Open-source democracy is harder than it looks
Ben Mason has a critical take on the declining poll numbers of the Pirate Party in Guernica, focusing on the party’s embrace of crowdsourcing as a way to develop a political platform: A couple of radical principles is fine for a fringe group, but once they started winning seats, people began to ask the Pirates ...
A couple of radical principles is fine for a fringe group, but once they started winning seats, people began to ask the Pirates what they thought about, say the Euro-crisis, or energy policy, or pensions. The answer: nothing. Pirate policies cannot be imposed from above, they must be determined by consensus of members; so if the base has not come to an agreement on an issue, the leaders have no opinion. The party convention in December was supposed to solve this by setting policy, but it failed embarrassingly: since each of the two thousand members who came had equal right to speak, long lines formed behind the microphone and they got through only half of the weekend’s agenda. So to many questions the answer remained: “We have no policy on that.” For interviewers and the electorate, it didn’t take long for bemusement with the new approach to turn to frustration.
I encountered something similar recently in conversation with David Babbs, director of 38 Degrees, a British-based group similar to MoveOn.org. The group campaigns on causes their members care about: opposing an unpopular health bill or the sale of national forests, to give just two examples. But then I asked whether he supported changes to the British constitution. More referendums and initiatives? A more proportional voting system? The repeated refrain: “I don’t know, we haven’t asked our members.” The Pirates had a similar idea—that party officials would act purely as mouthpieces for the base.
But what might work for a lobbying group has turned out to be less suitable for officeholders. Once in parliament, you’re called to vote on any bill that comes up—declining to have a position doesn’t really work. Without a clear party platform, MPs either just decide for themselves, which is even less democratically mandated, or they don’t vote at all. Mr Babbs described his organisation to me as “a vehicle for a large community of people who want to knock at the door of the powerful and say ‘listen to us’.” But the organization can’t stretch to actually being the powerful. Nobody in contemporary Western politics has pushed the idea of direct democracy further than the Pirates: they use the internet to maintain constant dialogue with their base, all party meetings are streamed live online—but even with their vigorous efforts, crowdsourcing has not been able to fill the space left in representative democracy, there are always too many gaps.
I suspect that Pirate Parties maycontinue to be able to organize around their core issues of internet transparency and opposition to copyright laws even without a well defined broader platform, particularly in the wake of galvanizing events like Bradley Manning’s trial and the death of Aaron Swartz. But the problem Mason identifies seems like it certainly may be an obstacle to growth beyond a single-issue constituency.
Recent open-source democracy initiatives should provoke some skepticism about the approach. The White House’s "We The People" initiative, for instance, is touted as a way of "giving all Americans a way to engage their government on the issues that matter to them," but the site more typically makes news for petitions like building a Death Star or changing the national anthem to "Ignition (Remix)." On more serious topics, the format allows the White House to cherry-pick the issues it wants to respond to:
While a large segment of people want to talk about mandated vacation time in workplaces, for example, the White House would rather respond to a petition on immigration reform. While some people want to talk about doing a recount of the election, the White House would rather talk about an "open and innovative Internet."
Because of this disconnect, open government blog Gov 2.0 wrote in September 2011 that it had "a hard time seeing ‘We the People’ as anything more than gov 2.0 theater."
Another highly-touted recent political crowdsourcing initiative was last year’s approval by Icelandic voters of a new draft constitution, whose authors had solicited suggestions from Facebook. However, it’s not clear how many — if any — of the public’s suggestions were included in the draft and in any case the country’s parliament seems in no hurry to approve it.
The world has seen some relatively successful experiments with limited forms of direct democracy — Switzerland — and some not-so-successful ones — California. But if the internet and social media are really going to reinvent how citizens participate in democracy, nobody seems to have cracked the code yet.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating
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