Direct Democracy by Liquid Feedback

The Pirate Party is gaining momentum in Germany on a fluid platform informed by liquid feedback — a series of Internet exchanges filtered through a software algorithm to generate a fast, collaborative position.The burgeoning Pirate Party in Germany is giving democracy a younger, tech-savvy face as it taps into "liquid feedback," a fluid channel of Internet chat rooms and forums dedicated to policy discussions. 

It is already Germany's fourth largest political party, attracting young people who never before took an interest in politics. The party took nearly 8 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia last month, giving it representation in four of Germany's 16 state legislatures.

Pirate Party leaders told NPR liquid feedback affords it a non-traditional structure for communicating with and activating a grassroots clientele. They say liquid feedback, based on a software algorithm to generate speedy results, is a key tool to promote transparent and participatory decision-making.

Critics claim that Internet noodling may have virtue, but could be too cumbersome and slow to shape substantive, timely policies. They also say feedback loops could be torpedoed by online pranksters and provocateurs.

Leaders in other parties, perhaps looking over their political shoulders, deride liquid feedback as a gimmick and fad or, worse, a tool to steal someone else's ideas and ply them as their own. But Pirate Party leaders say other parties, including the Green Party, have had their day and now have become stale, at least in the eyes of many younger citizens who are newly engaged in politics.

The urge for direct democracy is not foreign in the United States. Vermont stages what it calls Town Meeting Day on the first Tuesday in March to enable Vermonters to elect local officials, vote on budgets and decide other important issues, such as whether to let pigs run free on town streets. It started in 1762 in Bennington, 15 years before Vermont was even created.

Direct democracy was not popular among the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who were interested in creating a republic. John Madison warned about the "mischiefs of faction." Alexander Hamilton conceded direct democracy would be ideal, but concluded perfection was beyond human grasp and tyranny would result.

It wasn't until the Progressive Era, a historical moment of great discontent not dissimilar from today, that citizens claimed the right of lawmaking through the power of initiatives, referenda and recalls of elected officials.

More recent stabs at direct democracy include efforts to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with direct election of the President of the United States. Some have called for more fundamental direct digital democracy or E-democracy, which leverages new technology for voting intended to yield faster, more collaborative decision-making.

Something akin to liquid feedback has been used by groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business to check the pulse of its members on issues before it undertakes any advocacy.

U.S. political parties and elected officials use new technology tools such as websites, Facebook and Twitter, but none have gone to the lengths of the German Pirate Party. One 29-year-old convert to the Pirate Party says he is using his software skills to create a mobile app to allow faster, more immediate online policy exchanges.

While Pirate Party members feel good about its inclusive approach to policy development, others are unnerved by its lack of any core conviction. As NPR's Eric Westervelt noted, "They don't have a plan to save the euro or draw down the war in Afghanistan, nor do they have clear policies on an array of issues." Not surprisingly, the Pirate Party is strongly in favor of Internet freedom and free knowledge.

Somewhere down the line, political engagement has to evolve into policy commitment. For now, the Pirates are enjoying their rising notoriety and popularity as they contemplate over pizza and computer keyboards running candidates next year on Germany's national stage.