The Threat to Open Society and the Interactive Voter Choice System
December 8, 2010 - 5:17pm ET
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The biggest problem for Americans in our time is the increasingly dangerous threat to open society posed by the trend toward plutocracy and its effects on the political system. George Soros described the antecedents of these threats in The Age of Fallibility (pp. 100-101):
“Gradually, the methods developed for commercial purposes found a market in politics. This changed the character of politics. The original idea of elections was that candidates would come forward and announce what they stood for; and the electorate would decide whom they liked best. The supply of candidates and the preferences of the electorate were supposed to be independently given, just as in the theory of perfect competition. But the process was corrupted by the methods adopted from commercial life: focus groups and framing the messages. Politicians learned to cater to the desires of the electorate instead of propounding policies they believed in. The electorate did not remain unaffected. They chose the candidate who told them what they wanted to hear, but at the same time they could not avoid noticing that they were being manipulated; they were not surprised when their elected leaders deceived them. But there was no escape. The increasing sophistication of communication methods was built into the system. That is how America became a feel-good society. It was fostered by politicians seeking to be elected.”
One of the most damaging effects of the “feel-good society” is that the people are unable to keep politicians in check (p.96):
“In a democracy, it is the electorate that has to keep the politicians and the political operatives honest. That is where America is failing. A feel-good society, far from being committed to the pursuit of truth, cannot face harsh realities. This leaves it vulnerable to all kinds of false ideologies, Orwellian newspeak, and other deceptions.”
In the years since The Age of Fallibility appeared, we've seen dramatic increases in the amount of money spent on elections. Money is used to shape and distort the public's view of reality, and the problem of its influence has been exacerbated by the Citizens United decision. Elected officials of both parties are influenced by campaign contributions, and a media bought by corporate money, to such an extent that there is no prospect of solving America's many problems in ways that serve the public interest and benefit most people. Some even think that we now live in a plutocracy, and not in a democracy, and that both parties are corrupt, and now represent only the financial oligarchy. So, the central issue of our time is how we can overcome the influence of money on politics and make our political system more responsive once again.
This problem threatens open society in two ways. First, because the ability of the people to change leaders is now illusory, since the new elites are just as much influenced by a financial oligarchy, as the elites previously “in control” were. And second, because the ability for voters to see the truth is severely compromised by the influence over messaging and communications of the financial oligarchy. More and more, elite-dominated communications creates 'reality' for Americans. The actual reality of elite performance and the causes and cures of poor outcomes are viewed through a glass darkly, only.
For open society to function well, the truth about the reality of elite performance must be much more available and accessible to the efforts of citizens to arrive at it. But, increasingly, it is not. So, the two most important underlying conditions of open society, the ability for people to arrive at the truth (their cognitive function), and their ability to act on the truth to change elites (their participative function) are both undermined increasingly over time. As Soros rightly asks (p.110), “Who will enlighten the public” when these functions are compromised? And if the public cannot become enlightened, how will it keep the politicians and political operatives honest and focused on protecting the common good and the public trust? If nothing is done to stop this process of reality construction in the interests of the rulers, the end will certainly be the transformation of open society in America to a closed plutocracy. And given the speed of that transformation, its end may well come sooner rather than later.
Requirements for a solution
We won't be able to stop the march toward plutocracy unless we can create a new institutional framework that allows us to change those aspects of our present situation that support plutocracy and undermine open society. It's no good proposing or wishing for changes in the present legal system where such changes require the consent of the elites, because they have no incentives other than self-interest, except very occasional and intermittent altruism, and perhaps a low level of fear of mass movement-induced violence to motivate them to provide their consent for such changes. So, we need a framework that will operate within the context of existing rules and laws to create changes that will swing the dynamics of change away from plutocracy and toward open society.
The new institutional framework must provide a meta-level of political interaction and networking that places ecological constraints on the current system, driving it back towards a condition in which the ability of individuals to both arrive at more accurate constructions of reality, and act on these constructions, is dominant. Here are the requirements for such a framework.
-- It must provide social contexts and milieus within which people can organize themselves and others around public policy agendas, comprised of policy options and policy priorities, into voting blocs and electoral coalitions ranging from very small to very large blocs of millions of voters without needing sizable financial resources from sources external to these social milieus, and without being subject to external mass media communications influenced by the financial oligarchs and other special interests.
-- These social contexts and milieus must provide the possibility of informal group and social network formation around these policy agendas.
-- These social contexts and milieus must be largely transparent and inclusive in providing participants with previously developed data, information, and knowledge, and in allowing them the freedom to participate in communicating, organizing, collaborating, critically evaluating, problem solving, and decision making within voting blocs and electoral coalitions.
-- The social contexts and milieus must provide a modicum of trust for participants, in contrast to the two political parties, both of which are widely distrusted by a majority of Americans.
-- The new institutional framework must enable participants and voting blocs to communicate their policy agendas (comprised of policy options and priorities) to candidates for public office and office holders, and also secure either commitments to these agendas or clear refusals to support the policy agendas from them.
-- The framework must also enable participants and voting blocs to continuously monitor and rate performance of office holders against the agendas and to decide whether to continue to support office holders after performance ratings are arrived at.
-- The framework must also provide enabling tools for voting blocs and electoral coalitions to organize efforts to get both major party and third party candidates and initiatives onto ballots, and to get people to the polls to vote. In other words, it must provide tools to enable voting blocs to do all the things political parties and factions now do to support candidates they want to elect and ballot initiatives they want to pass.
In short, the new institutional framework must provide an alternative to the contemporary world of political parties and established interest groups for analyzing political situations and issues, and for organizing people for political action. The alternative world must embody the key attributes of open society, which means it must provide an informal communications and knowledge network that is very much independent of the mass media, and also capable of enabling the creation of highly cohesive voting blocs and electoral coalitions of many millions of people, and even new political parties, which can offer decisive support to candidates and office holders in return for their continuing support of voting bloc agendas.
We can use the Internet and the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS), to create the alternative world I've just outlined, a network of voter-driven political organizations to counter the influence of money in politics, including the cognitive distortions created by using big money to frame debates and constantly introduce distractions from key issues. The collective action power of the Internet when combined with IVCS will make the creation of such organizations feasible. When fully developed IVCS will provide voters free policy agenda-setting and consensus-building tools to:
-- Define their own policy options and prioritize them to create policy agendas,
-- Social network with others who have similar agendas to their own,
-- Collaborate and solve problems with others to create collective policy agendas, voting blocs, and electoral coalitions that work within existing parties or build new political parties, and
-- Hold elected representatives accountable by monitoring and evaluating how well their performance matches the policy agendas of the voting blocs that have elected them to office.
The result of using IVCS will be voting blocs of various sizes and influence, formed by voters across the political spectrum. People will use the system to formulate common policy agendas, and then create self-organizing transpartisan voting blocs, electoral coalitions, and political parties around those agendas. They can use the system’s search/data mining tools to locate others whose policy agendas are most like their own, and join with them.
From the viewpoint of an individual, it may not be easy at first to organize voting blocs that develop cohesiveness and staying power, because people will have to negotiate out their differences to join together. But negotiating common agendas, and crafting winning electoral strategies at the grassroots, gives voters a lot more power than being hamstrung by the two major parties. The system will support such negotiations, and create the potential for so many policy agendas and voting bloc coalitions to form that it is virtually certain that new and powerful blocs, and even political parties, will emerge, grow rapidly, and begin to acquire national influence.
Voting blocs will at first have only a virtual identity in the IVCS. But the social ties formed in these self-organizing blocs will be real, and much stronger than the ties between political interest groups and the members they communicate with using marketing e-mails and other top-down methods of mobilization. When bloc members start to take their blocs into political party organizations and primaries, the transition will be made from virtual to full social reality. The system and the website built around the system will support agenda formation and political organization better than the legacy political parties because its Policy Options Database enables voters to formulate written policy agendas, and use their agendas as legislative mandates to select candidates and oversee those they elect. (Prototypes of the Policy Options Database and the website can be viewed by clicking here and here.)
In addition, it will provide consensus-building and collaborative tools that legacy parties have never sought to provide their supporters. The content management tools will be better than any political party’s. The social networking tools will be far superior. The problem solving and knowledge processing tools supplied will also be better than those of any existing political party’s, and will support people informing each other about critical issues during the problem solving process. In the context of the IVCS, the answer to the question “Who Will enlighten the public?” is that people will tell one another as part of their everyday interaction. Finally, state-of-the-art campaign organizing tools (and services) will be provided by third party service providers with proven track records.
The IVCS application will supply a richer virtual environment for new voting blocs to emerge from than anything now available. It will also support transparency, and political inclusiveness within its voting blocs, as well as whatever degree of privacy and security a voting bloc wants. Voting blocs will make decisions and resolve conflicts either by consensus or by using the IVCS Voting Utility.
They can also use the Utility to vote on proposed political alliances and coalitions. Since voting bloc members can always “vote with their feet,” by forming new blocs or joining other already existing blocs, and since new voting blocs will always be coming into existence, the dynamic environment of the IVCS will always be biased toward bottom-up organization, problem solving, and influence, rather than top-down control. Since problem solving in the system will be distributed and not centralized, blocs will be able to adapt to their environments better than traditional voting blocs, transcend the awkward stages of initial growth, and develop into new political organizations that can successfully challenge the legacy parties and the special interests as the driving force in the American political system.
The likelihood that national voting blocs will form and maintain themselves is great, because the yearning in America for change is great, as is the potential for many, many groups to form and fail, while giving up their members to those that survive. Most Americans want to do something about the mess we’re in. They want the political system to be responsive to the people. They’ll take advantage of IVCS because it will be the only practical way, in this time of corporate dominance of the mass media and the major political parties, that they can build winning voting blocs, electoral coalitions and political parties they control; select candidates for office on the basis of their own criteria (their written policy agendas); evaluate those they elect; influence them; and, finally, hold them accountable.
Since it will cost little more than time to organize and get one’s messages out by using it, the system will eliminate the need for voting blocs, political parties, and candidates to rely on contributions and special interest campaigns to get support. They'll be able to spread their message using the facilities of the IVCS alone. The system will de-fang the Citizens United decision, and the influence of special interests more generally, because mass media-based propaganda campaigns will conflict with, and be critically evaluated by IVCS-based interactions and messaging within informal social networks and voting blocs.
Since the social ties within IVCS will be much stronger and more intense than the ties between individuals and organizations in mass media campaigns, such propaganda campaigns will become less and less effective in framing debates and influencing the cognitive functioning of individuals. Their role will diminish over time because spending a fortune on them won't work to influence elections, once the IVCS is available and widely used. In the longer run, the transparency, inclusiveness, self-organizing tendencies, and intense political and social interaction within IVCS-enabled voting blocs, parties and coalitions will revitalize open society and assert open society controls over the electoral, legislative, and political processes.
The IVCS can be implemented by integrating already developed and commercially available software using Web-Oriented Architecture (WOA). The systems integration work will deliver functionality that fulfills the above requirements, and provides content management and integration capabilities that people can use to track how well knowledge claims about policy options and impacts have survived criticism and evaluation in the past. IVCS will also include a security architecture to prevent its penetration by people who want to disrupt, take over, or manipulate the way it works.
A continuing worry is the ability of people in politics to avoid reality by framing their own narratives for interpreting both it and their own performance. There's no way to stop attempts at that sort of thing from going on. But IVCS will allow people to incorporate counter-narratives and evaluations against the interpretations by the wealthy and powerful of their own performance on an equal footing. This sort of capability to expose everyone's views to critical evaluation in the context of a neutral exchange platform is essential to restoring the effectiveness of the cognitive function in open society.
IVCS will also possess strong viral marketing and “political strategizing” capabilities, since its tools and services will be made available via a social networking platform. These will enable it to grow very quickly in membership and participation after its launch, both to influence the 2012 elections, and to defend itself against attempts to marginalize or neutralize it. The combination of systems integration and software work, strategizing, and marketing needing to be accomplished in a short time means that IVCS's development and implementation must proceed at top speed in the coming months.
The IVCS web site can be developed as a host for a network of inter-connected voter-driven political organizations (voting blocs and electoral coalitions) to counter the influence of money in politics, including the cognitive distortions created by special interests using big money to frame debates and constantly introduce distractions from key issues. The network will provide a meta-level of political interaction that places ecological constraints on the current system so that it is driven back towards a condition in which the ability of individuals to both arrive at more accurate constructions of reality, and act on these constructions is dominant.
In the first quote above from The Age of Fallibility, George Soros identifies what is probably the most important cause of the movement away from open society and towards plutocracy, namely the deliberate manipulation of voters’ perceptions of reality. IVCS will be a powerful counter to this technology of political manipulation. By introducing a transparent, inclusive layer of networked social interaction, insulated from mass media manipulation, emphasizing problem solving and critical evaluation, and giving rise to legislative mandates backed by very large and powerful voting blocs and electoral coalitions, we can introduce open society epistemological and political controls into our electoral and political processes and make our representatives accountable once again. We can enable voters themselves to reverse the movement of the United States toward plutocracy, and move it in the direction of open society once more.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future