PPF Blog

On Participatory Politics and Austerity Government

We founded PPF in 2004 with the instinct that tech could radically increase trust in the political process – the kind of trust & feedback loops just found lacking by British voters in the E.U. government.

Looking at Brexit, it seems to me British voters didn’t see the assurances of self-governance in representative democracy – some info sources for me have been initial analysis by journalist and left supporter Paul Mason. See also the E.U. critiques of the exciting Democracy In Europe Movement. Paul Mason called on the left to lead (more than Labour or Tories) to “prioritise and attack the combined problems of low wages, in-work poverty and dead-beat towns.” Sound relevant, Trump & Sanders voters?

In the absence of continual civic engagement and deep civic equity, zero-sum political conflagrations can have long-lasting effects. National referendums can overturn state-of-the-technocratic-art bureaucratic systems such as the E.U. and prolong the Greek economic crisis. Off-Presidential-year elections in the U.S. can result in starved federal agencies, austerity budgets and government shutdowns.

Of course there are many reasons for lack of trust in E.U. and the rise of nativism, but to summarize: austerity government in England, structural unemployment in Europe, and xenophobia over immigration. Neo-liberalism, even from Labour or the Democratic leadership, in the era of globalization is looking to be unlikely to re-distribute enough wealth to struggling middle classes and poor communities to make this plausible.

What are some of the implications for the current U.S. Constitutional representative democratic republic, to avoid a Brexit-like future outcome in elections? What legislative strategy in the U.S. could begin walking-back austerity budgeting and anti-immigration sentiment?

If increased national representative democracy is a solution, the ideal would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and the un-representative U.S. Senate. But putting that option aside, three major initiatives for federal election reforms (especially public financing) would increase public trust and responsiveness to public opinion. Charitable funding for open tech tools for this work on a healthier U.S. representative democracy is much-needed in the #opengov space, to give #civicfeatures mass exposure throughout social media.

Towards enacting a job-creating federal budget through government investment, including corporate tax reform and cutting wasteful Department of Defense spending – well, it seems continual progressive pressure on many fronts of the Democratic party leadership is needed ongoing, towards healthier National Priorities. If the national party primary and Presidential nomination processes can’t be opened-up in the short term to more candidates, cities and states can lead as laboratories in participatory budgeting and commitment to public infrastructure. More job-creating budgeting proposals from EPI, CBPP and Demos – to be blunt, these are not likely to be en-acted as a full slate by the current U.S. Congress, but a full slate and more is what is needed for healthy communities.

Tech projects and community organizing for continual civic engagement can help increase public accountability – see groundbreaking non-profit tools such as LittleSis watchdogging networks, Shareabouts from OpenPlans, and our AskThem national petition platform. If government accountability discussions are truly driven by the full public, it’s going to get potentially heated, creating risks for platforms where governments themselves host it – which is why open data standards for constituent communication allow strong accountability calls to live and spread around the open internet.

If we take both sides of the “transparency and accountability” mission of open government movement seriously, then tech for civic participation can’t easily avoid politics. Vending better software for city services is important, but if elected officials behind federal budget priorities are beholden only to donors and a slice of primary voters in rigged Congressional districts, we’re not really meeting a sufficient threshold of open government. Even apolitical civic tech startups can run directly into the hurdles of legacy vendors, still-broken tech procurement and money in politics.

For example, on AskThem, we’ve proposed to ask every 2016 elected official and candidate (both federal & state) to commit to support public financing of elections, for greater trust – this foundational measure can help walk-back austerity budgeting and demonstrate public accountability, re-orienting federal budgeting away from the military and towards job creation and local services. 68 of the current 187 members of the U.S. House are in the Progressive Caucus; how do more of their “Prosperity Not Austerity” budget initiatives advance, given structural Cong. limitations?

From this re-prioritization, representative democracy across globalization can grow hold and challenge top-down rulers such as Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s; without it, as with #Brexit, fractured liberalism might not take advantage of its potential for community and environmental health. David Dayen on Tory neo-liberalism: “But they did follow the general belief in expansionary austerity, that you could cut your way to prosperity. For those that don’t recall, this led to the brink of a triple-dip recession, and terrible growth numbers for years and years. Only when an election neared and David Cameron’s Conservatives stopped the budget cutting did the economy come back to life.”

Questions & feedback welcome, david at ppolitics d00t org, @ppolitics on commercial micropublishing. This covered a bit too much ground, didn’t it? Well, first draft.

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