Against Democratization

It’s become common to complain that social media have created “bubbles” and aided political polarization. It has also become common to object that the Internet has fallen short of serving as a public sphere, largely because of the ways commercial interests have shaped it. In this context, various technologies—from apps and online petitions to organizational tools for putting bodies on the street—have presented themselves as correctives, promising (finally!) to deliver robust civic engagement and the capacity of citizens to impact or steer political decision making.

The tacit premise here is that such engagement would produce more “democratic” outcomes, whether by forcing political elites to respond to popular opinion, by building solidarity, or even by improving the collective process of political deliberation.

It seems not to have occurred to anyone that more frequent and direct involvement by large numbers of even the most informed and publicly-spirited citizens would undermine rather than improve democracy. But study after study has found that decisions driven by broadened and intensified participation tend to produce self-defeating outcomes, frustrating the aims of the participants precisely by enacting their preferences.

This should not be surprising, given that we confront the irrational collective outcomes of rational choices every day of the week. Yet we refuse to apply the lessons to the political sphere. The simple fact is that it is often *the democratic “correctives” themselves* that frustrate democracy, rather than the “distortions” of the public sphere they aim to correct. Strange as it may sound, the more we boycott, sign petitions, pester politicians, and march in the street, the less likely we are to get what we (think we) want—or even to discover what that is.

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