Weekend Roundup: When Agency Switches Hands

“Taking back control” reverses course after populist triumphs.

Nathan Gardels

Presenting the “Renewing Democracy” report at King’s College, London last week.

Visiting Brussels and London this week, I was struck by how the broad political conversation across Europe has turned from the normal focus of recent years on election campaigns and the ups and downs of party prospects to a preoccupation with citizen engagement and the structural reform of democratic institutions themselves.

For the moment, the discourse in the United States still avoids unsettling questions of system failure because it is understandably gripped by election fever over how to escape the ongoing trauma of the Trump presidency. By contrast, the paralysis caused by the Brexit trauma is now behind Europeans. The “leavers” are now decisively in charge in Britain and the European Union, beset with widespread popular distrust of distant technocratic government, has no choice but to rethink a once-presumed future from which one of its key member states has defected.

In Europe’s post-trauma moment, the pressing question is: “How can we fix the causes of how we got here?” These issues — from the erosion of social cohesion to the dismantling of the public square to the alienation of the public from the institutions of self-government — are addressed in a recent Berggruen Institute report, “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age,” which fell onto fertile ground when we released it in London last week. Its proposals range from fostering citizenship resiliency, not least in the face of the divisive impact of social media, restoring cohesion through common citizen service and “expanding the zone of direct citizen engagement, replete with its own set of deliberative checks and balances” to “both complement, and compensate for, the waning trust in mass political parties and representative government.”

The core matter is how to mend the polarization that has splintered the body politic and ensure that the voices of the left behind and shut out can be effectively heard and heeded through a systemic overhaul of how democracy works.

It has been remarked that while social media was once seen as a way to speak truth to power, the issue has now become how to speak truth to social media. In a similar way, the next turn of politics will involve how to “take back control” from demagogues and strongmen who pose as tribunes of the people by empowering the people themselves, what political scientists call “agency.”

Science fiction writers are often the best at putting their finger on the pulse of the present historical moment. As if on cue, “Neuromancer” author William Gibson has just published a new novel titled “Agency.” For Gibson, the “take back control” slogan of the Brexiteers and the Trump partisans in the U.S. so appealed to voters because it promised to give back agency to the disaffected and dispossessed. Now, the tables have turned. As he recently told the Financial Times, there is an “aching sense of lack of agency” by all those who have been sidelined by the triumphs of populism.

Having learned the lesson that populism arises when too many citizens are excluded from a say in setting the rules that govern their lives, this question of agency was at the top of the minds of EU officials at a gathering I attended in Brussels. The aim of the meeting was to reinvigorate the nascent European Citizens’ Initiative process — whereby ordinary citizens can make EU law directly at the ballot box or place their express concerns before the parliament and executive decision-making body, the European Commission — as well as affirm that “citizens, not institutions” should “own”  the outcome of a two-year Conference on the Future of Europe that will review the extant constitution.

As EU Vice President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica pledged, “citizens want to have a greater say in policymaking beyond elections. We must respond to this call.” To that end, she promised to convene a series of citizen deliberations across the EU member states, including through the use of digital tools, as vital input to shaping the conference agenda.

In Great Britain itself, a new organization called Engage Britain will convene a series of non-partisan citizens’ assemblies over the coming couple of years with the aim of inviting citizens, not politicians, to set the governing agenda based on what most concerns them. Further, a former chairman of the political and constitutional reform select committee of the House of Commons, Graham Allen, is setting up a series of citizens’ assemblies to deliberate the issues leading up to a Citizens’ Convention on U.K. Democracy. His effort has been endorsed by representatives across the spectrum from the Labour and Conservative parties to the Green Party and Liberal Democratic Party.

Such endeavors at the national level in the U.S. may be stalled for the moment, as they were in Britain during three and a half years of turmoil, as all await the outcome of November’s general election. If Trump wins once again, it will surely prompt deep introspection into the systemic flaws that have led to our present perilous dysfunction. If Joe Biden wins, many Americans, though thankful Trump has been dumped, will sit uncomfortably with a return of the residual establishment whose incapacity to effectively address the dislocations of globalization and disruption of the digital economy led to the populist revolt in the first place.

The best prospect for systemic reform in either case will likely come once again from the states as it did in the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, an era of rapid technological change and inequality not unlike today. In a federal system such as the U.S., institutional innovation, such as citizen-initiated referendums inaugurated in that era, will always come from the bottom up, where citizens are closer to government.

What seems clear is that we are on the cusp of yet another shift across the West that will move beyond reaction to reconstruction of our democratic practices and institutions. As the “Renewing Democracy” report put it, “Neither a turn toward autocracy nor lame attachment to forms of government that have become dysfunctional offers an answer to the question of how to govern open societies in the 21st century.”