Western democracies are confronted with collapsing trust in their governments and surging nationalist movements. These phenomena have a particularly cruel timing, occurring contemporaneously with the rise of complex, global problems that urgently require coordinated, collective action.
As the world becomes increasingly complicated and interconnected, the decisions of governments, corporations, and large institutions have become less accessible to the average citizen. Whether in relation to data privacy, climate change, or automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, citizens are being asked to accept decisions made by experts whose knowledge they can't match or evaluate. The average citizen, whose voice and consent was once proclaimed as essential to the functioning of democracy and legitimized political power, is now being asked to yield more authority to experts. And the governed aren’t thrilled by it.
In 2018, the Edelman Trust Barometer found (for the first time in its 17-year history) a global decline in trust across all four major social institutions: business, media, government and NGOs. In the United States, 53% agreed with the statement that “everyday Americans understand what the government should do better than the so-called ‘experts’.”
Amid the heat of Brexit in the UK, Justice Secretary and 'Leave' advocate Michael Gove echoed these feelings, saying “the people of this country have had enough of experts…from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best”. In France, National Front presidential candidate Marie Le Pen echoed this resentment, stating “the people have stopped listening to [the elites]... the people want to determine their futures”.
Citizens may be responding to something more fundamental than resentment over immigration or the rise of inequality. The broad reaction against the many forms of expertise reveals a broken promise of the political system itself. The basic democratic contract, identified Hegel, Rousseau and Fukuyama, was that governing systems would offer recognition of the individual in exchange for their consent to be governed. Fukuyama, channelling Hegel, wrote “liberal society is a reciprocal and equal agreement among citizens to mutually recognize each other”.
AI is accelerating alienation
Artificial intelligence will drive future policy decision-making. Backed by complex machines studying complex social phenomena, government action will become even more impenetrable and inscrutable for the people most affected by a changing world. As much as the average citizen may resist giving up political authority to a panel of climate scientists, how will they react to healthcare decisions being made by AI algorithms, or factories closing based on computer simulations? The outbreak of rebellions against the expert class which has characterized US and European politics will likely accelerate.
How can governance itself work with and for the governed, when innovation and complexity has put understanding out of the reach of so many?
Tech innovation requires social innovation
A harmonious political future requires new approaches to using technology and AI not just to innovate, but also to explain and involve average citizenry in the governing process, which would return to the governed a sense of pride and investment in their governing systems. Even as we are confronted by greater and greater challenges, we must acknowledge the right of the governed to feel seen by the systems which exercise power over them.
New modes of trust and consent are possible. Deliberative democracy unites the role of the expert and the average citizen by selecting people at random to serve in a type of issue jury pools, where an individual is asked to study a single issue and render a judgement on behalf of the whole polis. In liquid democracy, citizens can proxy their vote to people in their immediate circle whom they trust on a specific issue. Those votes can subsequently be passed on to individuals of greater and greater expertise, but all the while maintaining relatable links from one person to another. A return to greater federalism and the creation of more experimental frontier zones would encourage citizens to ‘vote with their feet’ and choose between different systems while potentially creating new models.
Socializing AI systems
Beyond exploring new models, advanced new policy-making tools will also require rethinking popular involvement in decision-making. Strong social cohesion and meaningful democratic consent will require a robust commitment from leaders to transparency and engagement, as technology and artificial intelligence increasingly play roles in decisions around economics, employment, healthcare and justice.
Specifically, these systems should strive for:
- Continuous input from voters, from beginning to end, such that their participation is viewed as constitutive to the systems themselves
- A commitment to explainability for the AI behind these decisions - which is a challenge with current technology
- A reinvigorated rights framework to establish boundaries and limits for any automated systems or decisions
Powerful new technologies are already finding their way into our daily lives, often in ways that are poorly understood or not fully recognized by most people. Increasingly, they will also be features of how critical decisions are made in societies. If we want the citizens of the future to trust their governments and the systems that will help us tackle the grand challenges facing humanity, we need systems that citizens can see themselves in. Achieving that will require new approaches. But the resulting alignment between governance and the governed could abate current political frictions and unlock the full potential of man and machine.