Democratic Citizens or Cogs in the Machine

I wandered along to the RSA this evening for a talk on an issue which interests me – and in essence it is how the internet is changing how people interact with politics.

The talk was lead by Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at Leeds University, who (as the event guide said) believes there is a disconnect between government and the people, based on a growing public fear that individuals no longer have the power to influence the political world. He was followed by James Crabtree, senior editor, Prospect Magazine and trustee, UK Citizens Online Democracy.

It was in interesting debate and some fact/figures were shown based on surveys which were trying to find out what modern people consider to be a "political action".

Understandably, a massive 91% are sure that voting in a general election is a political action – although we wondered why 9% think it isn’t. However, apart from obvious things like that – what else counts as a political action? Some people consider watching the news to be political, or even voting in a TV show, or writing a letter to the paper.

Basically, what is a political act has a very wide range of possibilities – and interestingly, the more internet savvy you are, the wider the range seems to be.

This seems to be the key issue.

The old way of "being political" involved joining the system by membership of a political party or organisation and having that sense of belonging to something which is larger than the individual. Today, we have limited membership of political parties, and yet people are exposed to more and more political discourse thanks to the rise of blogs and other internet services.

People seem to be more exposed to politics, and yet at the same time more distant from being able to influence the political decision making process.

This is deemed to be a problem for the future of democracy – and there are various organisations trying to make it easier to be pro-actively involved in politics and persuading politicians to start to use modern social networking tools to interact with their constituents.

I have however, seen a huge rise in what I call micro-activism. Faced with the choice of joining a large monolithic political party which has a vast array of policies, not of which will be of interest or palatable – people are increasingly going to the political pic ‘n mix and choosing which policies they will support.

I am a supporter of a small selection of various political and social causes, and they get a fiver here or there from paypal each month. I in turn face hardly a day without an email, either a payment receipt or an update from an organisation – and so, in a tiny way, I feel empowered politically every single day as I know I did a little bit to help – even if it was just to continue a monthly payment I might have forgotten about signing up for originally.

I think that this sort of micro-activism will become a larger part of politics – and in a way might be a problem as people feel individually that "something must be done" to support their own core causes, whereas larger politics tends to need to study the wider picture and can’t accede to every tiny claim on its time and energy.

As the politicians ignore our core pet causes, we feel less able to affect politics, which leads to more disfranchisement with the system.

The cure will be for those politicians to leave their ivory towers and start reacting to blogs and websites and actually explain why "things can’t be done", at least maybe not immediately – and that was the core message this evening.

Anyhow – enough rambling (it sounded better in my head on the way home) and just to say it was yet another very interesting lecture attended.

The RSA puts a podcast of their lectures on their website a few days after the talk if you want to listen to the whole thing.

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