September 13, 2016    6 minute read

Can Blockchain Be A Successful Remedy Against Populism?

The Tech Solution    September 13, 2016    6 minute read

Can Blockchain Be A Successful Remedy Against Populism?

Since the financial crisis, or certainly since the European sovereign debt crisis and the following period of austerity, populist movements have changed the political landscape, both in the US and in Europe. The political motivations for these movements are very diverse. They are anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation or anti-austerity. Often they overlap.

Different Reasons, Similar Rhetoric

While the populists in Southern Europe consider the end of austerity measures their aim, Northern European populist parties like the German AfD, Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National are railing against foreigners and immigration.

While these motives are definitely important in understanding the populist parties’ recent successes, they are only part of the story. The motives often seem to conceal the deeper reason related to people’s fears, the people who decide to follow their populist movements. It has frequently been argued that both the support of Trump as well as the outcome of the Brexit vote was driven by voters’ frustration about the political process.

Foreign Affairs has called voters’ attraction to populists an “emotional backlash to a sense of disenfranchisement.” In fact, Trump has gained a lot of popularity by calling the political system rigged. In Germany, the “ugliest word of the year” in 2015 has been “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”). It is weariness and distrust of the political system and democracy itself that helps populists gain increasingly more ground.

The Effect Of Lazy Voters

While some of these “frustrated” voters flock towards populist parties, others are simply not going to the polls. This might be purely out of laziness or because they don’t see their individual vote making a significant difference. As a result, motivated and inspired voters that are promised a system change by populists are proportionately overrepresented. Sadly, this has made it even easier for UKIP, Brexiteers and Trump supporters. Both frustrated voters that want a system change and non-voters thus indirectly support the growth of the Trumps and Farages of the world. Double win. This is why Michael Moore predicts a Trump win and a victory of populists:

“People have to leave the house and get in line to vote. And if they live in poor, Black or Hispanic neighbourhoods, they not only have a longer line to wait in, everything is being done to literally stop them from casting a ballot. So in most elections, it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. And therein lies the problem”.

Can Blockchain Be The Solution?

The Blockchain technology could change a whole lot of that. Three startups are using the distributed, decentralised transaction ledger of the blockchain to design a credible system of electronic, online voting. VotoSocial from the Honduras, FollowMyVote from the US and Democracy.Earth, which is a multinational collaboration, are working on the common aim to make voting possible through your mobile devices. Although this sounds just like another step toward a digitalisation of every-day things it has much wider and more important implications. This is mainly due to two features, which each of the three startups’ software ensures:

  • Credibility: Although there were other attempts in the past to make voting electronic, the technology has not been developed enough. Previously, online and electronic voting would have to be organised through a central institution or agency. One can imagine the power this agency would have. Claims of “rigged elections” would be even more plausible. With the decentralised blockchain technology, no such central agency is needed. The nature of the blockchain makes it virtually impossible to falsify the voting result and is thus 100% secure. As the codes these startups use are open-source and can be audited and verified by everyone, they ensure a process transparency that has been absent until now. “Rigging” elections would be practically impossible. This is not only essential for many developing countries but also takes the wind out of many populists’ sails in developed countries.
  • Convenience: Again, this might sound like a small advantage. However, when it comes to elections, one should not underestimate the role of convenience, as Michael Moore argues. A simple vote via phone or laptop might convince people to vote that were previously not entirely indifferent, but not motivated enough to make their way to the polling station. Evidence has shown that these “almost indifferent” voters can change the outcome to one that is less in favour of populist parties. This is evident in the case of the Brexit referendum, where it was specifically Brexiteers that spared no effort to cast their vote.
  • The non-profit startup Democracy.Earth goes even further. They also focus on delegation in their blockchain software, where the idea is to delegate your voting rights to a specific person you believe will represent you best on this matter. Through Democracy.Earth’s solution it would be possible to have different representatives for different subjects of expertise so that Person A might represent you on issues of monetary policy, while Person B has been voted on to deal with labour market issues. This new form of issue-based politics has been the election programme of the Australian Flux Party, which was rather successful in their first ever federal elections fielding to senate candidates in every state. The idea behind delegative democracy enabled by blockchain can be seen here.
  • While the idea of delegative democracy through the blockchain might seem strange initially, it is clear that it could also provide a highly effective remedy against people’s feeling of disenfranchisement and frustration with the current political process.

What Are People Waiting For?

The Blockchain technology could enable elections that are incorruptible, transparent and more convenient. It could decrease some populist movements’ rapid growth by taking their (often just wrong) argument of a corrupted, unrepresentative system with rigged elections and thereby increase voter turnout. So why not implement their software today?

There have been some problems with the blockchain like the recent DAO attack, where an organisation based on the blockchain got hacked (which until then was claimed to be almost impossible). Some say it will simply take a bit more time and research to fully entrust the blockchain with something so significant as official elections. Until then, smaller organisations should go ahead to use these startups’ technologies to experiment, test and research the technology’s function with respect to voting. The more institutions show a willingness to adopt this technology now, the better. The positive impact that this can have on the political landscape, with hopefully fewer populist parties, is too important to wait much longer.

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