A new world view never completely changes or replaces the old one; therefore, innovative tools, both online and offline, are needed to accommodate and manage the conflict between them.
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (2001, 22) claim, ‘politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions’. One way of innovating in the political system is to rethink and rewire it using a combination of online tools and a new kind of political party. Such a party plays by the existing rules but radically changes the way in which it makes decisions in parliament by taking advantage of new tools to make decisions in collaboration with the citizens.
DemocracyOS and the Net Party (Partido de la Red) from Argentina are two examples of such a combination. DemocracyOS is an open-source voting and debating platform, whereby citizens can learn about, debate and vote on how they would like their representatives to vote on political issues. The Net Party ran for election in 2013 in Buenos Aires, having made a public commitment to always vote in Congress in line with the decisions of those citizens that have engaged with DemocracyOS. This effort is the largest open-source attempt to bring nineteenth-century institutions into the twenty-first century.
The Net Party has yet to win a seat in Congress, but its impressive first performance in 2013 (where it gained 1.2 % of the votes) (GCBA 2013) won it a seat at the table. The Congress of the City of Buenos Aires introduced a pilot of DemocracyOS in 2014, and a bill that had been dormant for years—one to improve working conditions for nurses in public hospitals—was introduced through the citizens’ use of DemocracyOS.
This idea is growing beyond Argentina and beyond political parties. DemocracyOS has been successfully used by a local non-governmental organisation in Tunisia to debate the constitution; by activist groups in Ukraine, Spain, Australia, Canada, France, Chile, India, Puerto Rico and Peru; by a grass-roots movement in San Francisco advocating for, among other things, affordable housing; and by a union for Uber drivers. Many other examples could be given.
Democracy cannot simply be a system that aggregates preferences one on top of the other. Healthy and robust public debate should again be one of democracy’s fundamental values. Citizen input as part of an ongoing decision-making process can produce innovations that an established political body would consider unthinkable. This is the nature of power. It is always conservative and risk averse: it wants to hold on to power.
Therefore, a space to persuade and be persuaded, to debate, to imagine and innovate, and to reach consensus, as well as to provide structured ways of channelling dissent, must be designed. It may be that not everyone is ready to vote on and discuss every issue. Therefore, it is proposed that this idea should incorporate liquid democracy, a highly dynamic institutional arrangement. In this space, if someone does not feel comfortable voting on a certain issue, he or she could delegate his or her vote to another citizen for that particular topic. The goal is to produce a dynamic and emerging social leadership, in which representation is not based on territory but on trust and knowledge. In this way, a new system of horizontal and strategic representation can be pursued.
Citizen control in this kind of representation system could be infinitely fine and dynamic. For example, someone could choose to hand over voting power on health-care issues to a well-known medical practitioner at a public hospital, retain votes on economic matters, delegate environmental decisions to a trusted non-governmental environmental organisation and delegate all other issues to his or her local political representative.
But technology by itself is not enough. Social change does not simply come from knowing the facts but from being organised and doing something with that information. Social change stems not from our ability to protest but to articulate and offer alternatives that challenge the existing institutions. Innovative political parties could become the nuts and bolts of this transition because political parties are the natural connectors in our current political system.
DemocracyOS and the Net Party are an attempt to kick-start a conversation about how to build democracies that are able to experiment and how to re-create this at different levels of government using flexible systems that can adapt more quickly and easily to change. They are part of an effort to widen the realm of possibilities to help create a deeper understanding of the present and build a path towards the future.