In the past three or four years, the Internet has become vastly important for politics. Bloggers like “Daily Kos” help determine how “the grass-roots” will respond to actions by Congress or the President. Move-On members send petitions on this and that, quite frequently. Listservs pass around messages to “Call your Congressperson;” specific candidates’ campaigns build support and receive contributions and obtain volunteers through vast numbers of e-mails they send out. And so on. Similar things happen at more local levels.
However, once elected, politicians rarely respond to all this online activity except by occasionally changing their votes. The public takes for granted that actual policies and actual compromises will be worked out, whether in public or behind the scenes, in Washington, DC, state capitals, county seats, or city halls. Politicians, usually elected on the basis of very local records, find themselves swamped with policy decisions involving myriad details about countless areas in which they do not know much. They turn to the “experts,” who are sometimes government workers, sometimes Congressional staffers, or, very often, paid lobbyists. Occasionally groups from think tanks or academia help formulate bills. But not the general public.
Opinions are spread on the Internet, but policy, so far, is not formulated. It does not have to be that way. In fact, if we are to have democracy, it can no longer remain that way.
Just as there is open-source software, we need, even more vitally, open-source policy. How would this work? Well, the details may have to await the development of special software, but the broad outlines are evident. Take an issue like getting out of Iraq. Should we? Should we not? The very question is being fought basically in sound bites. Even deeply concerned and interested members of the public have no forum to thrash out alternatives, much less to go into details as to how withdrawal might occur, what the possible outcomes might be, how to deal in advance with difficulties, how to move foreign policy on a new path. Too many of us are too willing to leave these questions to the “experts,” who for the most part have particular axes to grind, or are part of militarist mindset that gets no real challenge within the standard confines of the punditocracy.
Imagine a thousand — or twenty thousand — grand-jury like setups, except operating not in confinement but thorough Internet groups, gathering evidence, examining witnesses, looking at historic examples, trying to reason out what is new, dividing up the issues into sizes not too large for twenty or thirty people to master, trying to work out compromises between different viewpoints, trying to develop a consensus, that, like good software, is quite resilient to criticism since it will have taken into account many perspectives already.
Would this attempt just lead to the kind of gridlock we are so used to around important issues in Washington and elsewhere? I think not. Too much of that gridlock is caused by politicians always having to please not only their constituents but those who offer camping funds. That would not be a problem if, say, a million people got involved in devising a strategy to extricate us from Iraq, or if another million were where to come up with a sane policy on global warming, or another million on immigration, yet another million on health care, and so on. None of these people would have to worry about getting re-elected or (in the case of term limits) moving on to some other positioning the public eye. Once their solutions come before the wide public, and have any remaining rough edges smoothed, they should prove very strong and durable. Much better than a process of a few hundred representatives deciding so many issues for a nation of a third of a billion, more or less. It would be very hard for Congress or the President to evade the compelling policies so proposed, and so well backed.
Remember, the public took less time to change its mind on Iraq than the politicians did. That says something not about the individuals in Washington, but about the rottenness of the current political process itself. It does not work very well because politicians are always watching their backs, always to some degree for sale, always more interested in looking good than being good. That is what the current system practically assures.
Some new stars might arise in the process I propose, but they would be stars, first of all, to the well-informed (though all that work) groups who might become their fans. Thye would be good spokespeople for a worthy position.
As I said, I don’t know in detail yet how to put together a system that would make this feasible, but I think we need to move towards it, starting now. Will we get there? There are no guarantees, but what do we have to lose?