Imagine an app with which you can vote on the bills in the Senate in real time.
Today Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) released an app promoting his bid for the presidential nomination of the GOP, and it includes all of the filler you'd expect. A calendar lists Paul's public events, a meme generator helps supporters socialize their adoration of the gold standard and contempt for the surveillance state, and a Space Invaders clone pits Paul's campaign logo against the logos and slogans of his fellow presidential hopefuls. The app also sends push notifications, updating users on when Paul is preparing to vote on a bill in the Senate. Then it asks for feedback on how the senator should vote.
In an interview with The New York Times, the chief technology officer of Paul's campaign, Ron Schnell, had this to say about the feature:
"You have a reason to download [the app] because you can influence what happens. It's not just to find out about the candidate you support, it's about letting the candidate know what you think."
The second sentence, "letting the candidate know what you think," undercuts the ambition and potential of the first sentence, "you can influence what happens." One wonders how much Schnell, who served as the chief architect of the app, sincerely believes in the platform as a mode of political engagement, and how little influence the countless political missives to come — consider the minimal friction of dispatching a passionate sentence or two — will have on Paul.
Real time democracy sounds crazy, but less so than the words President Trump
The notion of constituents sharing opinions with their politicians isn't novel. Alongside the history of US politics is a mawkish history of Americans sending letters, making phone calls, signing petitions, and submitting online forms. The press and protest have been better agitators through history than the gripes of the average citizen. What's different in the case of Paul's app is the potential impact from the electorate. It's not hard to imagine political activism reduced to the complexity of a Facebook Like being simple, and binary enough to muster the participation of millions. If taken seriously, a populace politician — which the more libertarian Paul certainly is — could run on the promise of acting as a vessel for real-time democracy, making votes and decisions on behalf of the votes of those who elected them.
It sounds crazy, surely, but if there's one takeaway from this election cycle, nothing is too strange to work — especially when, as in the case of Donald Trump, the strategy plays to the id of the American public.
Rand Paul or any politician actually seeing user voting and instant feedback as anything other than a minor influence in their decision making is unlikely, but this little corner of the presidential app illuminates the reality that the blunt function of politicians — hearing and voting on policy — can be accomplished by the populace.
Not that our founding fathers would have wanted such a thing. The electoral college was put in place because they largely didn't trust direct democracy. We elect politicians like Paul, so the thinking goes, because they are better equipped to vote on our behalf — which means we can provide all the input we want via their campaign app, and they'll do what's best for them and, if we're lucky, what's best for us.