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Rescuing Democracy in the Age of the Internet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 September 2015


Throughout almost the entire history of democracy—from pre-Socratic Greece up to the second half of the twentieth century—its champions faced little difficulty in identifying its enemies. Critics of democracy consistently lined up to attack it on ideological and philosophical grounds. The litany of complaints was familiar: Democracy is an ignorant, unreliable, unstable form of rule; putting power in the hands of the people entrusts decision-making to those who are incapable of making the right decisions, either because of their natural incapacity or because social arrangements have denuded them of their ability to know what they are doing; democratic politicians pander to the masses, and the masses reward them for it; democracies choose short-term gratification over long-term solutions and eventually pay the price. These charges were invariably accompanied by the promise of something better, the assumption being that almost any alternative regime would be an improvement on the inadequacies of democracy.

Review Essay
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2015 

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1 Nadia Urbinati, Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

2 See, for example, Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, “Populism and Technocracy: Opposites or Complements?” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (published online April 2015).

3 Urbinati is here quoting from Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, trans. Kathleen Cross (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000).

4 This attitude is exemplified by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and technology evangelist Peter Thiel (cofounder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook), who has repeatedly stated that solutions to our current problems must be found outside politics and will be driven by technology itself. “Political skirmishes over inequality are to him the historical equivalent of fighting over how doctors should be distributing leeches to the poor . . . . From this vantage point, government is not so much the harbinger of evil as an ineffective nuisance.” See Gregory Ferenstein, “Peter Thiel's Radical Political Vision,” Daily Beast,

5 See Manuel Castells, “Information Technology and Global Capitalism,” in Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens, eds., On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000).

6 Jeffrey Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

7 John Medearis, Joseph Schumpeter's Two Theories of Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

8 Dave Eggers, The Circle (New York: Random House, 2013).