Twitter and the transformation (?) of democracy

My Comment piece about news of Twitter’s impending IPO.

One of the most striking aspects of the epoch-making Commons debate on Syria was the way many MPs cited the emailed opposition of their constituents to armed intervention as a reason for voting against the proposed action.

In the United States, members of Congress told much the same story. It’s impossible to know whether MPs and congressmen were using constituents’ hostility as a way of legitimising their own, private, views, but their protestations gave a dramatic new twist to an old conundrum: are parliamentarians representatives (legislators who make up their own minds) or mere delegates (people who vote as instructed by their constituents)?

Edmund Burke famously raised the question in a speech to the electors of Bristol on 3 November 1774. “Government and legislation,” he said, “are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?”

In Burke’s time, when Bristol was two days’ ride from London, the idea that constituents might determine the votes of their MP in Westminster in anything resembling real time was moot. So deliberative democracy was the only option available.

MPs’ recent rationalisations of their votes suggest that some of our politicians have embarked down a slippery slope. Technologies such as Twitter, which offer real-time tracking of public opinion, do make Burke’s nightmare realisable. Which means that a company that can regulate expressions of┬áthat opinion might be very powerful indeed. And that should make us nervous.