Digital Democracy – Not a Myth but a Challenge

Dr. Angelika Brinkmann

On November 4th, 2008, more than 130 million voters turned out to vote, the most ever to vote in a presidential election. The 2008 election was the first in 56 years when neither an incumbent nor a vice president ran for office. It was the highest voter turnout in 40 years. On January 19, 2010 about twelve months after Barack Obama was elected president and Democratic margins in Congress widened, the Massachusetts special election saw a disenchanted electorate; the Massachusetts special election to find a replacement for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy ended with a victory of Republican Scott Brown receiving 51.% (1.168,107) over Democrat Martha Coakley with 47.1% (1.058.862). While the Obama campaign had been highly successful fostering citizen's interest, it had not been possible to sustain these efforts. This article discusses one possible option to do so. It touches briefly on the terms democracy and participation; it then presents arguments on the internet and democracy and introduces a new democracy tool, a software called liquidfeedback.

For many years, the decline in voting had been viewed as the primary problem eating away American democracy. Around 1900, 80% of Americans voted; between 1960 and 1988 the proportion of adults voting steadily dropped, until just one in two Americans were exercising their right to vote. In 1960, it was 63%, in 1988 50% and in the non-presidential election of 1986 38%. Americans who once crossed the oceans to fight for democracy now did not cross the street to exercise it. In the 1992 election, the vote was up again. In 2004, 122.3 million voted which had been the highest turnout then. For America, Europe, and the world at large to fulfill its democratic promise, citizens need to adhere to the twin principles of democracy: participation and mutuality.
In that special election Martha Coakley received 77% votes from democrats and 23% independents while Brown was supported by 71% of the independent voters. [] Brown won only by a small margin of 399 votes but he attracted independent voters by a wide margin. One major reason: more support for Massachusetts' near universal health care. The democratic candidate was seen as 'detached' from the people. "Lost touch with American people." People were angry and frustrated and there was a lot of absent voter dismay with 'politics-as-usual' but people still want change. The Massachusetts election was not about "The Kennedy seat" held by a Kennedy or close family associate since 1952 ; instead Scott Brown reminded voters that it is the "people's seat". He will complete Sen. Kennedy's term which ends in 2012. The lessons to be learned from that special election can influence policy deliberations candidate recruitment and political messaging.
How do we know when a democracy is in trouble? When a building or a bridge collapses, there's irrefutable evidence of failure. But a democracy? Surely one measure is the number of residents who consider it worthwhile to choose the representatives who govern their lives. If too many don't vote, however, will officials know what is in the broadest interest? Will some communities fail to be heard while others are heard to loudly?

Democracy - A brief General View

England, France, and the U.S. did find their own solutions to their problems and have fashioned political systems which are far more intricate than those of the polis (refers to the city-state in ancient Greece) and demand less complete absorption of the citizen in political processes. Even in its own right nonetheless, the Greek political achievement, beginning from a primitive way of life and thought, is an amazing illustration of the potentials of mankind.


Where the polis varied most markedly at the time was in its practical definition of "citizen", that is which parts in their practical definition of "citizen" of the population really held political power. Nowhere, naturally, did women, slaves, or resident aliens have a vote; but even if all males could attend the assembly there was a wide differentiation in the actual locus of authority. [The first U.S. Census signed by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791 lists the population for the 13 states and Southwest Territory. The Census gives state and county breakdowns. The state population is listed in five categories: free white males 16 years and upward, free white males under 16, free white females, all other persons and slaves.]
Athens had been unusual in its unification of a remarkably large area; just before the close of the sixth century b.c. its form of government was deliberately recast to make Athens a democracy, carried out primarily by Cleisthenes. Athens continued for at least the next two centuries to be the leading example of democracy in the Greek world with only minor changes being made in its political procedures.
The Athenians deeply cherished democracy, once established, but had little faith in the incorruptibility of individual citizens. Fundamental decisions were taken by the well-to-do in council and an occupancy of public office, often an assembly was present but only in an advisory capacity. The Greeks had evolved a system of government in which there could be citizens rather than passive auditors. Many rural residents were too distant and too busy to attend the assembly often, but its decisions were important; they could lead to war and possible death. Far more representative the Greek citizen was involved directly in the political process of his community. The achievement was essentially a response evolved over centuries to changing needs.

The most glowing portrayal of the spirit of the polis is given in Pericles' Funeral Oration, which celebrates patriotism and communal consensus; but it cannot be taken at face value. Pericles himself admitted that there were citizens unconcerned with public affairs and scorned them as failing in their fundamental duties; it is far from certain that all citizens passionately desired to participate in the government of Athens or considered their own merits suitably rewarded in a democracy. [For a detailed analysis: Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Transformations of Athens in the Fifth Century, in: Deborah Boedeker/Kurt A. Raaflaub, eds.: Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens, Harvard Univ. Press, 1998, p.15-41]

It has not been proven that people do not want to take the time to engage in direct democracy – they simply have not had enough chance yet. The question usually asked: Are average citizens really capable of governing themselves in a wise and conscientious manner? Furthermore, can the political system accommodate a high degree of citizen participation? In societies larger than the city-state, how much public involvement in government can be implemented before government becomes unworkable?
For many classical, normative theorists the answer was clear. Schumpeter, for example, pointed to the inevitability of representative democracy. Elites exist in every society, and their guidance in the affairs of state is desirable. Elites must be controlled, but this can be accomplished through representative government. For others, like Rousseau, the good society could be built only through participatory government. Participatory democracy is more than just a means of determining the general will. Participation also enhances the intellect, enables and ennobles the spirit, just as it nurtures a sense of community.
John Stuart Mill, who argued for participation within the context of representative democracy, noted that "a political act, to be done only once in a few years, and for which nothing in the daily habits of the citizen has prepared him, leave his intellect and his moral disposition very much as it found them." (Quoted in: Carole Pateman, Participatory Democracy Theories, Camb. Univ. Press, 1970, p.30) Mills warned: "Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it." [Mills, Consideration on Representative Government, p. 18]
Rousseau emphasized the link between public service and the vitality of the state. [Jean Jacques Rousseau, The social contract, book III-15]
For Mill and Rousseau, participation not only allowed people to learn more about government and political issues, but it was a means for raising people above their basest instincts.

The central issue is not whether participation is good or bad – democracy requires widespread participation in some form. It is instead a question about how to balance the desire to maximize participation and popular control with the need for stability and efficiency in government. [James A. Morone, The Democratic Wish: Popular Participation and the limits of American Government, 1990]
The issue of what level of participation is best is ultimately an argument about the fundamental nature of people engaged in politics. If we bring more people into the governmental process, what will these people want? If we give people more authority to decide questions of public policy, will they prove themselves worthy of that responsibility? In more direct words: is participatory democracy – redemption or a curse?
This article argues that it is of great benefit because


Participation nourishes democracy because it is an educative force: people learn to be good citizens through practice, i.e. learning by doing. The most passionate arguments for participation, however see it as teaching more than the responsibilities of citizenship. John Stuart Mill emphasized "the moral part of the instruction afforded by the participation of the private citizen". When an individual participates, he or she is forced to "weigh interests not his own; to be guided , in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the general good." [John Stuart Mill, Consideration on Representative Government, 1862, p. 79]

The experience of participating is crucial to the potential of change.

Democracy and the Internet
A farmer at the turn of the century saw that the horseless carriage could get him to market and back more quickly, but had no idea that the same vehicle would send an interstate highway through his pasture and change his life forever.
The basis of scientific computers for the internet includes the existence of computers and the use of machine code compilers – language/software programs – as a basis of communicating with them. Software does for computers what did the development of Information Theory in the late 1940s for the telecommunication networks. This theory emerged in part from Norbert Wiener's wartime work on predictive gun-sights (which had led to the idea of 'cybernetics'); and the formula developed in 1949 at Bell Labs by Stannon and Weaver for designing the most efficient telephone systems possible.
Media Guru Marshall McLuhan argued in the 1960s that media communication strongly determines social history. He envisioned large-scale social transformation far ahead of the curve which distinguished his contribution to our common vision. He was both of his time and ahead of his time. By now we live in a global village. He understood that modern visual media have brought the multiplicity of communities together in a way hereto-fore unimaginable. Now, a small town in Georgia is exposed to what is happening in Afghanistan in a matter of moments. Information is relayed from one place to another so fast that we can see how much alike we really are. The constraints of time and space have been amended so that all communities of the world are really involved in a simultaneous happening. Various cultures and customs are merely trappings that have been allowed to obscure our basic shared identity. McLuhan noted that the content of a new medium of communication is always imagined to be another older medium. Thus cinema at the outset was thought to be a vehicle for filming plays, and there were still "made-for-TV movies" and TV news magazines.

The notion that discourse must be fixed to be valid has faded. Fixity was to our eyes the only satisfactory guarantee of authenticity. There is scarcely an article we might not want to change, because we are a different person and changes often appear due to course of time. With the idea of fixity goes the idea of duration. Good words are thought to be works that last and remain unchanged. But why was there no desire for a sequel to Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', but one to Margret Mitchell's epic "Gone with the Wind"? If the world is constantly in flux, then surely the description of that world should have a way to change to reflect that changed world. Like the flux capacitor, the fictional device from the movie 'Back to the Future' that allows travel through time, the internet helped arrive at a flux democracy.

Is there a culturally determined addiction to realism? The internet is not recreating the experience of the theatre and concert hall. Change is accomplished steadily; there is a pattern of actual development which has led to the creation of various telecommunication technologies over the better part of the last two centuries. That pattern does not persist, it rather accelerates. There was a primacy of the social sphere, but also primacy of politics (Primat der Politik), in conditioning the technologists work. It can be seen how social /political forces both push and hinder these developments, forcing a social 'fit' upon them in the process. This fit is essentially achieved by suppressing the disruptive power of the technology to impact radically on pre-existing social formations.
The internet is also making public discourse more accessible. Significant numbers of politically inactive citizens have been recruited by the Obama campaign. Even though it is important to recruit citizens, it is not an easy task to keep them engaged. Does the internet present a "new and different type of exclusivity" ? [Matthew Hindman: The Myth of Digital Democracy] He goes on to argue that online speech follows "winners-take-all patterns" and that "openness" has fueled creation of new elites.[ibid] But openness is not the same as participation or accessibility. The internet is neither a democratic nor a non-democratic technology; it is a means of communication. Regulation and accessibility of its content can sometimes be conflicting with the perception of democracy, i.e. accessibility for all. Is the internet a democratic place? Not by itself, but the internet is broadening the public sphere.

True participation requires engaging in direct with other citizens. (Hindman,p.7) But not only, interaction and thereby actual participation are important. Campaigns, online political advocacy communities, blogs are also of relevance. There are lots of political activity, even activism but true impact has to go through parliament. Politics is about getting legislation through parliament – a legislative process.
Reform efforts to expand the public's role in the democratic process should not concentrate on voting alone. This would be unfortunate, for voting is to meager an act to rebuild citizenship. If substantially more people voted but did little else to try to influence government, it would be a rather hollow renewal of democracy. Voting is a solitary act that takes a few minutes to perform every few years. The ballot has fixed choices and can be completed with minimal reflection. By itself, voting does little to build a sense of community; it could be an act of anger rather then a positive statement of the direction government ought to take. Ideally, politics should look for options away from its adversarial norm, where interest groups square off in conflict and lobbyists speak for their constituents. Instead it is desirable for politics to become an educative device rather than an occasionally exercised civic obligation, i.e. no participation without motivation. The next chapter introduces one such possibility.

LiquidFeedback (LF) – A Democracy Tool
LiquidFeedback (LF) is an open source project, developed by the Public Software Group e.V., a group of Berlin IT Specialists. A German description and test version can be checked at:; Information in English are here []
Adhocracy and votorola are other software developments. The following descriptions refer exclusively to Liquidfeedback.
LF is above all meant as a support and advancement of inner party democracy; yet, it is not limited to parties but may also be applied at other big organizations like trade unions, attac, Greenpeace, and by associations. It is most important to firmly establish approval of LF in the by-laws as a fact finding tool. Each participant has to be centrally authorized.
At the moment, three different time intervals for processing motions are tested: 4-5 days for express motions; 1 month for standard motions and 6 months for long-term procedures. But it is up to every party/organization using this software to adept it to its needs/requirements accordingly. To demonstrate this flexibility a two step model will be presented here: express and 3 months regular/standard.


6th Day Voting Day

Freeze Period: Motions will be frozen, i.e. they cannot be revised anymore. But new motions can be brought in. 2nd Quorum: A 10% support is needed to participate in the final voting process.


Discussion day 5  45% 25% 25% 5%
Discussion day 4  45% 15% 30% 10%
Discussion day 3  40% 10% 45% 5%
Discussion day 2  35% 10% 35% 15%
  motion A motion B motionC¹ motionC²
New day 1 motion A      


Elementary chart model; subject to change

Model: express motion: How to decide on the tax CD matter?
Procedure term: 1 week
Support phase: Day 1:1. Quorum:/quota; minimum 10% of the special category have to be interested in the subject in order for it to reach the next level, which is discussion.
Voting phase: 5 days
Motion A: Pro acquisition of tax CD
Motion B: Opposed
Motion C¹: Legal verification and re-submission in 4 weeks
Motion C²: Legal verification and re-submission in 3 months
2. Quorum: At least 10% support votes needed to participate in the voting process.

Ideally all motions are supplemented by links and reference information to support the argument/issue.

Participants have registered for the topic financial issues. Additional participants only for the topic of 'taxes'. These topics carry numbers only, no names.

Initiative A submits motion A newly into the process. Initiative B submits opposing motion B.
Motion C² does not reach the voting phase.

Note: The issue of the tax CD (actually 3 of them) refers to an offer to three German state governments/German authorities. They list German clients with Swiss bank accounts. The CD's have been purchased for an undisclosed amount of Euros in order to investigate possible tax evasion.


Week 11 and 12: Voting phase; All participants are voting. Provisional/interim balances will not be announced. /to notify/give notice. Results will be published after the voting process has been completed. Disclosure of all voting data. Motion C has won.


Freeze period


Discussion Week 10 25% 29% 31% 25%
Discussion Week 8 35% 15% 25% 25%
Discussion Week 6 25%
18% 35% 32%
Discussion Week 4 22% 19% 39% D
Discussion Week 2 12% 27% C  
New Week 1 15% 25%    
  A B    


Elementary chart; subject to change


Model: Standard/Regular Procedure: Topic: Financial market reform

Procedure time: 3 months
Collector support phase: 1 week

Motion A: Pro lawsuits against rating agencies

Motion B: Preserve 'issuer pays' model

Motion C: Require issuers to pay into a pool of funds and have third-party oversight board randomly assign a rater

Motion D: Have groups of large investors pay for the ratings

Note: It is possible to modify or to add motions; e.g. to demand abolition/removal of rating agencies and have a rotating pool of boards/raters oversight only. Upon entering freeze phase new motions may be added, but existing motions cannot be modified anymore.

In this context discussion refers to amendments by other participants/supporters of a motion regarding other motions. Example: I support motion A if x is included. Example II: I only support/agree to this motion if y is removed. Every participant can bring in his own motion in case he/she feels very serious about the issue and the request is not met.

It is possible to use standard features in order to keep track of what is happening. Example: I want to see all new motions, but only modifications of topics of personal interest.


Model: Delegation

Delegation is a matter of trust. There are several possibilities/forms of delegation: global (I.e. to one person in all topics delegation or a general topic (like finances ) or a special topic (like taxes)





Mode 1

Mode 1: for subject x these participants have delegated their vote to Yoda. Therefore, Yoda has four votes, his own and three from other participants. All participants may decide to take back/retrieve their delegation and vote on their own, in that case Yoda has only one single vote.


Listed for topic y


Mode 2a

There are two delegations.



Listed for topic y



Mode 2b

Amidala and Han Solo have revoked/pulled back their delegation but Lucas delegates his vote to Amidala: Result: Obiwan is voting with only his vote, ditto for Han Solo. Amidala has two votes.


Mode 1-2b: elementary chart/display; subject to change

Why apply LF? People who make it into the establishment of politics or business work and play well with others. They are part of the same overlapping networks and inevitably begin to perceive the world in similar, conventional ways. They thrive in institutions where people are not rewarded for being provocative intellectuals. Members of the establishment herd are always the last to know when something unexpected happens. Centralized decision-making is often unimaginative decision-making and decentralized markets are often better at anticipating the future.
As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager/politician might read an initiative/e-mail and not realize that it addresses a political danger/life threatening situation. To put it differently: in order to get "the people's vote" regularly, a democracy tool such as LF is useful.

Summary – Close Encounters of a Democratic Kind
To quote Gov. Al Smith of New York:"All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy." [Alfred E. Smith was the first Catholic to run for the presidency in 1928; he was governor of New York from 1919-1920 and 1923-1928. He is also credited with stating that "the American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine."]
It is a widespread agreement that democracy in the U.S.A. Germany, Europe at large needs renewal. Too few people participate in the government process. Too few people seem to feel that they share responsibilitiy for making government work better. Too many people are content to rely on their elected officials to solve society's problems, even though they are dissatisfied with the results of those officials' actions. Arguments and debates about politics are activities central to a democracy. Understanding arguments according to a common frame of reference is not a straightforward task but demands much critical intelligence, skill and citizen participation in practice.
This article offers a basic introduction to a new, digital method/software of argument/political analysis derived from the work of the Public Software group. In 1993, the software Mosaic was a key factor transforming the internet into what we know today. LF offers another key presenting different access to the internet's various dimensions. With this method, an argument or debate is analyzed into sets of propositions structurally linked by specific kinds of relations. LF will be useful to both the layperson, i.e. the citizen and the academic,/politician, and it emphasizes its simplicity and day-to-day utility for understanding, criticizing and improving the arguments that shape our lives. This software has advantages over others since it helps identify implicit principles of argument (warrants), unsupported claims, circularities in reasoning, line of possible attack, and structural relations between sub-arguments. Anyone can use this software of argument elements and relations as a guide in analyzing political (or other) arguments for a variety of critical purposes.

Transforming institutions and consciousness requires rearrangement and recreations of structures. In an era when government seems even more remote and difficult to approach, it is not only neighborhood associations which have brought government to the people but digital communication as well. Democracy is not a leisure activity. LF offers the possibility to go from 'Apps' to 'Ops' (opportunity) in politics. It is not only online politics but openness, transparency and participation which will help keep people engaged.

May 2nd, 2010