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Text ‘aye,’ matey! The Pirate Party’s push for direct democracy

Leaders of a new movement say we now have the technology for government that is literally by the people. What could possibly go wrong?

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/ Globe Staff; Corbis

On Tuesday, voters in two Massachusetts districts will find Pirates on their ballots for the State House of Representatives. The candidates in question—Noelani Kamelamela, running in Somerville’s 27th Middlesex District, and Joseph Guertin, on the ballot in the 8th Worcester District—are the first Bay Staters to run for office under the banner of the international Pirate movement. You may be picturing swashbuckling marauders out for political booty, but in fact the Pirate candidates stand for a more realistic but still provocative set of principles—namely, open government, free information, and the elimination of patents.

Kamelamela and Guertin have no chance of making it to Beacon Hill this week, and they know it. But their candidacies are something more than a typical flash-in-the-pan third-party effort. The Pirate movement is a loose collection of national parties that, since the first version was launched in Sweden in 2006, have been tracked by political observers as the vanguard of a bold new idea about how democracies might work.

Beyond their specific positions, the Pirates—whose name pays homage to both seafaring raiders of yore and their modern file-sharing heirs—want to change the process of government itself. Their idea is that modern technology is now fast and connected enough to enable regular people to debate and actually decide on the issues that affect their lives.


Though their base is mostly tech enthusiasts, Pirates so far have managed to win regional races in Germany and the Czech Republic, and currently hold one seat in the European Parliament. Similar experiments have begun elsewhere, under different banners: Iceland crowdsourced a possible new constitution; in Italy, a fast-growing new national party chooses its candidates through online voting.

The appeal of direct citizen control of the government is obvious: It seems a logical, even noble, extension of the democratic ideal. For the first time, government “by the people” could be just that. But even at this early stage, the Pirates and their peers have run into friction. They clearly represent a threat to traditional parties, which depend on older forms of representative government and have large war chests to defend their turf. And critics have begun pointing out deeper challenges, especially given the vast size of modern polities. What we know about how social media works isn’t always encouraging. Big crowds of participants create the danger of mob thinking, and give people with ample leisure time the chance to hijack the deliberative process.


Members and supporters of Germany’s Pirate Party reacted to poll results in 2012. Carsten Koall/Getty Images/File/Getty Images

One would hope that by simply ratcheting up the number of viewpoints and brains involved, our politics might become smarter and more sensitive. But the arrival of the digital democrats and the halting progress of their experiments have begun to raise some vexing questions. Does greater access really result in better decisions? Is the opportunity for universal participation a guarantee of equality? The experience of direct democracy so far suggests that, when it comes to governing, there can sometimes be too many cooks in the kitchen. In a not-so-distant future in which everyone could be heard in real time, our real challenge may be less a matter of getting everyone plugged in than of learning how to not abuse our newfound mass power.

D irect democracy is an idea with a long pedigree. In ancient Athens, all free men participated in assemblies to decide the affairs of the polity, though the exclusion of women and slaves severely limited the system’s democratic reach. Some Swiss cantons have granted citizens full say in all local matters for centuries. The New England town meeting, in its most horizontal form, is a specimen of open government that has survived from the mid-1600s.

But no modern nation-state has ever operated this way. America’s Founders crafted a system of representative government because they thought responsible debate required a restricted number of participants. Since then, the notion of unmediated popular control has remained more powerful as an ideal than as a plausible way of doing business.

The Internet has, for the first time, made real-time mass participation a possibility. Bypassing obstacles like distance, cost, and police intervention, citizens on the Web can interact freely and collaborate on decisions; the success of projects like Wikipedia bear out some of this promise. Governments have taken heed, in a limited way: On his first day in office President Obama created the Open Government Initiative to solicit citizen feedback on matters of executive policy. Many cities have embraced programs like Boston’s StreetBump app, which allows citizen-users to record road conditions in real time.


But some see a much more radical potential in the Web’s open structure. What if, instead of supplementing our current political arrangements, the Internet gives us the chance to create an altogether new sort of democratic process? James O’Keefe, cofounder and “captain” of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, believes that digital tools will finally allow us to overcome the logistical challenges that made direct democracy incompatible with today’s massive countries. “It worked in ancient Athens for 200 or more years,” O’Keefe said. “So if it worked for them, it can work for us. There were of course limitations. But we’re past those limitations.”

The challenge, of course, is proving it.

One of the first attempts at such a proof began in Sweden in 2000. Educators and students in the Stockholm suburb of Vallentuna developed a computer program that would allow all interested citizens to comment and vote on local issues. Their efforts were successful: Two years later, a representative from their “Demoex” party was elected to the city council. The party had no platform. Instead, participants could vote on upcoming city council votes in open online polls, or delegate their votes to others. At council meetings, the Demoex member would simply register the final decision of the online community. The party ended up getting a handful of proposals developed and passed that way, and this year joined forces with an open technology campaign to expand the idea nationally. So far it hasn’t caught on: In September elections, the party garnered only 0.02 percent of the national vote.


A Jolly Roger flag on a toy pirate ship at a meeting of the German Pirate Party. Adam Berry/Getty Images/file 2013

Similar efforts are underway across Europe, where the effects of austerity and widespread mistrust of national and European leaders have led to an explosion in nontraditional parties. In Germany, the Pirates have used open online platforms to select candidates for electoral campaigns and to decide which matters to include in their national platform. In Italy, the populist Five-Star Movement launched by comedian Beppe Grillo, which secured a quarter of the national vote in 2013, uses similar tools to choose some party officers and to dictate the priorities of party members in office. In Australia, the Senator Online party has operated through the use of digital deliberation tools since 2007, and the People’s Administration party in Britain is running a 2015 election campaign whose central plank is granting citizens the absolute power to vote Parliament bills up or down, with the help of deliberative software.

Many of these parties embrace the concept of “liquid democracy,” a hybrid of representative and direct democracy which acknowledges that not everybody really needs to vote on everything. A liquid system allows all citizens to vote directly on any issue that they care about, but also to delegate votes on issues of lesser concern. This delegation is immediately revocable, creating a sort of back-and-forth, “liquid” movement between voters and delegates.

T hat concept has faced some technical hurdles, but has also hit other kinds of friction. Most obviously, Pirates and their peers are finding it difficult to win elections. The institutional, financial, and cultural barriers faced by new parties create a chicken-and-egg problem. To win seats, political upstarts need to reform the electoral system, but that kind of reform is all but impossible without winning seats.

And as the movement has gained momentum, it has drawn critics who point out that inherent human behaviors and biases are likely to make wise large-scale collective decision-making difficult—perhaps impossible—no matter the degree of technical sophistication.


These deeper limitations became clear in Iceland, when in the wake of a banking collapse and widespread dissatisfaction the Parliament began crowdsourcing a new constitution in 2010. It started with a randomly selected group of 950 citizens who crafted the governing principles of their new foundational document. A smaller number of delegates was called on to draft it, consulting with the populace through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and other methods.

Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale, has studied Iceland’s experiment and finds several lessons. First, open voting does not guarantee representativeness. Of the 25 delegates chosen to draft the new constitution, a large majority were from the capital Reykjavik, and none were from the working class—an example of how voters, in the aggregate, don’t always choose delegates that reflect the diversity of their community. Second, open access does not mean equal participation. Even when given the option, very few citizens offered comments on the draft constitutions, allowing those with the most interest or time to have a much greater say on what the final product looked like. Despite garnering two-thirds of a popular referendum in 2012, the project is currently in a sort of political purgatory: A Parliament controlled by the parties in power before the recession has refused to bring the new constitution up for a vote.

Landemore, who is currently helping the Finnish government design a system to crowdsource traffic legislation, says direct democracy is as vulnerable to corrupting influences as any other system. Loud voices dominate debates; race, class, and gender differences distort participation rates; fully empowered decision-making bodies make rash choices. “I think we are all going to have to develop more of a hybrid model,” Landemore said.

Others, too, worry that the Internet can amplify natural bad habits. Scholars including Cass Sunstein and Matthew Hindman have long warned that the Web is not an inherently equalizing forum. Moving discussions online can in exacerbate problems like polarization and the refusal to consult contrary evidence. Hollie Russon Gilman, who served as Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the Obama administration, says that her experience with online government reinforced the importance of face-to-face interaction. “Being exposed to diverse viewpoints is a core tenet for democracy,” wrote Gilman in an e-mail. “This is much easier done when you can see expressions and gauge tone more accurately.”

Though greater participation can create faster outcomes, those outcomes can also be worse as a result. Landemore, Sunstein, and Gilman all stress the importance of “slow politics”: institutional brakes and checks that make it hard for foolhardy decisions to be implemented without time for second-guessing. Three hundred fifty million people being polled in real time, à la “American Idol,” might be capable of some remarkably awful choices.

The Massachusetts Pirates, at least, are ready to play the long game. “Change is difficult. I think it’s incremental,” said Kamelamela, who’s running in Somerville. But she believes change is coming, and wants to make sure that everyone—not just those already in power—has a say.

The recent experiments in digital democracy have provided more data for us to analyze, but they haven’t—and probably never will—point to one clear solution. Because what we learn from the triumphs and failures of these political adventurers is that a social ideal is only as good as the design used to implement it—institutional design, software design, or otherwise.

The idea that regular people should have a say in how their lives are managed has served as a powerful motive for emancipatory struggles throughout the ages, and it enjoys near-universal acceptance in the West. Debates about whether direct democracy, liquid democracy, or republicanism is the ideal system will continue for as long as there are people to argue. But unless structures are in place to help us avoid the pitfalls of mass political participation, we’ll end up speaking past each other, our positions entrenched, unable to make good decisions as a group—a great deal, in fact, like the government we have elected today.

Joseph E. Hamilton is a student at Harvard Law School.