Can democracy exist without trust? – looking for magic bullet

epa03702925 South African Rene Lion-Cachet is silhouetted at daybreak against a cloudy sky as a wild pigeon lands on his hand on a beachside bench in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 May 2013. Rene has been feeding the birds every morning for over four years and has built up a trusting relationship to the point where the birds eat pieces of rusk straight from his mouth. The birds recognise him as he arrives at the beach and land on him for their morning meal. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

In 2007 the United Nations General Assembly resolved to observe 15 September as the International Day of Democracy — with the purpose of promoting and upholding the principles of democracy — and invited all member states and organizations to commemorate the day in an appropriate manner that contributes to raising public awareness. Today on 15 September 2013 we use this occsasion by asking: “Can democracy exist without trust?”

Since the economic crisis, trust in politics has been destroye, says politicall scientist Ivan Krastev and he asks: « How is it possible, that in a society where everything is possible, trust has collapsed completely?»

Krastev, as he also said it on Ted Talks, believes that it is due to five revolutions, that have happened over the past few decades. They all had either bad and good outcomes at the same time. “First, there was the socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s: it lead to more freedom, but also to more individuality. Second, the market revolutions of the 1980s: they also caused more inequality in societies.

Third, the socio-cultural and market revolutions in Central-Europe in 1989, which also caused a greater gap between the people and the elites. Fourth, the communications revolution: it made the world smaller, but it also made it easier for people to just focus on their own interests and believes. Finally, the revolution in neurosciences, which made us understand how people take decisions, but also gave us the power to manipulate.

This ambiguity is what we should take into consideration: the things we love most, are also the things that can hurt us most. Active citizens, new technologies and much more transparency can grow trust in politics, in democracy, but at the same time it makes the people the big brother watching politicians. That makes managing mistrust the core business of those politicians. Consistency has become more important than common sense.

So remember: there is always a big shadow where there is much light”.

Is there magic bullet for democracy?

I think Krastev argument is, at best, a collage of speculation“, says David Sasaki who previously worked at Global Voices and consulted for Open Society Foundations: “When you take each one of those claims separately, it seems to me that some of them are obvious, others have been backed up by some preliminary research, and most of them are still heavily debated with contradicting research.

For example, Krastev hints at causality between more access to information about government and lower voter turnout. That could very well be one of many factors (some preliminary research here in Mexico has shown that greater information about political corruption can cause a slightly lower voter turnout), but there are literally dozens of alternative explanations that are extremely difficult to control for. Wikipedia has a good summary of some of the research attempting to explain the decline of voter turnout in developed democracies.

My colleagues and I often speak of other potentially negative effects of transparency, including many that Krastev doesn’t mention: too much weight has been given to transparency and not enough to structural policy reform, un-selective, de-contextualized disclosure can cloud rather than give clarity to how government functions, in authoritarian countries especially, greater transparency may incentivize legislators to vote along party lines an depending on who has access to disclosed information, the digital divide may magnify the social divide“, says Sasaki but also comes to conclusion:

“Transparency is no magic bullet, but in general I always ask myself if we are better off with access to information about our governments’ activities and processes or without it, and rarely do I conclude that we’d be better off without it!.