Let’s, for a moment, travel into the future. Destination: the Senate chamber, Washington, D.C., 2040. What do we see? A silent row of monitors displaying initiatives, votes, and decisions – think today’s stock exchanges but for politics. Senators are gone, individual voters discuss and decide laws directly via “democracy software” and their constitutionally guaranteed internet connection (Netflix-subscription not included).
Depending on your viewpoint this might sound utopian or dystopian but first real-world experiments with liquid democracy are already underway. The most prominent example is Germany’s Piratenpartei. Founded as an offshoot of Sweden’s Pirate Bay-inspired “Pirate Party”, this self-declared “party of the information society” won seats in four state parliaments over the past three years and is now looking to enter the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) in the upcoming federal elections. Die Piraten (as they are called in German) support a civil right of online privacy, reforms to copyright, direct democracy, and, a little bit more surprisingly, unconditional basic income for citizens.
But more interesting than this somewhat predictable list of open source causes is their approach to party organization. Most discussion happens on a Wiki and many (but not all) state associations of the Piratenpartei use Liquid Feedback, an open source software designed to facilitate a new form of political participation.
Here is how it works.
Each party member gets access to the software, one vote, and the right to propose initiatives to whatever topic they choose. If they can attract support from ten percent of registered users within a certain timeframe, the initiative moves into the discussion phase. There, it undergoes a lengthy, structured debate in which it can be amended, evaluated and opposed following rules designed to prevent trolling. After the discussion, the initiative (and possible counter initiatives) are frozen and a second poll is taken. All initiatives that still receive support of ten per cent of users get voted on. Voting system and vote count are specifically set up to avoid “backroom compromises” and enable users to vote with their conscience.
What makes this whole system “liquid” is the possibility of delegation. Every user can delegate their vote or indeed participation to somebody else, maybe an expert or somebody commanding respect. We do this every time we go to the polls and vote for a politician. The difference online is: you can do it much more often, faster, and for each topic.
It’s easy to see the advantages: everybody can participate as much or as little as they like in the decision process. The process is transparent and – due to predetermined discussion periods – time-efficient. In allowing vote delegation, decision power also flows naturally to those people who are more qualified to find solutions for the complex problems of highly specialized societies.
But democracy via software also has risks as Germany’s “traditional” parties have been quick to point out. The crucial principle of “one person, one vote” is hard to control on the web, particularly if you allow for pseudonymization as the Piratenpartei does. Even the software’s creators think that online votes without showing a person’s real identity and who voted for what are inherently unsafe. Critics also charge that this form of democracy might be a little bit too liquid: ongoing initiatives can alter the course of the party rapidly, leading to a lack of principles and general unpredictability.
So how did the pirates fare? Judging only by results, pretty well. Riding on the back of several controversial data collection measures and deep-seated German aversion to government intrusion to privacy, the Piratenpartei managed to win seats in several state parliaments. Germany’s political establishment
was shocked not only by the seemingly unstoppable rise of a new competitor but also by the rather unusual outfits some of their new colleagues sported in parliament. The new style of software-driven collaborative democracy proved so appealing that leading party representatives were applauded for admitting that they “did not have yet any opinion” on crucial matters like the Euro rescue.
The refreshing honesty turned out to be a good illustration for the party’s problems. The Piraten’s individualistic, decentralized, compromise-averse ethos derived from the fundamental structures of internet clashed with the demands of a modern democracy. Those demands include the ability to organize, party discipline and the ability to translate complex discussion to a human level. The jury is still out, but it seems like the young (and overwhelmingly male) users of “Liquid Feedback” have a hard time overcoming the decentralized structure of the software to form a coherent group consensus that is consistently presented to the public.
Indeed, the party had a hard time showing some kind of continuity. Several prominent representatives resigned abruptly, often citing the endless online discussions and sharp criticism from their own party members as a major reason. Other leading candidates announced in the middle of campaigns that their personal opinions no longer corresponded with those of their party. It also became clear that Die Piraten could just as easily as old school politicians turn into Die Primadonnas. Johannes Ponader, a former party chairman and self-described “society artist”, soon became known as the “Peinlich-Pirat” (embarrassing pirate) for his tendency to check his smart phone during talk shows and his admission of living on welfare because he would only take work “that made sense”.
In May, two years after it burst on the scene, just two per cent of voters still supported the party. Then an angel with the name of Edward Snowden appeared and presented a campaign theme on a platter. So it seemed. As of today, the party is still at two to four per cent in the polls. This time, Germany’s established party’s moved aggressively on the privacy issue. Ongoing internal battles paralyze the party, the participation in “Liquid Feedback” is low. For now it looks like the pirate’s ship is sinking.
Maybe their version of liquid democracy was always doomed to failure. Or maybe their bold attempt to combine our increasingly networked life with more direct political participation will one day be hailed as visionary. It’ll take a while to find out. In the meantime, keep checking the internet.