Referendum Party April 2020

I’d like to propose a new kind (form?) of political party, called a referendum party. Similar to the venture investors who always act as a multiplier for the board votes of founders, the purpose of the party would be to act as a multiplier and administrator of the wishes of their constituents. Instead of asking people to pick sides along a strange and outdated form of political spectrum, the administrator would just vote according to surveys that would run on their party website. The existing political power structure, with representative government (like board seats in a company) could remain the same, but in practice you’re always voting according to the website within a particular riding or geography, thereby accomplishing the same goal on a small scale.

The administrator, who in this case is the legal representative of the people, would do very little actual politics. Mostly wouldn’t have to show up to meetings or committees. The paperwork for each law would be uploaded online in PDF form. Most people wouldn’t really care to read it, but you could have a machine learning system that is trained to write human friendly summaries. If that was too difficult, you could just write them yourself. People would vote on the basis of the source or the summaries, and debate among themselves. Votes would be tallied and proxied.

The infrastructure for such a party is relatively simple. You need a website that enables PDF uploading, some content management for the voting and summaries, and a person willing to put their own biases to the side for the sake of accelerating the democratic process. Back when it was impossible for people to vote directly because of the sheer scale of the required voting apparatus, and representative government was created, we didn’t have websites. Now we do. You can imagine the amount of infrastructure this would save: no ego overhead for the rep, no need for term limits, parties, fundraising or other unusual byproducts of the system as defined.

It is possible if this experiment worked, a series of unusual things would occur. The first would be that there would no doubt be adoption among the other parties. People can call their parties whatever they like, but in practice, our current ones are incredibly conservative. They seem to want to run the country the same way it has been run for the last hundred and fifty years. In the world of software, we all know that is going to break down in a miserable way. What is not clear yet is what is going to emerge in its place. Having a referendum party sure beats having a DFL. Eventually the problem would become the overton window effect about who controls which policy gets proposed. There’s a solution for that too: give the people a way to propose things.

To start, you would want to run someone under this model in an existing political system for publicity. You would go on all the talk shows, radio programs, social media livestreams, influencer interviews and whatever other platforms you could, and talk about how you were not going to vote according to your own opinion but instead according to votes on your website. You would joke that you don’t have a political leaning, that you are simply there to sign things for the people. It’s unlikely you would win, unless you’re somehow able to run under a popular party. Some strategy would need to go into this to find somewhere that was politically engaged, unhappy, open minded and experiencing a perceived lack of agency. Sounds familiar…

The first milestone would actually be to put someone in office. At that point you would need to throw together a functioning website and start to upload policy to it. You would generally be seen as a political sideshow engaging in a well intentioned but naive publicity stunt. That is fine though, because disruption happens when the people with the most current power consider your position to be ignorable or not relevant. Shifting what relevant means would be the entire purpose. Similarly, people are so angry at politicians, you can channel that anger into action in a way that existing politicians can’t. It would not have that much legal or policy impact at first.

If successful, people might eventually see the experiment happening and start to adopt aspects of it in their own platform in order to win. All of a sudden, every challenger candidate has another strategy in their political playbook. They could change their values (tried and true), or pursue a strategy that involves reducing their agency over the voting they do in office and replacing it with a website. This obviously won’t appeal to the more paternalistic representatives, but it might to those that view holding the office and associated status above their own opinions.

You can imagine that eventually there are people entirely voting on behalf of what the website says, and others who are mostly voting according to those principles. That’s when it starts to get really interesting. The concept we have today where populists vote according to what polls say, feels like a really poor execution of this concept. Instead we could just accept that the rep wants the status and the voters want the agency and so the loop is being closed. People would have to accept a lot of today’s politicians want status and power. Those politicians would hopefully become less relevant or be forced to compete for fewer seats among the low agency voters.

Eventually, in theory, people would realize that most voting in parliament was happening online rather than in an old, wooden room. At that point we could move past the veneer of representative government, and replace it with a website. If software happened to other complex systems of history (stock exchange, trade sourcing, transferring money) it’s certainly possible when it comes to voting and democracy. Perhaps all the affordances and complexity that exists is in place for a reason, a sort of side show from the fact that we lack agency over ourselves. Or perhaps the people actually can handle the responsibility of setting policy. I’d argue it’s worth experimenting with, and taking it to its conclusion, regardless of outcome.

What can we do with this knowledge and intent? My thought is that initially, the easiest way to get started would be to propose it to existing people in office. Don’t sugar coat it, just tell them you think they would make better decisions if they surveyed their constituents before voting. The goal there would be to understand what the objections are of the existing members of government office. I’m not sure what you’ll hear, but I suspect you’ll learn a lot about what would be needed to actually implement. The second step would be applying more pressure by actually running in your local riding. I’m considering doing this when I have some down time, but I’m not sure how much work is actually involved when you’re reinventing everything from scratch. Presumably Facebook ads are much more effective than actually driving around meeting people, so you could probably let everyone know with a viral video and a decent budget. From there we can determine what might actually be involved to win and begin this good work.