The Problem of Citizens: E-Democracy for Actually Existing Democracy

December 07, 2016 by Daniel Kreiss

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This article argues that many contemporary e-democracy projects, particularly in the United States, have at their heart a model of atomistic, independent, rational, and general-interest citizens. As such, these projects, variously grouped under the labels of e-governance, online deliberation, open government, and civic technology, often assume a broad shared consensus about collective definitions of “public problems” that both does not exist and sidesteps debates over what these problems are and what potential solutions can and should be. Drawing on recent theories of political parties, social identity, and cultural cognition, this article argues that e-democracy efforts need to account for the fact that the citizens practitioners appeal to see themselves by default as members of social groups, and that this has implications for politics and what Jasanoff calls “civic epistemology.” Presenting the case of attempting to change Republican opinions about climate change, I argue that e-democracy initiatives should seek to foster collaboration and deliberation within, not between, parties and among partisans. To do so, e-democratic reformers need to explicitly structure the collaborative and deliberative environment so there is a range of intra-party opinions and beliefs as part of the consultative and policy-making process.