To Solve Democracy’s Problems, Look to Natural Resource Management

Public attention to politics is a common good.

For many people, politics is exhausting. For others, it is enraging. Public opinion is gradually coalescing into these two camps, like iron filings around a magnet. Around one-third of Americans are relatively alienated from politics and have little interest in it, while about one-quarter are hyperattentive to politics but also hyperpartisan

This division has become a significant threat to national security. Members of the disaffected group are increasingly skeptical of mainstream politics and prefer politicians with a broader anti-elite, anti-establishment message. In other words, they are a natural audience for populists who promise to tear down democratic institutions. Meanwhile, those same democratic institutions are also threatened from within. Partisan polarization among the hyperattentive group creates gridlock that eats away at their ability to function. These twin challenges of populism and polarization are attacking the immune system of democracy. They weaken its ability to fight off any other threats. Democracies are surrounded by dangers—climate change, new technological innovations, global conflicts—but without functional political systems, governments are frozen in place even as these problems worsen around them.

So how can democracies address populism and polarization? In recent work, I have argued that a possible solution emerges from a surprising place: the study of natural resources. There might initially seem to be little overlap between natural resources and democratic government. But democracy relies on attention, and attention is a resource—often a finite one. When politicians dig too greedily and too deep into this resource, it unleashes waves of both anti-establishment populism and partisan polarization. When confronted with the problem of overusing a resource, there are few better examples to learn from than the study of natural resources. In 2007, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, because of her work showing how resource overuse problems could be solved. Her central finding was of the importance of “stakeholder involvement”: The actors who are causing the problem are also the actors best placed to fix it. The politicians who have been asking for our attention are the ones who got us into this; they are the ones who can get us out. 

This research began with the idea that many natural resources, such as clean air, productive soil, and drinkable water, can be defined as “common goods.” All common goods, also known as “common pool resources,” have two features, which together make them particularly vulnerable to overuse: First, using the resource will deplete it, and second, that usage of the resource is difficult to restrict. The first criterion, sometimes called “rivalry,” differentiates common goods from other resources that are not depleted when used. For example, a solar panel in State A can absorb sunshine without leaving “less sunshine” for the solar panels of State B. But other resources, like fish in a river, are depleted when they are taken and used. The second feature, the difficulty of preventing use, is sometimes called “non-excludability” or “open-access.” For example, it is easier to build a fence protecting the water in a household well than to build a fence protecting the water in the Great Lakes. Common goods are therefore easy for a lot of people to use, because they are open-access, but when used by a lot of people they can be exhausted, because they are rivals. The resulting tendency for these resources to run out is known as the “tragedy of the commons.”

Public attention to politics is a common good.

Every political actor wants our attention. They need it to get donations, to get votes, and to win. But there isn’t enough attention to go around. Just as fish in a river can be overfished to the point of population collapse, so too can our limited attention be over-extracted. When people are overwhelmed by too many messages and too much sensationalism, their attention collapses, and the result is a rising tide of alienation and anger. Access to social media has only hastened this collapse. Before, political actors were fishing for attention with lures and lines. Now, they can use dynamite. The result of this competition for attention is that the public sphere becomes not a forum for deliberation, but a brutal arena for sensationalism.

This creates two negative consequences. The first is increasing apathy. If getting involved in politics means being exposed to a never-ending firehose of doom, then a lot of people just won’t do it. They will become disaffected, skeptical, and jaded, like shepherds listening to the boy who cried wolf. The second consequence is increasing polarization. For those who do remain engaged with politics, the more sensationalist content they consume, the higher dosage they want. Democracy does not die in darkness; it dies in the eerie glow of our phone screens.

By studying natural resources, we can learn how to reverse these trends.

Elinor Ostrom’s pathbreaking work showed how the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. In diverse settings all around the world, people have escaped from this tragedy. Significantly, all of their solutions tended to take the same shape. They began to self-govern the resource using institutions that followed the same eight principles:

  1. Boundaries. Create a defined community of users. There should be a clear rule about who can access the resource and who cannot.

  2. Specificity. Not all common goods are the same, so any rules should be designed specifically for a given resource.

  3. Participation. Everyone in the community of users should be involved in creating any rules that will affect them.

  4. Mutual monitoring. Rules should be enforced by the community of users themselves.

  5. Graduated sanctions. Create escalating punishments for those who break the rules. Kicking people out immediately for a single violation will defeat the goal of broad participation.

  6. Conflict resolution. There should be a straightforward way of resolving disputes, so that users do not ignore problems or feel that they have no recourse or appeal.

  7. External legitimacy. The rules that govern the common good should be recognized as legitimate by wider society.

  8. Nesting. For large-scale common goods, rules should be nested within larger networks, so that the resulting cooperation is large-scale too.

Each of these principles is important, but the underlying philosophy is perhaps best summed up by the idea of “stakeholder involvement.” All eight principles are built on the idea that the best solutions will come from the community of users themselves. They are the ones overusing the resource. They must all be involved in negotiations about how to share it.

In the context of our attention to politics, this means that political actors must negotiate with each other to find ways to preserve our attention. This is a crucial insight of the Ostrom approach. Instead of focusing on regulatory solutions or technological solutions, this approach suggests that no solution can be prescribed in advance. The users of the resource must design their own self-governance solution. Like combatants entering a peace process, political actors must negotiate a cease-fire in the content wars. According to Ostrom, even the most sensationalist political actors, who may seem like a big part of the problem, must be a big part of the solution.

This may seem unrealistic. Why would competing political actors tie their own hands, especially if their current tactics are leading them to victory? It is difficult to imagine high-profile presidential candidates suddenly holding their fire in the midst of a tight campaign. Activists, civil society, and academics would need to build momentum. But there are at least three reasons to believe Ostrom’s approach can work. 

First, it already happens in small ways. There is already a place to build from. Many states already have default “clean campaign” pledges that candidates can sign. These could be expanded. They could even include a mandate for candidates to negotiate non-sensationalism pacts with each other. Politicians are already forced to say “I endorse this message” in their ads. The same rule could be expanded to include their social media posts. Or if such posts exceed some threshold of sensationalism, they could have responses from other candidates automatically pinned as their top comment. To implement this might require “sensationalism-checkers” alongside the “fact-checkers,” but it would be up to the candidates to decide what this would or should look like. This would help meet Ostrom’s fourth and fifth criteria, of mutual monitoring and graduated sanctions. The key point is that implementing these ideas does not mean starting from scratch.

Second, it need not happen at scale immediately. Local groups that already sponsor municipal election debates could invite candidates to negotiate new debate rules based on Ostrom’s principles. This might be easier in primary elections, where all candidates have more of an incentive to cooperate. Negotiations also need not be limited to politicians and candidates for office. Charities and interest groups are also relevant political actors. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club may all find it worthwhile not to overuse the attention of their joint supporters. Starting small is thoroughly in keeping with Ostrom’s approach.

Third, this approach avoids some of the obstacles that have stymied similar reform efforts. Legislative approaches to reducing sensationalism have run afoul of free speech protections, despite compelling arguments in favor of regulatory changes. Self-regulation of social media platforms has struggled to guarantee public input and has been criticized by politicians who feel they are treated unfairly. An Ostrom-style approach to stakeholder negotiations may place less of a burden on the courts or on Silicon Valley. However, it does require more buy-in from political actors. This poses problems of its own. But they are not insurmountable. The core incentive for political actors to negotiate down their sensationalism is that there is always someone more sensational than you, ready to take your audience. But this requires a longer time-horizon than some political actors have. Additional incentives might be necessary, either through the carrot of providing good actors with subsidized attention or through the stick of graduated sanctions. Even though it may take time to build momentum behind participation, relying on the participation of political actors has another important benefit. It reduces the possibility that the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction. Making politics too boring would simply bring different problems, but this is unlikely if negotiations are driven by political actors themselves. 

Finally, Ostrom’s approach also has implications outside of politics. It can also affect how we all behave on our own social media, to preserve the joint attention of our mutual followers. The dynamics described above will be familiar to any user of social media who has felt the need to compete for attention. This competition can pull everyone down to the lowest common denominator, escalating sensationalism on the platform, and eventually making the platform an unpleasant place to be. The result is that people either leave entirely or become hyper-posters. Ostrom’s approach applies to this problem of social attention as well as to political attention. A group of mutual followers who can agree to refrain from posting “STOP SCROLLING AND READ THIS,” or similar messages, will be better able to preserve their joint attention to each other.

The work of Ostrom gives political actors a road map. They can build on existing rules; they can work on a small scale, perhaps with their allies; and they can do so without relying entirely on courts or media companies. They also have incentives to follow this road map, because if they do not, the escalating competition threatens to further degrade the resource they rely on. However, it is important to recognize that populism and polarization are broad global phenomena. Academics disagree about their definitions, their causes, and their consequences. No single theory can explain everything about them, and no silver bullet exists to deal with them. Instead, perhaps what is needed is a strategy of a thousand lifeboats. Ostrom’s theory shows how such lifeboats can be built. By seeing the overuse of attention as central to the current problems of democracy, we can start to see how these problems could be solved.

– Ben Farrer is a visiting professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His research focuses on how new technologies can disrupt democracy, and how activists can take advantage of this disruption. – Published courtesy of Lawfare

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

©2024. Homeland Security Review. Use Our Intel. All Rights Reserved. Washington, D.C.