Taking the initiative

<![CDATA[Aldon Hynes posts on GreaterDemocracy about a recent email exchange, which I’ve been involved in, with Jock Gill. The question Jock posed is explained in the following:

We need to create an alternative to the ballot initiative.  That is, we need ongoing and dynamic participation in politics at many levels.  The every two or four year ballot initiative demand to be heard is a very blunt instrument.  And yet we want to avoid plebiscites.  This will require a powerful set of easy to use tools. A few possibilities – combinations of which might be greater than the sum of the parts:
1] MeetUp/MoveOn
2] Skype — or equivalent [P2P trumps SIP?]
3] Social Software ala Clark & Dean
4] Budget tools allowing citizens to “see” the effects of choices
5] Visualization tools [maps]?
6] Others?
It will need to be seen as a positive by all the citizens: the elected officials and the majority of the citizens they represent.  It must be better than the Ballot Initiative process it will hopefully replace.
So the sooner we start experimenting, the better.

The question isn’t how to create an alternative to the ballot initiative. Rather, how do you make the ballot initiative obsolete through an engaged and active citizenry that exercises ongoing influence that makes direct democracy more relevant than the representative system the initiative was designed to interdict when it is thought to be failing.
That means the tools for organizing, understanding compromises and making them, need to be available as widely as possible, designed for individuals to use to initiate movements, whether they are small or large. The mistake made when talking about political organization today is that we emphasize the national–this is understandable enough, since national changes are the most visible and easily covered. However, the empowerment of the individual begins with a pothole filled or a city council seat won, not the making of foreign policy.
The emphasis on the national has produced a campaign-centrism, rather than a voter-centric model of politics. We need to amplify the individual’s power to organize, so that organization can break out from many points on the political map, rather than from the top down. Everett Ehrlich’s recent article, “What will happen when a national political machine can fit on a laptop?”, is completely off the mark, as well as fallacious. A political machine cannot fit on a laptop, because it is made up of many people. Ehrlich’s question is like asking “What will happen when the Internet fits on a laptop?” You may have all the information in the world available to you locally, but the ability to organize and analyze that information, to put it into context, depends on all the other nodes in the network–no man is an island and no man in a democracy, no mattter how much data they have, can dictate what the rest of society shall do. A political machine exists in many pieces and, while it can be coordinated through a single point on a network, should not be thought to be friction-free, since it is encounters with friction that make politics possible. We meet, debate, compromise and act as a society, not in response to the commands typed into a keyboard. If it comes to that, we’ll no longer be living in a democracy.
Ehrlich’s assumption that Ronald Coase‘s economic insights make Howard Dean a third-party unto himself who will displace one of the major parties is remarkable because it assumes that out of all the complexity Coase says we can master through large-scale cooperation, only two parties can thrive and a third rise in response to them at intervals. This is like saying there is a market for only three computers in the world, as IBM’s Thomas Watson famously speculated. In fact, there is room in an information-rich society for thousand, or tens of thousands of parties. The power comes in knitting these myriad interest groups into coalitions by guiding their discovery of one another and the compromises that allow them to work together.
Information, in Ronald Coase’s formulation of economics of scale, is important, but it is not sufficient to enact world-shaking democratic change. It is sufficient for totalitarian change, as evidenced by the rise of revolutionary vanguards in Russia, Germany, China and Cambodia, but if we value our freedoms we should not be hoping too hard for the kind of frictionless transactions that powered the mythology of the Internet bubble, because a crash in this realm of social action will result in a collapse of representativeness and the rise of an elite.
Initiatives are one tool, elections another. What is the tool of the middle, that prevents a society from fracturing into warring camps that strive to govern unquestioned, to crush their competition rather than coexist with them? That tool is conversation enabled by information, which comes in three important flavors in a democracy:
1.) Participant data — who is speaking, who is affected and should speak and how does one reach them?
2.) Consequences — tools for analyzing the consequences of decisions, whether financial, social or macro-economic.
3.) Feedback — In a republic, we rely on representatives to act for us, in their best judgment. This divorces the voter from input with many representatives who, having been elected, do not feel it is important to listen to voters until the next election — they believe they have a free pass. Recall is destructive to the system in many cases since it voids previous votes in seemingly arbitrary ways (a whole belief system can be voided over a few major mistakes) so what do we do to enable feedback that is considered relevant by elected officials? That is as powerful as the lobbies conducted by special interests?
The most effective tool is ongoing engagement at each level of society: local; state; national, and; international. People need to be able to find one another, to redefine the geographical scope of their interests and engagements in order to find more opportunities for compromise and collective action. This will force many more people into situations where they can learn that compromise is not a failure but a lever for gaining support for other issues. We’ve forgotten the simple mathematics of society, in which one sacrifice is paid back through another, where we can give up our support of better roads in exchange for lower taxes, where we can see that the cost may be more axles replaced or accidents on the highways. It also lets us see that when we give up one priority for someone else’s issue, we can expect their support in the future–the very calculations that are condemned as base politics today, but which are eminently practical for the active and engaged citizen, who will recognize the same compromises in their work, their church or synagogue, their neighborhoods and families.
The problem is scale, but the factor that matters is not the transaction cost but the level of sophistication about compromise among citizens. We’ve reduced compromise to winning and losing, at the cost of a citizenry that is familiar with and confident about the process of compromise in society. A vast middle way opens when the people can see fit to give up ideological absolutes in favor of social harmony that increases the opportunity for future political, economic and social success.
So, Jock, what I would add to your list are the following:
1.) We need institutions dedicated to modeling complex social and political questions in ideologically neutral tools that can be used by citizens to make judgments about the questions of the day. Not just a budgetary tool, which is an excellent idea, but also macro- and micro-economic models for determining the long-term consequences of social investment and disinvestment.
2.) Myriad “local” groups in communication because of their shared interests. We need a system for finding others who are interested in the same issues and supporting the research and other work that will provide groups with meaningful information on which they can base their actions. This transcends the simple meetings facilitated by MeetUp and the mass mailings provided by MoveOn or one of its conservative counterparts.
3.) We need a political accounting system that tracks promises made and kept. It should not be a binding system, since there are other ways to deal with the making of promises and contracts, but we do need to be able to assess others’ ability to make and keep their promises. The XpertWeb project that Britt Blaser, Roland Tanglao and Flemming Funch, among others, worked on over the last year is one way to go about this. It’s an open source social accounting system; at least, that’s how I explain it.]]>

2 replies on “Taking the initiative”

Agree on placing budgeting and choice analysis near the top of this debate. It’s what I call “show the math” in that when citizens can statistically see the results of particular decisions, they are more apt to cut through the political clutter, support the right decisions, and hold their elected officials accountable. Modeling government policy decisions based on common and broad data sets with open, accountable opinion tracking on the data validity may hold promise in accelerating the efficiency and quality of policy making.
Along those lines we may need more standardization of source data used in these policy calculations. Using various models should be encouraged, but estimating policy results mathematically should not end up in a debate over the validity of the source data.
As an example consider clean air and car emissions or diesel soot policies. While there are extremes in the data on the impact of reducing emissions, and in the mathematical models of climate change, some standardization of source data would allow the discussion to center on an “impact range” and not on the granular details of the models. The resulting decision analysis could therefore be simplified, consequently improving policy making.

Interactive democracy
Mitch Ratcliff: “The question isn’t how to create an alternative to the ballot initiative. Rather, how do you make the ballot initiative obsolete through an engaged and active citizenry that exercises ongoing influence that makes direct democracy more …