How can we redesign democracy?

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In the previous article, we saw that our democracies are currently blocking the environmental (and social) laws we need because we are electing politicians defending corporate interests, rather than our own. We are voting these politicians because we do not realize that they are exploiting the inherent advantage of false information, which results in “the race to the bottom” being the dominant loop of the political system.

For democracies to want to solve the environmental crisis, we said that “the race to the top” loop needs to become dominant. We will discuss in this article where to intervene in the system, i.e. what are the leverage points to move from democracies resisting environmental laws towards democracies pushing for those laws.

Leverage points are places to intervene in a system. A low leverage point is a place where an action generates a small change. A high leverage point is a place where an action generates a large change.

The more we strike at the root causes of a problem, the higher the leverage point. The more we focus on symptoms or intermediate causes, the lower the leverage point. High leverage points are often indirect and counterintuitive. They are also more powerful than low leverage points.

We act on high leverage points when we innovate at the systems’ level and redesign its structure and functioning so that the system wants to solve the problem at hand. As mentioned above, to transition towards a democracy that wants to solve the environmental crisis, we need a political system dominated by “the race to the top”, and thus structured to provide true — rather than false — information.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

There are two potential ways forward for this loop to become dominant:

  1. We can accelerate “the race to the top” by having more people telling the truth; and/or
  2. We can break or weaken “the race to the bottom” by limiting politicians’ capacity to exploit the inherent advantage of false information.

One of these options is a low leverage point, the other is a high leverage point. One of these options is where most (if not all of) changemakers’ efforts are going, the other has never been tried at a large scale.

Efforts to accelerate “the race to the top” include marches, civil disobedience, lobbying campaigns to push for environmental laws, and scientific articles, among others. This is, as you may have guessed, where most changemakers’ efforts are going.

These efforts push, however, on a low leverage point. This is because more people telling the truth leaves the part of the systems’ structure that is causing the problem and resisting to change — i.e. the “race to the bottom” — intact. While important, ‘more of the truth’ strategies has not, and very likely will not, on their own, allow for systemic change (more on this here). If you agree that we need systemic change so that our democracies want to solve the environmental crisis (and other complex issues), you may also agree on the need for a new strategy.

What fuels “the race to the bottom” is undetected false information. And what leaves false information undetected is people’s limited capacity to distinguish the true from the false. This limited capacity is not an individual handicap, but the result of a system dominated by “the race to the bottom”. As mentioned in the previous article, we tolerate this system structure because we do not necessarily realize how important quality information is for well-functioning democracies, for our well-being, and to solve the environmental crisis or any other struggle you may be wishing to contribute to.

Acting at the level of “the race to the top” and leaving “the race to the bottom” intact is like running a race on foot against a Ferrari. With information, in addition to its attractiveness (which can be increased for false information), who gets there first is fundamental because it is easier for our brains to believe in something new than to change our minds on what we know already. Who “gives more turns” is also key since the more an information is repeated, the more it becomes familiar and unquestioned.

Regardless of how many of us run on foot, the Ferrari will still get there faster and give more turns. As indirect as it may sound, to “change the system”, we need to redirect (at least a good part of) our efforts from trying to accelerate “the race to the top” towards breaking the inherent advantage of “the race to the bottom”. We need to “break” the Ferrari.

Photo by Guillaume Bleyer on Unsplash

As we did with the vote mechanism that allowed the transition from monarchies to democracies (explained here), we can do so by adding a balancing loop to the system to weaken “the race to the bottom”, so that “the race to the top” can become dominant. This is fundamental, as without this change, the system will continue to give advantage, and thus put in power, politicians that fiercely resist environmental (and social) laws, regardless of how hard we — changemakers — push for these laws. Without this change, it is still a race on foot against a Ferrari.

We need a new strategy. And this strategy has to do with improving the quality of the information environment, as well as people’s capacity to discern truth from falsehood.

This conclusion is supported, among others, by the work of the Center for Humane Technology which focuses on the impact of social media in society. The Center argues, for instance, that climate change cannot be solved if the profit-maximization goal driving social media and artificial intelligence is not changed first. Indeed, social media determines a large portion of our daily information, and therefore of the reality that we observe.

Daniel Schmachtenberger — leading the Consilience Project, aimed at improving public sensemaking and dialogue—argues that democracy is only possible with an educated citizenry and an information environment that brings the issues to be solved honestly before the public. He argues that “no one understands the issues about which government is governing…people’s understanding and quality of civic discourse has decreased…which means you don’t even really have…a republic anymore, only the story of it” (source). Research carried out at Yale university and at the Institute for the Future point to the same direction.

Mobilizing and raising awareness is where most changemakers or activist groups focus on. Mobilizing towards the achievement of an information environment that helps us — rather than hinder us — from discerning truth from falsehood and making better decisions is a high leverage point, and one that is rarely pushed.

The fact that it is rarely pushed is a great piece of news, because this may be part of the reason why we are failing, and because we have something new to try.

It is also a great news because it is a leverage point that unites. Whether your topic of interest is climate change, poverty, racism, or another complex issue, whether you lean to the right- or to the left-wing, you likely do not like to be fooled. You likely want politicians to govern for your interests and those of your children. We may not agree today on what needs to be done for a better future, but we likely agree that the better we understand an issue, the better the decisions we will be able to make, and for that, we need a quality information environment (rather than the factory of ignorance we have now, which is at the source of why we do not get to agree in the first place).

Mobilizing to improve the information environment is a way to stop rowing in the pool of a cruise boat, and to start instead, finally, changing the cruise boat’s direction. Because that is what will ultimately determine our destination.

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The summary of the analysis results of why the political system resists environmental laws is available here.

This article is part of a series, available here.

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