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Two Tools for Democracy


Democracy is more than just voting. Even in the Soviet Union, every comrade was a citizen and every citizen voted, unless they happened to be languishing in the gulag. Unfortunately for Soviet democracy, there was usually only one candidate on the ballot and none of the elected offices held any real power, all of which was concentrated in the unelected Politburo. The real test of democratic legitimacy rests in whether the people’s representatives have authority after their investiture; and then whether they act as true representatives of their constituents or if they only serve the interests of a tiny minority elite[1].

Across the world and at home in the US, there has been a disturbing and growing trend to what some analysts are calling “illiberal democracy”[2]. An illiberal democracy is one that outwardly looks like a normal liberal democracy: it has a constitution that guarantees basic human rights, an elected legislature, a Prime Minister or elected President, an independent judiciary, an apolitical military and regular elections. However, the practice is far different than the theory:

  • Election fraud is common, though not necessarily widespread. The canny politicians of the illiberal democracy know that fraud in a few key “swing states” or regions is easier to hide, easier to dismiss as irregularities if detected, and even more effective than more widespread fraud, which could lead to illegitimacy. After all 51% is just as effective as 98% in most cases and far more believable;
  • Press freedom and civil rights are routine violated by government officials with impunity, especially the rights of petition and peaceful assembly;
  • Even as investigative journalism is persecuted, the illiberal democracy will increasingly become a surveillance state. Legal authority is granted in the name of “citizen security” and the need to “combat terrorism” for systematic violations of privacy rights, protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and unlawful or excessive detentions;
  • Corruption is always rampant in the illiberal democracy as is the unequal distribution of income, wealth, social status and most importantly, access to power;
  • Legislative or executive actions that routinely and consistently go against the expressed will and interest of the people in favor of minority stakeholders in the government, whether they be private or corporate interests;

The illiberal democracy is only the latest, most clever incarnation of that antonym of democracy, oligarchy. So long as human beings remain human beings, there will always be the few who desire mastery over the many. Whatever the basis of the justification – racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, hereditary – these people utterly reject the precept that all men are created equal and that they have certain inalienable rights. The nefariousness danger of this new manifestation of an old foe is that it very ably uses the tools and language of democracy against it. Knowing that the outright imposition of authoritarian rule would be resisted, the new oligarchs are content to hide the strings: the majority of the people will be able to vote, the majority of the people will have their rights respected, so long as they do not seek to expose or oppose their new masters. The mere façade of democracy is enough to keep the apolitical majority contented and at home, watching whatever sport or reality show passes for bread and circus in their country. Those that do not play ball are criminalized and labeled terrorists; and who can argue with the need to jail criminals and detain terrorists?


This practice is routine in places like Russia or Turkey, but is becoming more and more visible in other places as well. Remember George W Bush’s “with us or against us” attitude; anyone opposing any of his War on Terror policies was therefore supporting the terrorists and could be vilified, ostracized and even persecuted – just ask Valerie Plame[3]. Even the most obvious and egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity were permitted through this chilling effect, which persists to this day. Anyone questioning President Obama’s illegal[4] drone policy is treated not much better than in the bad old days of the Bush Administration. In Spain, there is no longer a right to spontaneous assembly, no matter how peaceful, and taking the photo of a police officer – even if they are committing an illegal act – is now a civil offense carrying a 30,000 euro fine.


Citizen engagement is the key to a healthy democracy and to combating the autocratic forces that seek to impose their will on us to our detriment. And for citizens to engage, they need information: lots of it. But not a random or unprocessed flood, either. Citizens need timely and focused information that highlights key issues, analyzes the implications of proposed legislation, identifies their representatives and how to contact them, and helps them organize more like-minded people, since collective action is the only chance we have of making a difference.

Never in history have people had access to so much ready information. Too much, in fact. Most folks don’t have time to read through 10 different newspapers to filter out biases and get a global perspective. News aggregators like Google News or app News360 are searchable and configurable, and allow their users to filter topics, prioritize news sources and rapidly browse multiple digital news media without leaving the page. This is a good start for general background information, and everyone should be aware of and combat the very human tendency to only read that which already agrees with our pre-formed views and prejudices.

Organizing people is now easier too, with powerful tools like Twitter hashtags or Change.org. Twitter was instrumental in starting and sustaining the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Morocco; and it is considered so disruptive that the Iranian and Turkish governments have given themselves the authority to ban it completely inside their borders. The latter site allows users to create a petition, promote it through social media and email, gather signatures, address it to legislators and track and publish results. Petitions are searchable for those who wish to sign up to a cause rather than start a movement themselves. Some of these petitions have led to real changes; though it can also generate a degree of public revulsion at receiving dozens of daily petitions in the Inbox.

Two of my favorite apps are iCitizen and Countable. Both are civic action tools focused on providing information about current events and issues, gathering user feedback in the form of polls, and linking this to legislation and legislators. They are free to download and use, and both position themselves as non-partisan, with the aim of informing the public and reducing polarization in the American electorate. iCitizen is owned by Citizengine, Inc. a private company with shareholders across the political spectrum and with a diverse advisory board overseeing the operation. It is based in Nashville, Tennessee. Countable’s founders both have tech backgrounds: Bart Myers and Peter Arzhintar founded SideReel.com as well as several other consumer internet companies before creating Countable. They are advised by a board of high power political analysts including organizers of Pete Wilson’s and Howard Dean’s campaigns, a former member of the House of Representatives and a former Board member of the Salvation Army.[5]


iCitizen provides access to news and polls on current events and topics of interest based on the user profile established at set-up. You can select from multitude of topics like women’s rights, national defense, taxation, etc. and then browse news stories related to these. The app sends you notifications as well as inviting you to participate in polls that can later be shared via social media. Based on your zip code, iCitizen identifies the relevant state and federal representatives, receive notifications about them and communicate with them electronically. Elected officials can also use iCitizen to post their own polls and receive feedback from their constituents. All polling is anonymous and contact information is never shared with officials.


The Countable app is less focused on user polls and more focused on interactions with representatives on actual legislation. When you sign up, your zip code determines who your representatives are. Bills that are submitted in the House or Senate generate a notice either if they are on a topic you have indicated to be of interest – like defense – or if they involve your representatives in any way: as a sponsor, as a sitting committee member, or in an upcoming vote. You can access a substantial amount of information on the bill itself including: a brief summary of the legislation, cogent arguments for and against the measure, a full text transcript, its progress through the legislative process, important upcoming dates, and the position and votes of your representatives. It allows you to share the information via social media, write a public opinion and contact your representatives with your opinion.


Both apps are very friendly to use and regularly updated. There are some minor criticisms: iCitizen is somewhat lighter on content and the polls can be so vaguely worded as to make it difficult for anyone to take a nuanced position on it. For example, one poll asks: “Should the Federal government borrow more in order to increase spending?” Without knowing more, such as the purpose of the increased spending, it is impossible to take a position. The poll questions can also be lacking in context and there are no pro-and-con arguments at all, which lessens the usefulness of these polls. Meanwhile, Countable can become a bit overwhelming; the casual user may be put off by the amount of information they have available for each topic.

I recommend Countable for the highly engaged activist who has the time and motivation to go through all the information presented on each bill. The more casual user can still get great utility from iCitizen. Both apps are worthwhile additions to every citizen’s phone or tablet. I am encouraged by the proliferation of these grassroots tools. Disruptive technologies are the best hope for retaining citizen empowerment in the face of the illiberal usurpation of public authority. The truth of this is shown by the lengths these repressive regimes go to limit or prohibit ordinary citizen access to them. The more extensive the prohibitions, the more autocratic the government.

Pericles of Athens said: “Liberty is only assured to those who are still willing to defend it.” In ancient times, no one was considered a citizen unless they fully participated in both the civic life of their government and in its military defense. Today, we are too disengaged: we vote, but we don’t agitate. We “support our troops”, but too many refuse to serve. As a result, we have become a kakistocracy[6] – government by the worst people in the service of unelected interests. John Adams said it best: “if honorable men will not conduct the public’s business, other men will do it.” It is past time to retake control over our country and fulfill our duties as citizens of a great Republic. These tools will help us make a start.

Sources and Notes

[1] Which could be corporate interests, as in the United States; or aristocratic interests as in 19th Century Europe, or the interests of a portion of the clergy, as in modern Iran. It doesn’t matter who; the elite is defined by its minority status, its disproportional power, their ability to sway policy with disregard to the true interests of the mass of the electorate.

[2] First used by

[3] Valerie Plame was a CIA operative whose name was released to the public by Bush Administration officials in retaliation for her contradiction of “reports” of WMD’s in Iraq, prior to the invasion. The disclosure of the identity of a CIA operative is a criminal act; but naturally, no one was punished.

[4] The drone policy of the United States, first put in place by George W Bush and then greatly expanded by Barack Obama, violates any number of international agreements as well as US laws, including: the inviolability of sovereign borders, the prohibitions against needless civilian casualties, the Geneva Convention definition of what constitutes an armed combatant, right of due process guaranteed to American citizens and US laws against the use of assassination as policy instrument.

[5] All information in this paragraph is provided by the app writers themselves, it has not be verified by me, nor do I necessarily endorse the statements of impartiality and non-partisanship.

[6] Kakistocracy: from the Greek word kákistos meaning “worst,” and -cracy, a combining form meaning “rule” or “government.”

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“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams


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