A group of software technologists in Buenos Aires, Argentina are playing on the edge of the future of democracy and it may have real implications for countries like the USA and Canada. The Net Party will run their first field of candidates for the legislature in the city and to run as a candidate for the party you must commit that you will vote, each and every time, based on the will of the people as expressed via the internet. Depending on your viewpoint this could be the beginning of mob rule or an emerging form of direct democracy that may invigorate if not supplant the current system. The city is a natural place for the idea to take root since it is one of the most connected cities in South America.
I met the founders of the Net Party while attending the World Justice Forum at The Hague in July on behalf of the East West Institute. East-West is a think and do tank based in New York that has been bringing people together to solve international security issues for over 30 years.The World Justice Forum is dedicated to strengthening the rule of law around the globe and is providing ratings for almost 100 countries around the world on key dimensions of rule of law.
The opening plenary session featured a distinguished panel including U.S. Supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy, but a young entrepreneur from Argentina named Santiago Siri stole the show. When he began talking about the Net Party and their simple idea of involving citizens in making direct decisions through their representatives, the crowd and panelists were mesmerized. At question time, almost every question was aimed at him.
Here is the basic idea. The Net Party or Partido de la Red will run candidates for the 64-member body (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buenos_Aires_City_Legislature) attempting to get enough votes to land a few seats (seats are won through proportional voting so no one candidate must win for the party to hold seats).
Once elected, they will consult with the people on each important issue both educating the electorate and getting their viewpoint. Any citizen can engage, not just those who are members of the party and regardless of who they voted for. That is, the Net Party will be responsible to represent the views of all the citizens.
Siri and fellow founder Pia Mancini are avid students of the history of democracy including the Federalist Papers of the founding fathers in America. They came to this work from two very different paths. Siri is a successful computer entrepreneur who desired to take his knowledge of software to the greater good and Mancini is a political science graduate who worked for traditional political candidates before concluding that the whole system needed to be rethought.
The idea was hatched a year ago at the World Economic Forum in some conversations with student leaders. With the Arab spring and other demonstrations of the power of connected citizens to change systems becoming evident, Siri and others began to ask "how can we hack the political system." The idea Siri says is not to overthrow the system but to "reform and update it." He told me "we want to bridge the gap between vote and click so people feel they have a real impact. The idea is also to increase transparency and find ways to engage citizens on an ongoing basis."
What does all of this have to do with the rule of law and international security? Well Siri says the Arab Spring, Egypt, the Occupy Wall Street movement, etc. show that the current system is creating levels of disengagement and alienation that can topple nations and create tremendous instability. Siri told me "the current system has a steam valve unable to hold all the pent up energy of the citizenry. This is a new valve!"
At question time, some of the older audience members basically said "cool idea" but "aren't you worried about the tyranny of the majority?" One man asked "do you think civil rights for example would ever have been extended in America with your system." Siri took the question seriously then responded "well we already have a tyranny of the minority, the few special interests and people feel left out." He went on to tell the questioner that the current system of "voting only every two or four years is antiquated in an age when the citizens can be tapped at any moment."
It all raises important questions: How might direct democracy of some kind change the conversation as well as the decisions? How might it create a more or less stable political system? The closest we have is the proposition system in California where citizens can get propositions on the ballot and then vote directly to make them law.
Some would say it has lead to some pretty bone-headed decisions but the prop system has also been occasionally able to overcome special interests to pass cutting edge environmental laws. And the Net Party is not a passive ballot system where citizens are manipulated by expensive ads from all sides, but rather an opportunity for something rare in modern democracy, a conversation between political leaders and the constituents (and between constituents) with the people holding the ultimate trump card.
What's more, the system they envision is truly non-partisan in that candidates will not run with traditional pledges to support certain issues. Their commitment is to a process of dialogue with the citizens. Siri and Mancini admit they don't know if voters are ready for a party that does not run on positions but rather an idea about democracy. Still, such an approach has hope for a system that can rise above partisan politics to create a working society.
The election is in October so I plan to keep track of the outcome and let you know how they fare. Regardless of the outcome, this is as Siri told me "the beginning of Democracy 2.0." Many of the more seasoned folks at the Forum told me that what Siri envisions will never work and they are probably right. As Siri himself told me "it may not work exactly the way we envision it but it has the potential to change the system." They are still perfecting the software and there are many challenges to ensure the hackers themselves don't get hacked.
One thing is for sure: it is about time we had some serious conversations about how democracy needs to evolve. For the first time in human history we can literally connect almost an entire society to dialogue and reach decisions. The crowd will connect regardless as they did in Egypt and other places these last several years.
This may not be THE answer but it surely will push us to new conversations. And it may turn out that the crowd is just as wise, or maybe even wiser, than the few smart ones wed to position and party. Besides, democracy and society will be better when people have to talk to each other and reach conclusions, which is what 30 years of brokering conversations have taught us at East-West. When people talk and listen, solutions emerge larger than anyone thought possible.
Go Net Part go, the world will be watching.
John Izzo, Ph.D. is a Distinguished Fellow at the East West Institute and the author of six books.