With the 2016 presidential elections now on the horizon, there’s no escaping ‘the campaign’—whomever’s that might be. The proliferation of political advertising across all media, from billboards to iPhones, subjects the voting public to a constant barrage of targeted advertising. The strongest campaigns, in an attempt to master cross-platform messaging, have been making innovative strides in marketing and media, which certainly adds a sense of novelty to an otherwise staid political contest. One example is the gradual introduction of digital crowdsourcing into the political process. On one hand, crowdsourcing, as a novelty, is an essentially democratic notion, though beyond the surface, it is still exclusionary by nature. As many see it—including attorney, activist, and Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig—the tricks of the contest may be new, but the game is the same…and it’s only getting more expensive to play.
As a primary indicator of this fracture, Lessig, in a recent article on Medium, points to the issue of money in politics, which is featured prominently in debates and campaign promises, but rapidly fades to the background in office. Indeed, there is a general consensus that money—and associated political and corporate corruption—should be at the top of the president’s priority list; second only to “creating good jobs,” as Lessig cites from this 2012 Gallup poll. But in practice, an official taking on finance reform is setting herself on a road towards destruction.
“To take on the influence of money is not to take on one party, but both parties,” Lessig writes. “The enemy of Congress is a failed president. […] So on the long list of promises that every normal president enters office with, the promise of reform always falls to the bottom.”
Broken promises of campaign finance reform may not be the explicit fault of a hypocritical chief executive, but rather the attrition caused by the mechanics of American politics in general. This leads us to Lessig’s central claim: “That on the issue of fundamental reform, an ordinary president may not be able to lead.” Instead, Lessig proposes the idea of a trustee president, which Lessig defines as prominent, “well-liked leader” who declares her presidential candidacy on a single issue. After this issue is resolved, the trustee president would step down and hand over the reigns to the VP for the remainder of the term. For finance reform, this trustee president “would use every power of the executive to get Congress to enact fundamental reform”—and then move on.
The idea of a trustee president is a unique proposition—perhaps even a ‘hack’ of the political system. “Our democracy will not heal itself,” Lessig writes. “Reform will not come from the inside alone. It needs a push.” Which is why, this past August, Lessig announced that if he raised $1 million by Labor Day, he would run for president on this exact model, in order to pass what his team has dubbed the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. As of Sept. 6, with money raised from 10,000 unique donations, Lessig is now attempting to run on the Democratic ticket (though according to his recent op-ed at Politico, the Democratic party isn’t being very receptive). The drama of Lessig’s thought-experiment-turned-real-experiment will be interesting enough to follow in the coming months, but what’s unique about his proposed Citizen Equality Act is that, in addition to being modeled on existing reform proposals, his will also “crowdsource a process to complete the details of this reform and draft legislation by the start of 2016” (emphasis added).
Crowdsourcing is a digital-age concept and term, though the notion of crowdsourcing in politics is a fundamentally democratic idea. However, that crowdsourcing is a digital concept keeps its referents firmly grounded in the present, as Tanja Aitamurto suggests in his 2012 book, Crowdsourcing for Democracy. He defines crowdsourcing as “an open call for anybody to participate in a task open online, where ‘the crowd’ refers to an undefined group of people who participate.” This is in contract to outsourcing, where a task is specifically assigned to a defined agent. Popular uses for crowdsourcing range from funding product or project development, as with sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, to more refined applications, including urban planning, product design, mapping, species studies, and even solving complex technical or scientific issues. It’s only a small jump for crowdsourcing to be used for policy and reform, especially in democratic contexts, as Aitamurto demonstrates through various international case studies, including constitution reform in Iceland, budget preparation in Chicago, and the White House’s We The People petition system.
Aitamurto writes: “When policy-making processes are opened, information about policy-making flows out to citizens. […] Opening the political process holds the potential to increase legitimacy of politics, and increasing transparency can strengthen the credibility of policy-making.” In an ideal or direct democracy, especially in a modern context, crowdsourcing just makes sense, especially as a tool for mass communications and encouraging public participation. Our increased reliance on technology for economic participation, communication and citizenship casts crowdsourcing as a natural outgrowth of our cultural evolution, and in this way, it also just makes sense that crowdsourcing would be applied to politics. But ethically, crowdsourcing’s promise of cross-platform policy participation is not so equitable, especially when we begin to account for income and literacy as prerequisites for entry into the digital crowdsourcing process.
A few examples of how crowdsourcing is exclusionary, despite its ideal democratic applications, are the person without a smartphone, the family without an Internet connection, or the digitally illiterate citizen (i.e., the person who has never sent an email or used a computer). You can’t help crowdsource if you’re not part of the crowd; that is, if you’re on the wrong side of the digital divide. Of course, even before the digital age, income and literacy have long been limiting factors for democratic participation; they’ve simply found new media for the modern age. On this point, Aitamuro clarifies: “Crowdsourcing […] is not representative democracy and is not equivalent to national referendum. The participants’ opinions, most likely, do not represent the majority’s opinion.”
The natural limitations of the crowdsourcing process, as Aitamuro suggests, can be read as a downside of crowdsourcing in a democratic context, but if that democracy is broken—as Lessig and many others say it is—a crowdsourced tactic, despite its ethical complications, might be exactly the sort of push a broken democracy needs. But in order for it to really work, everyone needs to agree to the plan, and trust that its leaders will deliver on their promises. A task like that will take a lot of work, supercharged rhetorical finesse, and a massive amount of popular traction that Lessig currently lacks; a Suffolk University/USA Today poll from Oct. 1 lists a mere 0.47 percent of respondents stating support for Lessig. His plan makes sense, and the notion of entrusting the trustee with a crowdsourced reform is a novel reflection of idealized democratic values, but novelty in the political process is a mixed bag; especially in the midst of a pay-to-play political paradigm where not even Lessig could get a foot in the door without a cool million. In this way, crowdsourcing, despite being a novel digital-age concept, might simply be more of the same.