda tool but also as a tool for increasing political participation and mobilization. Through his blog, Beppe Grillo managed to engage many people who had lost interest in politics; that wanted to engage, but felt that the gap between political elites and the electorate had become too big. Many of the active people on Beppe Grillo’s blog would self-identify as ideologically centre-left. They are voters who would gladly vote for a progressive force that proposes widely supported values of environmentalism, social democracy, solidarity, of a free market with social protection and social welfare. The large majority of the voters of the Five Stars Movement are not racist, not sexist, not homophobic, not xenophobic nor Islamaphobic.
The Five Stars Movement understands that communication is a two-way street: in the era of internet, nobody will pick it anymore to be told what is best for them. People rightfully are opinionated and expect their opinion to be heard. Then do engage with your citizens – give people ownership, make them important, and they will support your endeavors which they take part to as well.
But the Five Stars Movement is also showing clear weaknesses, that might prevent it from becoming Italy’s major political force, and that social democrats should and can avoid. The Movement lacks an ideology – social democrats have one. The Movement has a too clear insider v. outsider divide. Social democrats must be inclusive. The Movement was founded on the principle of direct democracy, and therefore tends to develop into a “dictatorship of the web”, failing to adapt to the rules of representative democracy. Social democrats must protect the value of a representative democracy, yet learning from the Five Stars Movement how to use the internet to engage citizens in the democratic process.
Lessons and Challenges for 21st Century European Social Democrats
Easier said than done? Maybe, but the time is on the right side, and so is the historical structure of social democratic parties. The year 2016 provides us with online tools through which we can engage with our constituencies in a direct and continuous way – giving people the opportunity to provide feedback and to table own proposals. The history of social democracy ensures that centre-left parties have a plethora of natural partners – NGOs, trade unions, sectoral associations – through which it can bridge the divide with large sectors of society which would be wary of directly engaging with a political party.
With Pirate Parties, Five Stars Movements and all kind of other so-called anti-establishment parties that successfully embraced the internet as a tool for democratic regeneration and participation, the example has been set, and it has proved successful. Just like Green Parties would slowly make environmentalism an overall accepted political value, the same way these movements are linking politics to the interactive use of internet tools – and there seems to be no likely return. Social democratic forces must acknowledge this revolution as well as the many opportunities that it creates for a progressive political force – and guide a revolution that can bring people closer to politics again and increase trust between politicians, institutions and electorate.
Although the final goal is to engage directly with disillusioned citizens, the only way that the social democrats – that are now perceived as being elitist and distant – can achieve this goal, is to re-engage with those friendly civil society actors that can bridge the gap with the people. And to give these actors a voice. Through the web, also, building platforms where 24/7 mutual feedback between politicians, members of political parties and not politically active civil society actors can engage, discuss proposals, resolutions, policies, and ultimately reinvent European social democracy of the 21st century.
This is why the October 2016 S&D Convention must be fully supported. Its success however will depend on the readiness of all of us to rethink the logics of communication, so that no European citizens will have the feeling to be left behind, his or her voice not being heard in Brussels and in the 28 member states. We need to Relaunch Europe, but 365 days a year, and especially when no conference binds us together and only the web and our networks can get Brussels to the people and people in Europe, en fin, closer to Brussels.
It is 2016 and we have many tools to our disposal to engage (young) Europeans. Now is the moment to use our imagination and think up ways to use them in the interest of the whole European polis.
Robert Zielonka (25) is President of the Graduates of Democracy
Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole