Social media and the political regime: the rise of republicanism?

What effect does social media have on the political regime?

Are some countries better at adapting social media than others because of their political culture? The argument, in brief, is that the UK’s parliamentary sovereignty creates an institutional limit on social media from obtaining the same force in the UK as it does in the US. This is not to say that the UK cannot and will not use social media. On the contrary, the UK government and its Parliamentarians are quite adept at using it in many areas. However, the underlying questions are about the culture that encourages and embraces social media, such as blogging, and whether the UK government and its political institutions are ready for it.

The reason for this is that in the UK, the parliamentary system does not encourage direct democratic action. For example, there is no UK equivalent of Cory Booker in the US. He famously responded to a tweet from a resident asking for help following a snowstorm by showing up with a shovel and a group of volunteers. In a sense, this is understandable from a historical perspective because the UK’s political institutions, pace Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution and his defence of Parliament, seek to limit the power and effect of the individual. Burke was famously, and justly, fearful of mobocracy.

The fear of the French Republic in 1789 in a sense continues to infuse the institutional resistance to social medial. Social media’s political philosophy is republicanism. Anyone can enter and contribute to the online public space. See for example Bill Sherman’s paper (Your mayor, your “friend”: public officials, social networking and the unmapped new public square) http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1705762) There are no barriers or exclusions. By contrast, the UK political institutions are not designed, constitutionally, to be as directly inclusive. One can argue that only in Parliament is there a public space in which political discourse can occur. The rest of the public contribute indirectly, if at all.

One way to look at this is to consider that the expenses rules set by Parliament allowed individual parliamentarians to avoid public scrutiny of their expenses. When full public scrutiny was allowed, it was through a leak rather than through design or decision. Parliament, as an institution, is jealous (rightfully so in many cases) of its primacy. twitter or social media that challenges it will be embraced in the way that some politicians in the US have embraced social media.

The reason why this matters is that social media will not be able to take root within the local government system because neither it, nor the central government system, is designed to encourage direct democracy. In some cases, this is not a bad thing, in others; it raises fundamental questions about the on-going work around Localism and the “Big Society”. The key challenge is the difficulty an average citizen faces in getting involved in local democratic decision-making. Surveys each year show that the average percentage is less than 40%, for the public feeling they can be involved. This suggests that most people are not engaged in this part of the public space. See for example, this research. http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/localgovernment/pdf/1241955

And http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/1519846.pdf

By contrast, the online world, especially practiced through social media is closer to the republic of letters as envisaged by Pierre Bayle and the Enlightenment. In this situation, the public expect politicians to react directly to their views and to be directly accountable to them. They want to use this medium rather than indirectly through the pre-arranged 10-minute question time or the opportunity to ask questions at the end of a scrutiny session. The issue, though, is that the political institutions are built for the latter not the former.

The contrary argument, of course, is that political involvement is more than asking questions or sitting on a committee. To be sure, this is true. What people want to see is that their views and their arguments are considered and have an effect on the decisions they see. For example, consider in this experiment with social media and local planning decision making in the United States. (Micro-Participation: The Role of Microblogging in Planning http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1760522) There are technical barriers to overcome, but the process showed that microblogging, the use of Twitter in this case, could have a direct impact on participating in planning and shaping it.

How a political regime is constituted sets out its political institutions. The regime, and its institutions, creates the local political space. For example, in the UK a city cannot be called a city until it has received Royal approval no matter how large its population or the amount of land it covers. http://www.ukcities.co.uk/definitions/ The same requirements do not exist in the US, but there is something similar in the idea of being an incorporated or unincorporated area.

I would argue that social media is more successful in republican countries. The political philosophical context, the regime if you will, is already conducive to being directly accountable to the public. In a republic, the public space is already understood to be one in which all citizens have an equal right to participate.

For local government, the early views of social media seem to be that it is a tool to leverage its existing work. The focus is on monologue rather than dialogue. For example, social media and twitter will be seen as a part of corporate communications. It is less likely to be seen as a way to change in the political fabric for the institution. Instead of being seen as a way for direct democratic accountability and engagement to happen, it is likely to be seen as a tool to do more with less, better publicity, press, and marketing, rather than an alternative to or a supplement to the current political engagement. In large part, this view is not unexpected because the neither the politicians nor the public are educated to view the political process differently. For the most part, the online republic is limited to a small cohort so that it will find difficulty embedding itself within the local government mainstream.

In practice, the public are only beginning to grasp the potential. We will not see social media take off until we see someone like a UK Cory Booker. They will have to go online to their residents, being accountable, and being present for them. However, the question is who is ready for such direct accountability? Boris Johnson may be an immediate thought or even Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough, but their approach is not one that is conducive to social media. In many ways, the response is to type because accountability is indirect. For politicians it is hard to embrace direct accountability and engagement offered by, required by, twitter when the political framework within which they operate does not allow for it.

What the rise of social media may suggest is that a country’s political institution will have to become more republican. If that change is still in the future in the UK, then it will emerge at the micro level first. It will begin and develop at the micro or local level (such as neighbourhoods or discrete communities either physical or temporal such as neighbourhoods) before it leads to a macro change in the regime.

One coulargue that the rise of social media continues a theme that has percolated for over 30 years. In effect, the quiet revolution began with Thatcher who changed the relationship of the individual and the state with “right to buy”. Blair and Brown continued it, with the focus on education and communities. Cameron and Clegg continue it with the focus on Big Society and Localism. All of these are contributing to the political and social habits of a republican political space. However, social media can only go so far, the political institutions need to change so that there is direct accountability rather than the collective accountability.

The change is not overnight but it is interesting to see as it unfolds.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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