Atop Liquid Feedback’s mission statement sits a quote from Alexander Hamilton:“It has been observed by an honorable gentleman that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government.”
It’s true that, in practice, a pure democracy seems untenable. What the US, or America, political system is to give citizens the ability to vote for a local representative who will then represent their interests — indirect democracy.
Unfortunately, that representative is not only representing your interests, but also that of everyone else who lives in your region. Additionally, he’s representing his national party, not to mention any other groups (civil or business) who have lobbied for their own interests.
Besides, how do you tell this representative what you want him to do? You may vote for him for part a of his manifesto, even thought you disagree with part b. At that point your options become limited — you can lobby your representative, but he/she is not obliged to respond. To those seeking a pure democracy such a situation may be nobly-intentioned but ultimately inefficient and open to corruption.
Perhaps the “purest” democracy that immediately springs to mind is that Switzerland’s referendum system, where citizens of voting age can vote yay or nay on certain measures. It’s a direct democracy, sure, but it’s limited. The process for proposing a constitutional amendments is relatively convoluted, and in the end only a certain amount of proposals are actually voted on.
Liquid Feedback, an open source software envisioned and built by Andreas Nitsche, Jan Behrens, Axel Kistner and Björn Swierczek, part of the Public Software Group in Berlin, is an attempt to offer an intelligent system by which the average citizen can best make their wishes known to representatives. First built in 2009, by 2010 German political groups were beginning to put the software into practice.
The system is designed so that every stage of a decision process can be discussed, amended, and ultimately voted on by members.
Anyone in the group can propose an initiative. They publicize the initiative themselves, and positive amendments to the suggestion are also voted on, with voters allowed to express their different preferences and rank amendments. The entire process is performed in the open with little moderation.
Crucially, as few people have the time to read every single iniative, they can nominate someone who can, for whatever period of time necessary, vote for them. It’s supporters say that issues that could take months or years to reach the top of the party in a traditional system can gain momentum at a much quicker rate.
The Pirate Party
So far Liquid Feedback’s most notable use has been within the German Pirate Party. The party, which was formed to help promote civil liberties and Internet freedoms, had a breakthrough moment in September 2011, when it entered the German parliament.
Suddenly the party had to work out exactly what its non-core platform was. For example, what did it think about the war in Afghanistan? The party was split, and many commenters wondered if it could truly develop into a mainstream party.
Worse still, members were lashing out at each other on Twitter. “Insults in 140 characters are not transparency. You can’t resolve disputes over Twitter or Facebook, you only escalate them,” Sebastian Nerz, the Pirate Party’s national chairman told Der Spiegel at the time.
The party’s use of the platform has seen some surprising developments. Early this month Der Spiegel profiled Martin Haase, a 49-year-old linguistics professor who holds no formal role in the party, but is one of the most important online users with up to 167 voters giving him their votes. Hasse’s success is so important that he has challenged Nerz’s about legislation online.
In many ways the Pirate Party may seem to be the perfect test case for Liquid Feedback. It’s a party which has a major need to formulate a fuller, more cohesive manifesto.
Additionally, it’s members may be more inclined to use the platform. The interface of Liquid Feedback sometimes feels like Reddit, or the back-end of Wikipedia (Haase was himself a well-known user of the German version). Andrew Long at Carta argues that the system works because of the “gamiifcation” of the decision process:
A transparent regulatory framework that ensures on the one hand that the player is motivated to keep playing through regular feedback, and secondly, that in the end the result is established by objective criteria.
But these very strengths are what may make Liquid Feedback a hard sell for other users.
Into the wider world
Would the average voter spend time on Liquid Feedback? The bare bones design style could be the factor that turns appeals to Pirate Party members might be the factor that turns off, say, my aunt.
My aunt probably doesn’t want to turn on the computer and even delegate her vote to someone. She’s already in essence delegating her vote by voting for her local politician.
I asked Andreas Nitsche what the aims of Liquid Feedback were. “We hope it will be used by as many parties and organisations as possible,” Nitsche emailed me a response, “This could strengthen inner party democracy and make parties more attractive to citizens.”
Nitsche explained how some other groups are using the software, pointing to Slow Food Germany, a movement with 10,000 members, as well as the youth wings of the F.D.P. (liberals) in the state of Baden-Württemberg and some business groups and NGOs.
In 2010 Nitsche gave an informal meeting to Democratic Party in California. “Apparently they liked the idea but had doubts about how many members would actually want to participate in detail,” he concedes. “On the other hand: where if not in parties will you find people interested in political affairs and with liquid democracy you can participate in what you are interested in and (using a delegation) still make sure your vote counts for your wing in all other fields.”
When I asked if he foresaw a future for the software in America, Nitsche responded “Why not?”.
In keeping with it’s links to the Pirate Party, the Liquid Democracy software is open source (under a MIT licence). “We believe democracy needs trust,” Nitsche told me. “So everybody (with the necessary technical knowledge) should be able to inspect the code. We also want it to be available to everybody.”
It’s perhaps this openness that could eventually be Liquid Democracy’s greatest strength. Even if the first draft of the software might not cross over to the mainstream, the system is designed around collaboration and improvement.
And maybe, create something as easy to use for my aunt as e-mail or Facebook.
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