Tim Peterson, Associate Editor
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
At this point, it’s no longer news that California’s economy is in a bad way nor that the state legislature is unable to concoct a consensus budgetary solution. California’s $19.1 billion in the hole, and the state legislature is failing like BP to fill it. Participants in the California Budget Challenge don’t have that problem.
Created by Next 10, a nonprofit education organization, the California Budget Challenge is “a nonpartisan online game that lets you decide how much to spend on schools, prisons, the environment and other state programs – and how to pay for them.”
Since its creation in 2005, over 150,000 people have used the “California Budget Challenge.” The online game guides users through a series of decisions on issues ranging from education funding to taxes and more. The statistics and proposals featured reflect those currently in consideration by the state government. With each choice, a graph displays how those decisions impact the budget deficit 5 years into the future as well as arguments for and against each option. At the conclusion of each session, users have the opportunity to send their budget directly to legislators and let lawmakers know how they would like to see the state run.
I took the Challenge, voting in accordance with majority rule on each policy option. While many of the majority-selected measures would not be politically appetizing—reducing tax breaks and raising income taxes—collectively Challenge participants were able to devise a budget with a $21.0 billion surplus in 2014-15.
Online tools such as the California Budget Challenge are parts of an evolving democracy towards a more Jeffersonian democracy. As these tools increase in popularity, they will endanger demagogues beholden to donors by further enfranchising voters via more direct participation.
In a 2004 essay for The Nation, Micah L. Sifry defines this new democracy as “open-source politics”:
Applied to political organizing, open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.
But the political landscape must not entirely flatten, at least not yet. California is the closest example the U.S. has of what a direct democracy looks like: It’s ugly and often dominated by interest groups. No, open-source politics should not further complicate governance by expanding the bureaucracy to one that resembles a Parisian street at rush hour or making it vulnerable to malfeasant manipulation. Rather, open-source politics should, and can, improve the accuracy of the country’s current representative democracy.
With each subsequent generation of Americans growing more entrenched online, it is only a matter of time before the Internet plays a primary role in the function of democracy. The growing popularity of collaborative and crowd-sourcing tools further ensures this development.
Indeed, it’s a natural progression of Alexis de Tocqueville’s vision of democracy. Therefore, as John Stuart Mill writes in his review of Democracy in America, the discussion is “[n]ot to determine whether democracy shall come, but how to make the best of it when it does.”
Here are a few ideas:
Disclaimer: In order for many of these ideas to fully function, user authentication would be necessary. To that end, I propose the use of IP addresses to confirm eligibility for constituent-centered activities. For other participatory activities, more traditional verification methods could be used.
Constituent-only polls would leash members of Congress to their districts. For example, during the recent financial reform debates, representatives could have inserted polls on their official websites that asked constituents to approve or disapprove amendments. While not all constituents would participate in this process, these polls could provide empirical evidence of constituents’ opinions and serve to entice, if not enjoin, representatives to fulfill their obligation to serve on behalf of voters.
Online Town Halls
Last year, Google introduced Google Wave as an online collaboration tool. One of Google Wave’s strengths is its ability to host brainstorm meetings and create documents. In concert users can propose, edit and evaluate ideas. For example, a high school English department could use Google Wave to create unit plans for each grade level. One teacher could introduce a lesson plan and have others weigh in.
Applied to open-source politics, Google Wave could be used to conduct online town halls. Constituents could collaborate on a grocery list of issues of concern for their elected representatives to address. As each item is introduced, it can be prioritized communally so that politicians will have concrete insight into voters’ minds.
With YouCut, a wonk’s version of Facebook’s HOT or NOT app, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-SC) has embraced the idea of open-source politics. Championing the conservative call for spending cuts, each week the site proposes five federal programs with one to be voted to the figurative guillotine.
Currently, YouCut serves more as an empirical platform for members of Congress to rail against spending than a functioning arm of the people, as shown by a House vote in May against YouCut’s first winning cut, which would have eliminated “$2.5 billion in the Temporary Aid to Needy Families fund.”
This is just as well. YouCut is not an innocent tool of open-source politics. The determination of each week’s cut candidates is susceptible to partisan influence as are the voting results. The latter can be fixed by the aforementioned authentication process. To fix the former, a congressional aide from each side of the aisle (ideally from the majority and minority leaders’ offices) could collaborate on proposing candidates according to the congressional calendar and also affix a description and pro-con list. Regardless, YouCut is a positive step toward a more direct democracy.
In January 2011, President Obama will inform Congress of the results of this year’s census. Some states will gain House seats; some will lose. No matter the plus-minus, these states will have to redistrict accordingly. As it stands, governors have the final say on redistricting, i.e. a Democratic governor will favor the creation of Democrat-friendly districts and a Republican governor would favor Republican-friendly districts. To reduce the possibilities of gerrymandering, an online application could be created to enable citizens of a state to participate in the redistricting process. The app would showcase an interactive map of a citizens’ state with current districts outlined, and the citizen would then have to combine/split districts in accordance with census requirements. The app could then assimilate the results into a crowd-sourced map that state politicians would have to take into account.
When the Founders crafted the law of the land, they did so via a Constitutional Convention. Wikipedia-style legislation could function as a modern version of a constitutional convention. In an expansion of Google Wave governing, WikiLaw would not brainstorm constituent concerns but draft legislation in a communal fashion. Legislators could then survey the language and appraise it for active consideration.
Obviously these are not the only possible forms of a WikiDemocracy nor are they perfect, but they are ideas. Going forward, it is my hope to turn this page into a mini-WikiDemocracy. As I think further on this subject, I will amend new ideas and revisit old ones. I ask that anyone so inclined to submit their own ideas or revisions to mine in the comments section.