Demos kratia, Greek for “people rule,” better known as “democracy” in English, has meant various things for various peoples, but today we widely value it as consent of the governed. A fundamental tenet of American society, this value has always been at the center of the centuries-old debates over the role of power and personal interest in governance. In a world in which government policy is pilloried for being bedfellows with corporate interests, some share concern over the extent to which we still value this tenet of democracy.
However, the increasing digitization of our lives only reaffirms our continued commitment to this principle. In a very technical, elaborate and complicated web of networks, the Internet has proved to be a revolutionary, revitalizing force for American democracy. Many even view the Internet as an inalienable right on par with fundamental freedoms such as the freedoms of speech, religion and expression — as a right that should be fundamentally unobstructed and unhindered. In fact, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, even proclaimed that “the freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyberspace.”
But the American democracy is no longer what it was. Princeton professor of politics Martin Gilens believes that the American system of government resembles an oligarchy — where those with the most financial resources have the most political power. If this is true, then the Internet could very well be the fundamental tool that returns us to our democratic roots. As the Internet is an equalizer, it balances the playing field.
Before the Internet, only those with the resources to send articles to print, to buy airwaves for advertisements, to hire teams to canvas for them and to even get to meet other people of influence could make a dent in the political sphere: One needed tangible capital to work within the institutions that form the American government. Now, anyone with access to a computer and Wi-Fi can reach a political audience. The Internet is a decentralized entity that does not rely on institutions to reach desired ends. These low barriers to entry for the Internet are what will defeat the monopolistic control a few have on the governmental system. It allows for anyone to make change. And although one voice is still virtually meaningless, social media and online campaigns have proliferated the instances in which power in numbers has proven to be cause for momentous change.
By definition, the Internet is a system that connects one network to another. When people want to see change in their society, government, or economic system, they can work together using the Internet. In the past, one needed dedicated political parties for change. Such actions need a great amount of time and resources. The Internet circumvents the need to go through the grueling process of navigating the conventional institutional structure we have in place now to enact change, such as seeking resolutions of support from legislatures.
Some good examples of this are reflected in MoveOn.org and Change.org. Such websites allow people who believe in a cause to crowd-source support from people all over the Internet. This, in its very essence, is the definition of demos kratia: that Greek ideal that is the very premise of our democracy.
MoveOn, founded by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, has been able to implement policy change through the support of its more than eight million registered members. In this way, the members, in quintessential democratic fashion, decide which issues should begin to be pushed forward. Once an issue moves ahead, members of MoveOn can decide if they want to donate to the cause — either financially or otherwise (such as verbal or intellectual support). This mechanism, made possible by the Internet, allows MoveOn users to tap into the “collective people power” of its members. This can be seen with their fight against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the 2006 midterm elections, and more recently the Colorado students who are fighting censorship in their history curricula.
The Internet allows for “rule of the people” over the private sector.
More importantly, however, MoveOn gives average users the ability to even begin to think about important issues. Laurie (a MoveOn member) formulates this point very clearly. She states that as “a professional and mother” she does not have the time to focus on the political issues that matter to her. In reality, the political and social establishment is — intended or not — structured to be incredibly time consuming to navigate through. How does an average person even begin to think about politics, when most of their time is devoted to their own lives? MoveOn gives “normal” people like Laurie a chance to “fight against the infuriating things that will destroy our country.” The tools of the Internet have facilitated this process tremendously. If US presidential voter turnout is on average only 50 percent today, the Internet will virtually allow all people who want to vote to vote in the near future (despite current opposition to this form of voting).
But the Internet is more than just politically democratic. It gives “people of cyberspace” the ability to also enact social and economic change in their democracy as a whole. Change.org is a perfect example of this.
Change allows users to make petitions about any topic or issue they want. Signatures can come from anyone who has access to the online petition. Meaning, when once one’s grandmother had to go door to door to get signatures for her petition about the rising cost of tupperware, now this can be done on a mass scale for no more than the cost of one’s time.
If George Soros “broke the Bank of England in 1992,” then Molly Katchpole broke the Bank of America in 2011. Bank of America in 2011 established a “$5 a month fee for debit card members.” Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny with two jobs, started a Change petition in order to reverse that. In less than a month more than 300,000 signatures were collected, including that of President Obama. Needless to say, the fee was removed.
This sort of change is not beholden to political institutions in nature. It is the reverse of that. It is the “rule of the people” over the private sector. Regular people did not want new banking fees, and through their collective power were able to change the private economic sphere by joining together and showing their discontent. This is what the Internet allows. It is a champion of demos kratia.
Before the Internet, it would be nearly impossible for an average American to accumulate so many signatures in such a short period of time — especially that of the president. In the past, such progressive movements were the product of well-off middle class wives that had the time, connections and resources to propose new laws — much like the Prohibition movement. Most people do not have such luxuries anymore. Even knowing about pertinent issues is a rarity (to some degree). The Internet makes it easy, available and accessible. It allows for the people to rule, as there is great power in numbers. It is also the only empowering force that does not corrupt, as it empowers the whole and not just one. As such, the Internet is what all democracy loving people have been waiting for, for several millennia. In other words, the Internet has been the greatest democratizing force in America has ever seen.