Step 1: Better exchange of information between representatives and their constituents.
Most people consider democracy the political system where the citizens get to vote for their representatives in government, as opposed to a dictatorship or other circumstances where rule is determined by some means other than a vote. In America today, though the choices are usually pretty pitiful, most would say by the above definition that we live in a democracy. But it’s a passive democracy. In between votes, we citizens for the most part sit by and watch as our representatives do their thing. Occasionally, we e-mail or call our representatives and let them know our positions on issues, especially if some on-line campaign asks us to do so. Our duly-elected reps sometimes respond, but rarely do they actually solicit and act on their constituents’ wishes. Once installed in office, from city council to Congress, they enter a club that is more about their wishes than their constituents’.
In talking about this state of affairs with my friend Volker from Germany, he told me that the Pirate Party there has suggested that technology could be used to remedy the situation. There is no reason that constituents couldn’t use social media and other technologies to carry on a constant conversation with their representatives, and participate more fully between votes in their government.
Furthermore, since a representative’s business is public information, there’s no reason the Internet couldn’t be used to broadcast the rep’s schedule, and even transcripts of all his or her meetings and conversations, to the constituents who he or she supposedly represents.
It would quickly become evident that most communication that your representative has, especially at the federal level, is with people who represent interests outside your district. This is because our system has evolved to the point where the vast majority of citizens (the 99%?) are not involved in the daily doings of government.
Therefore, the first step to an infoactive democracy would be the free exchange of information between representatives at all levels of government and their constituents. Yes, this would involve more work on our part. But nothing like the daunting task that is was when our Constitution was born, over 200 years ago, and eons ago in terms of technological differences. If only a small fraction of our Facebook time was given to our civic duties as citizens, we would be well on our way to political bliss.
Step 2: Use a lottery to select our representatives, as we do with jury duty.
While voting for our leaders and representatives is a step forward from a monarchy or dictatorship, it really is a costly, wasteful, inefficient and not terribly effective means of running our society. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to allow unlimited funding of campaigns hasn’t made it any cheaper (or better). Or more fair. Let’s face it – the system that we employ to run our country doesn’t really work. It doesn’t represent even the wishes of the majority of us, but even if it did, the cost in time, money and angst would not be worth it. And you would still have the problem of a potentially huge minority whose wishes would be shunned.
What if we just selected our representatives by a lottery system similar to how we select jurists for trials? Imagine that one day, you get the call to serve. Like jury duty, you really can’t get out of it, but in this case you’d probably be paid a reasonable amount, and get a nice office somewhere in your district, where you’ll carry on the business of government with a minimal staff. No trudging to D.C. to hang out with the lobbyists and the other lucky sods who got elected. No reason to do so now that your constituents are actively participating in running the jurisdiction. Your role is more of a clerk, making sure your constituents’ wishes are effectively relayed to the rest of your peers in whatever level of government you’re in, and letting your constituents in on the feelings of other citizens, outside of your jurisdiction.
Cheap and fair, the lottery would revolutionize politics. By far the biggest downside to the lottery is the ensuing dullness that would come over politics. But maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe if we spent less time and money on elections, we’d have more of both to actually work on the issues facing us as a society on every level, and be able to get to the final step of our new infoactive democracy – consensus.
Step 3: Consensus instead of majority voting on issues.
OK, so we have active participation of the citizens of our great land, and random selection of our representatives. How do we then get things done? If we have the same old majority or even super-majority vote that we use today, even if it was by direct vote, it would still leave out a substantial percentage of the population from making decisions that effect everyone.
The answer is using consensus and quotas to allow for the overwhelming majority of citizens to agree on the answer to a particular issue. Often this would mean that legislation would be more focused, so that everyone can agree. To give just one example, in the recent health care debate, most people agree that giving more access to health care to more people is right, but they definitely don’t agree that an insurance mandate is the way to pay for it. People also differ widely in their support for some other measures of the plan. So, in order to get consensus, the legislation would be crafted in a more focused way, where access to health care is the main thrust of the bill. As people hash it out in coffeehouses, Internet cafes, on their iPhones, with e-mail and elsewhere, they would come to consensus on other provisions of the legislation.
Small steps that each have consensus. Pretty much the way nature works. See, it’s natural!