To Fight Our Culture War, We Need Civic Participation

From December 7 - 9, Paris will host a worldwide gathering of government reformers and civil society organizations in the Open Government Partnership Summit. The attendees have all pledged to work together in genuine dialogue and collaboration in support of improved quality of governance and service delivery between governments and civil society.

In the aftermath of Brexit, the U.S. election upset, and the rise of populist extremism in Europe, this Summit could either be the most obsolete or most relevant gathering since the musicians of the RMS Titantic gathered on the deck of that fated ship.

I believe it will be the most relevant. But first, let me explain the challenge.

“We have brought a sheet of parchment and a set of abstract principles to a knife fight.”
- Ian Millhiser, Think Progress

Ian Millhiser, Justice Editor in the publication Think Progress, asserted that people who believe in democracy are ill-suited to address the threats of populism. He notes that we must “defend the structures of liberal democracy while working within those structures to grasp the levers of power and use them to achieve just ends.”  

I believe there is another way to defend the structures of liberal democracy: innovate. Like our lives depends on it.

In his article, Mr. Millhiser describes a system of governance in the process of flipping. Defenders of liberal democracy are ill-suited because an honorable sense of obligation to adhere to rules and norms is what has kept the system together. Lose battles, fight the long fight, win the war. Believe in the moral arc of justice.

Populism is currently doing an excellent job of flipping of those social norms and commonly held obligations. Astute observers of the painfully long U.S. national election watched with slow horror as every conceivable social norm was crudely crossed with no negative consequence.  There was no systemic firewall to stop the advance of populism. Liberal democratic tools have been rendered ineffective in this environment.

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Can we prevent a culture war from turning into a real war?

Social media has been blamed for spreading this culture war like a wildfire out of control. This trend has happened to the world before. In Under the Wire, How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy, historian David Paull Nickles describes how the telegraph allowed public opinion to exercise a belligerent influence on crises, inviting more emotional decisions by statesman and quickening of the pace of diplomatic disputes. The “leaked” Zimmerman cable in 1917 eventually led the United States to enter World War 1 against Germany.  In late 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest of the conditions of his life. Social media carried this spark throughout the Arab world, but since then, only Tunisia has transitioned to constitutional democratic governance.

These patterns have happened before. Did liberal democracies think that these patterns couldn’t possibly apply to them?  Let us not blame the tools of communication, but to recognize that they are merely tools. Let us not be complacent in our respect for the rule of law, but recognize that the objectivity of laws come in a wrapper of social norms. The current state of worldwide transparency afforded by social media shows that wrapper of social norms in a state of decay. Now we can put an acute diagnosis on the neglect - the feelings of being disrespected, of having no access to decision-making power, of not having a fair-share of resources, of having inequitable outcomes.

The Open Government Partnership could easily be dismissed as a series of abstract principles brought to a knife fight. But it is the right tool for a culture war. For the past five years, the partnership connected the know-how of technology in collaboration with those who might reform systems of governance to deliver better services and outcomes.

In 2011, I worked at the U.S. State Department, and was part of the logistics team that helped organize the first convening of the Open Government Partnership.  After having organized several summits filled with rigid structures, tightly choreographed statements, and serious protocol, I was astounded at the relaxed atmosphere that conference organizers were asking me create. What? We need this thing called a “dongle” because someone is bring a Mac to show a video in the 1950’s style Loy Henderson Auditorium? What? There’s no seating chart and a participant from Transparency International is sitting next to a Foreign Minister? What is happening?

“This will require a shift in norms and culture to ensure genuine dialogue and collaboration between governments and civil society.”
- Strategy of the Open Government Partnership

The Open Government Partnership exploded from 8 countries in 2011 to 70 countries in 2016.  That’s one-third of the world’s population working to improve governance. The Partnership has been slowly working to flip social norms within governmental systems by opening them up in collaboration. And now the Partnership has invited cities and regional governments to the mix. The principle of civic participation has never been more important as an organizational tool - the tools of government are insufficient, but change the actors, loosen up the constraints and you have a new game to play.

The one twist that I would add to the challenge that Ian Millhiser laid out is not that defenders of liberal democracy are unprepared. It’s that we’re under-prepared.

Can this Partnership scale capacity-building in a new way of governing? I don’t know.  But when I look at the topics of the panels and workshops, I have never been so glad to see the scale and diversity of conversation happening.

New partners in the Open Government Partnership. Can municipal and regional governments bring new ideas to save democratic governance?

Authors: Kerry O'Connor
Topics: Subnational