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New Politics, Ahoy!
THE sudden roar erupting from the Jägerklause bar in east Berlin’s bohemian Friedrichshain district late on a recent Sunday sounded like the usual soccer-match pandemonium. But the crowd inside, with their jeans and sneakers and easygoing looks, didn’t seem like typical soccer fanatics.
Nor did they look like political operatives — but that’s what they were: members of the upstart Pirate Party, which had just scored a key electoral victory in the small western state of Saarland.
The German Pirates, founded in 2006 and long dismissed as a niche party obsessed with copyright reform and online privacy, picked up four seats in the Saarland regional Parliament, twice as many as the once strong Green Party — and far more than the pro-business Free Democrats, who were shut out.
This month they face their biggest challenge, with elections in two more states, including North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous. Should the results match recent poll numbers — as high as 13 percent, making the Pirates Germany’s third-most-popular party — they will serve notice that a new electoral force has arrived and offer a compelling political lesson for parties on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the surface, the Pirates are indeed niche: their platform stands for stronger protection for file sharing and against censorship, along with unorthodox ideas like voting rights for teenagers.
But their real goal, and the root of their success, is more meta: using the Internet to create a new structure of politics that can solve the problem of how to energize citizens — not only for the excitement of a campaign but also the often dreary realities of actual governance.
They come at the right time. Traditional German politics is bureaucratic and intimidating to outsiders. No wonder voting and party membership among young Germans has declined precipitously. In the 1960s, such frustration led to the so-called Extra-Parliamentary Opposition, a catchall category that included both the peaceful Greens and the violent Red Army Faction, with thousands of disaffected protesters in between.
But the Pirates’ generation isn’t as radical as their parents’, and they understand the value of conventional politics. They just believe that it’s stuck in the past.
The Pirates’ insight is that the Internet is both message and medium. Young Germans, who spend large amounts of time online, care deeply about government attempts to regulate or monitor their activity; at the same time, the Internet offers a way for the party to completely upend German politics.
Using a software package they call Liquid Feedback, the Pirates are able to create a continuous, real-time political forum in which every member has equal input on party decisions, 24 hours a day. It’s more than just a gimmicky Web forum, though: complex algorithms track member input and generate instantaneous collective decisions.
Of course, on some level Liquid Feedback is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is, it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.
There’s no reason the party’s lessons couldn’t be applied elsewhere, including the United States. One of the biggest problems for President Obama has been to maintain the vigorous online following that Candidate Obama generated in 2008. But while the Obama campaign at least gave the impression that he was influenced by input from his supporters, they have been shut out of the White House.
If Mr. Obama had followed the Pirate method, he would not only have sent updates via Facebook and Twitter, but he would have involved larger numbers of supporters in an extensive dialogue and given them an actual say in determining such priorities as which issues to pursue in his first months in office and how much to reach out to conservatives.
That sounds naïve, and inside the Beltway, it may be: lobbyists and money drive the discussion, not input from Indiana. But it is precisely that sense of disconnection, comparable in many ways to the disillusionment felt by young Germans, that has sapped energy among Mr. Obama’s base and led to protest movements like Occupy and the Tea Party.
And the Pirates are hardly a clear success: though they have been disproving rumors of their imminent demise for years, they must wait until parliamentary elections next fall to establish themselves at the federal level.
Still, the real lesson for American observers is not how to build a viable third party, but how Mr. Obama and other politicians must adapt to the political sensibilities of Internet-savvy voters. It’s easy to dismiss the Pirates as a quirky band of idealists. But as countless old-line German politicians can attest, American parties ignore them at their peril.
Steve Kettmann is a former columnist for the newspaper Berliner Zeitung and the author of “One Day at Fenway.”