At a time when representative democracy is increasingly revealed as ineffectual, phony or both – a kabuki theater of empty formalisms that disguise the offstage conspiracies of corporate/state elites – many people look to the Internet for salvation. After all, the Internet is far more open, participatory and meritocratic than the closed, corporate-dominated process of our formal democracy.
But even with these capacities, the Internet is not a solution because in the end the Internet is only a hosting platform. A basic question must be answered: How should a more serious deliberative democracy be structured in online spaces?
Let the record show that the insurgent Pirate Party in Germany has made some significant progress on this problem. Its new open source software platform, LiquidFeedback, is credited with helping the Pirates host more open, participatory and serious internal debates about party policies -- and to organize themselves to take action in conventional political arenas.
The makers of Liquid Feedback characterize their platform in a mission statement as “a bridge between direct and representative democracy.” They believe the software “has the potential to empower the ordinary members of mainstream political parties, making these parties more attractive to citizens and democracy stronger.” The software, released in version 2.0 in March 2012, is currently used by several associations and political parties.
It is too early to know if LiquidFeedback is a breakthrough or not, but it clearly shows the potential for re-imagining more open, legitimate and responsive forms of governance. A recent piece in the New York Times explained how LiquidFeedback enables the Pirates “to create a continuous, real-time political forum in which every member has equal input on party decisions, 24 hours a day. It’s more than just a gimmicky Web forum, though: complex algorithms track member input and generate instantaneous collective decisions.” Thanks to the software, some 1,300 Pirate Party members were able to mobilize themselves to travel to the German city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.
Liquid Feedback is not just another web forum platform. As Andreas Nitsche explains on the website for the software (developed by Public Software Group of Berlin):
LiquidFeedback is an online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision. Discussing an issue before voting increases the awareness of pros and cons, chances and risks, and allows people to consider and suggest alternatives.
It combines concepts of a non-moderated, self-organized discussion process (quantified, constructive feedback) and liquid democracy (delegated or proxy voting). Following the idea of interactive democracy, LiquidFeedback introduces a new communication channel between voters and representatives (in this case, members and board members), delivers reliable results about what the members want and can be used for information, suggestion, or directive depending on the organizational needs and the national legislation.
Because of this system, the concentrated power of boards of directors can be minimized and made more directly accountable to large memberships. This, in turn, is makes for more substantive dialogue about what members want. It avoids the familiar pattern of leaders trying to temper members' demands for change and urging them to be “politically realistic.”
LiquidFeedback would appear to invert this dynamic by empowering the members of a party or organization to make their “leaders” more directly accountable to them. Instead of elected leaders and boards neutralizing dissent and co-opting power threats, members can collectively determine how they really feel about issue x or y, and demand that the organization publicly advocate those positions.
This is exactly why the Pirate Party is so refreshing: it is willing to entertain new forms of direct participation and aggressive leadershp while avoiding demoralizing slides into the mushy middle. It adopted LiquidFeedback because it “wanted to perpetuate the chances for each and every party member to participate in both the development of ideas and decisions.”
The idea is that leadership must be kept accountable in practice. Members should not just be passive donors. As the LiquidFeedback website explains:
Although we want everybody to be able to participate in the development of ideas, we believe at the first instance many drafts will be created by small groups or even individuals. This is no problem providing
- everybody can find out about the initiative
- everybody can contribute by making suggestions
- everybody can create an alternative initiative
- everybody can vote in the end.
Every member may start an initiative. During the discussion period the initiators advertise their proposals and get feedback about the degree of support within the organization…. This system allows all members to participate not only in voting but also in developing ideas and at the same time it is helping board members to understand what the majority really want, to make right and responsible decisions based on the “popular vote.”
….The basic idea: a voter can delegate his vote to a trustee (technically a transitive proxy). The vote can be further delegated to the proxy’s proxy thus building a network of trust. All delegations can be done, altered and revoked by topic. I myself vote in environmental questions, Anne represents me in foreign affairs, Mike represents me in all other areas but I can change my mind at any time.
Anyone can select his own way ranging from pure democracy on the one hand to representative democracy on the other. Basically one participates in what one is interested in, but for all other areas gives their vote to somebody acting in their interest. Obviously one may make a bad choice once in a while but they can change their mind at any time.
One reason that representative democracy took hold in the 18th Century was that it was arguably the only practical form of democracy. “Pure” democracy – direct participation by citizens in actual decisionmaking – was simply not feasible, and many considered it the equivalent of mob rule.
But the problem with representative democracy is that public opinion can only be expressed crudely. Citizens vote every few years – and then a single legislator is said to “represent” you and tens of thousands of other citizens for a fixed term. But if circumstances change, if you change your mind or if you don’t like all elements of a candidate’s bundle of political views, you’re out of luck. Your opinion can be safely ignored by those in power. Politicians come to mold and manipulate public opinion, with help from corporate money ("manufacturing consent, in Chomsky's terms), rather than public opinion having sovereignty over politicians.
No wonder there is such alienation from conventional politics! We’re relying upon political structures invented in the 1700s when mail was delivered by horses, and public opinion had few vehicles to manifest itself, let alone do so rapidly and with granularity. Now, we have myriad forms of instantaneous private and public communication, many accessible repositories of serious expertise, and many supple systems for forging and mobilizing public opinion – yet our government system remains resolutely stuck in a 18th Century frame of reference. Constitutionalists may try to ignore this egregious mismatch, citing the sanctity of history and patriotic tradition, but the Internet generation, and the Pirate Party in particular, may have the last word. LiquidFeedback may be the "first word" in this longer debate.
The LiquidFeedback mission statement concludes, “All the experience we have gained over the past months shows people participate if they think it makes sense and representatives at least acknowledge the will of the participants rather than arguing with silent majorities.” It concludes with a ringing line from Thomas Jefferson: … every man is a sharer… and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”
Devise a process of governance that is open, fair, trustworthy and participatory: that may be the best prescription for reinvigorating democracy. It will be fascinating to watch the future evolution of LiquidFeedback and the Pirates. For more, here’s an article that appeared in Der Spiegel.