Community forum: Tech can help end two-party era

This week’s writer is Liam Madden. The Bellows Falls resident is a Marine Corps veteran who became the leader of the America’s largest antiwar organization of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and who won M.I.T.’s “Solve” award for organizations innovating solutions to climate change. 

Most of us do not need to be convinced that the two party system is incapable of solving our challenges. The mutual disgust with how ineffective and corrupt this system is happens to be one of the few remaining areas of agreement between the left and right. (This is an important and inspiring fact I’ll connect to our solutions later.) It calls up the saying, “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results.”

The most obvious reason for our dissatisfaction, the reason two thirds of us believe the system is broken, is that our major problems continue to fester: Declining health and rising healthcare costs, lack of affordable housing, accelerating inequality, an economy based on never-ending growth and accelerating resource depletion; never mind the truly dangerous threats like ecological devastation leading to mass refugee crises, or technologies like artificial intelligence or mass scale weapons in the wrong hands.

Another reason I think most of us are fed up is that we see which topics the two parties always manage to agree on. Perhaps what is an even better definition of insanity is the list of oft-unspoken agreements between the two parties, things like: Keeping the war machine well fed, keeping billionaires appeased, giving special treatment to special interests, and — especially — making sure nobody threatens the death grip the two parties — and their owners — have on our governmental power.

There is a path out. I will get there, but give me one more moment to remind us why it is so important that we liberate ourselves from this stranglehold on our republic, our democracy, whatever you want to call it.

First of all, the two parties don’t represent us. Most of us have significant disagreements with the party platforms of the major party we happen to align with more, and therefore vote for slightly more often. Yet those important disagreements get lost, and nuance, and the superior problem-solving possible when nuance lives, is forgone.

And … the two party system drives us apart. For example, President Trump did not represent most Republicans. In most primaries, he won less than 40% of the vote of Republican “primary” voters (a total of 4% of the population made Trump the Republican Evil in our lesser of two evils contest). Yet, he became their only option in the general election, which accelerated the process of polarization even though most Republicans didn’t really prefer his political platform. This is a natural consequence of the two party system, it drives us toward extremes — making good problem-solving nearly impossible.

Lastly, the dangers of a two party system were foreseen by the political architects of our country. George Washington said, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … is itself a frightful despotism.” John Adams agreed, adding “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”

So, it sucks. We know it sucks. They told us it would suck. But what do we do? The two parties have the power and they crush those who oppose them.

First, let’s go over what doesn’t work. What every politician will say is, “Yeah, we face big problems, yeah, the system is broken, but just vote for my side.” What’s implied here is, this is a war, not a cooperative endeavor, and let’s just dominate those who disagree with us. Help us do that, they ask. But our experience teaches us that helping one side win doesn’t work, even if we felt right about dominating the minority into irrelevance.

Then there’s the other thing we know doesn’t work, which is the naive nonsense of the two party moderate, “Vote for me, I’m in the middle and I’ll bring the sides together.” These folks might think they are so charismatic or so diplomatic that their efforts are sufficient to hold together the parting continents of a system structurally designed to polarize our politics. They are naive if that is what they think will solve this situation. So we are naive to believe them.

So what will work? First of all, the founders of our governmental structure built the foundation of this system when information traveled at the speed of horseback. It now travels at the speed of light. Maybe, just maybe, upgrading our governmental design to responsibly accommodate technology is part of the answer here.

But how can technology help improve our government? Well I’m glad I asked, so that I can go ahead and answer right now: I call this concept an Online Democracy Forum. I can explain it pretty well in three steps.

1. Use technology to gather input from the public in near real time — not every 2-4 years, when we get to choose between the lesser of two evils. Use technology to formally allow the public to inform and decide upon policy much more frequently than current election cycles. If American Idol gets feedback the night of their show to decide who wins, we can figure out how to get ideas to make our lives better to the government faster than every 2 years.

2. Create a simple to use, yet technically sophisticated online national “Democracy Forum” (with appropriate safeguards to prevent corruption and fraud) whereby the public can submit and amend proposals for policy solutions. Policy measures that reach a certain high threshold of public support, particularly support across the ideological spectrum, are automatically put to the legislators to take meaningful action upon. If support is great enough, policy can bypass politicians altogether.

Steps 1 and 2 above give the citizenry more power, but it will not necessarily help the citizenry make wiser and more compassionate policy. Just because a lot of people want something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. That is the purpose of step three.

3. Get the most out of the public’s collective wisdom by building the Democracy Forum with the same technological power that is currently highlighting, emphasizing, and circulating the most divisive and polarizing ideas in social media, except point that technology in the opposite direction. Use the artificial intelligence-enhanced social media algorithms to accelerate our compassion, maturity, shared understanding and other virtues that create a context where solutions can be refined and revealed that far exceed the level of support and efficacy of the solutions produced by the current system. We need contexts where we feel safe being vulnerable in order to actually work together.

The way it is now, improvement on policy tends to end as soon as a majority is reached, and often, the entire problem-solving process is premised on false choices between values (ex. protecting the planet vs improving quality of life) that are not actually mutually exclusive.

A final feature of this system is allowing people who have achieved a large amount of public trust and expertise on given issue areas (think of how different hosts on AirBnB or sellers on Amazon are given public scores on relevant criteria) to have disproportionate influence on policy in those areas.

These steps are not a comprehensive map to rebirthing democracy, but they serve as a viable starting point. An outline. They are not a replacement of Congress, or of the Constitution, they are a necessary modernization.

All of the above is how we begin rebirthing Democracy. It is on the level of our collective institutions. But our rebirth will be a stillbirth if we don’t concurrently use the same mindset, and embrace of technology — to radically improve our personal level tools too, our empathy,rigorous sense-making, listening and perspective-taking abilities. Democracy can only survive when there is health on the individual and collective scale.

So, my argument is that fixing government can’t be done by picking a side and voting for the lesser of two evils, and it can’t be done by voting for moderates. It must be done by making your primary voting criteria — fixing government at a root cause level — first and foremost. This must become an explicit test for every candidate, “Do you support a direct democracy forum? Where do you stand on rebirthing Democracy?” If they’re an independent, so much the better.

If you’d like to see a candidate focused on bringing structural innovations to our government, innovations that actually incorporate the ideas of the public, you can support my independent campaign for Congress. With an open race, and no incumbent, now is the ideal time to question the two-party death grip on our democracy. This is a campaign, and an issue, that actually unites across political dividing lines.

I am a Marine Corps veteran who became the leader of the nation’s largest antiwar organization of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. I then became an entrepreneur who won M.I.T.’s “Solve” award for organizations innovating solutions to climate change. I am a working-class child of Vermont, and I am a father and citizen concerned about our ability to solve problems together. Send me to Congress and I will continue to devote my life in service to the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Many will argue that it is better to have a candidate with “experience,” to which I respond, do we really need more experience borne of the same mindset? Won’t that experience imply these candidates will continue to rely on outdated tools that are insufficient to the scale of our problems? Would we value the experience of a doctor who is experienced in misdiagnosing disease and prescribing band aids? We need innovation and vision more than experience.

If you are satisfied with band aids, and changing the players, then you have a few good options this election. If you know in your heart that we need to change the rules of the game, you have one clear choice. Let’s rebirth democracy together.

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