Crossing the Pond: Interactive Democracy and Social Cohesion in a Polarized Society  

news :: 2020
by Andreas Nitsche on September 29, 2020

Andreas Nitsche is one of six fellows nominated for a 2021 2022 residency at Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, a transatlantic debate space owned by the Federal Republic of Germany.[1] In this article, he writes about the scope of his upcoming work in the United States.

Liberal democracy is under siege

In recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have seen the rise of populism. Society has been challenged by polarization, as well as the creation of seemingly antagonistic groups. The internet appears to contribute to this situation through micro-targeting, personalization, and, ultimately, alienation between large groups of society. Terms such as “filter bubbles” and “echo-chambers” are common, albeit controversial, attempts to describe and explain this phenomenon.

But technology can also come to democracy’s aid when it enables democratic decision making for large scale groups. It has the potential to respond to newly created communication channels and give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process. This has been one of the overall aims of LiquidFeedback, a project which I co-founded a decade ago. LiquidFeedback fosters democratic empowerment within political parties and civil society organizations, as well as civic participation, attempting to bridge the gap in order to further social cohesion.

The LiquidFeedback project

By no means is opinion formation only about voting. In fact, deliberation contributes to an understanding of—more often than not—the complex nature of a given issue. Deliberation is the necessary precondition for informed decision making.

In LiquidFeedback, a structured deliberation allows for the contemplation of pros and cons and the consideration of alternatives, identifying the viable voting options for clone-proof preferential voting. The design of the opinion formation process was influenced by previous research in various fields, e.g. by Kenneth Arrow, Nicolas de Caritat (Marquis de Condorcet), Anthony McGann, Markus Schulze, Thomas Schwartz and Nicolaus Tideman. The Open Source Software is available free of charge for all interested organizations under the permissive MIT/X11 license.

LiquidFeedback's integrated deliberation and decision-making process, which has caught the attention of scientists from various fields [2][3], has morphed into an international benchmark for democratic self-organization using the internet. The project has continuously shared ideas and results with the scientific world as well as practitioners in the field.

The project’s multi-disciplinary think tank, the Association for Interactive Democracy, collaborates with scientists from various disciplines, such as computer scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists. The association supports inclusive participation and credible decision making, with LiquidFeedback and otherwise. It also teams up with international organizations, foundations, and local stakeholders in order to support democracy in the Global South.

Preference aggregation for credible decision making

A fair and transparent participation process is front and center of both the (further) development of LiquidFeedback, and advice on the implementation and improvement of participation systems in general. After all, in every decision, there are winners and losers; the latter are more likely to accept the result if they deem the process credible.

There are many challenges involved in designing a deliberation and decision-making process: mechanisms to detect and debunk political populism, protection against the dominance of noisy minorities, hate speech, and so-called trolling. It’s also important to ensure that minorities get a fair share to set out their position on the issue at hand. Incentives for tactical voting must be avoided. In LiquidFeedback, these challenges have been addressed by the overall process design in combination with the application of sophisticated preference aggregation algorithms.[4]

Personalization versus diversity

Contrary to an almost universal trend on the internet, LiquidFeedback relies on a transparent, deterministic decision-making process, as opposed to a personalized forum with algorithms hidden from users.

While like-minded participants are encouraged to develop an idea without disruption from those who fundamentally reject the idea, the justification of a proposal is visible to supporters and opponents alike. A good argument can be picked up by a competing group to be discussed in their own context. This can contribute to a better understanding between supporters of competing initiatives: We have even seen examples where this kind of understanding has led to convergence of competing initiatives.

This is in stark contrast to platforms designed to provoke for the sole purpose of attracting ad revenue. Such platforms polarize and contribute to hate. When used in the political context, they are toxic for democratic culture.

Consensus and political equality

Activists rightfully strive for societal consensus on issues such as rejecting racism, overcoming gender inequality, and protecting the environment. Consensus in decision making, though well meaning but ill-advised, is often seen as a consequent requirement. Counterintuitively, this usually doesn’t serve the intended purpose.

A compulsory consensus—unanimity or a supermajority requirement—assigns more power to individuals who are in the minority in respect to a specific issue. However, only “conservative minorities”—those seeking to keep the status quo—can actually take advantage. Only majority rule satisfies political equality.

If applied to everyday politics, supermajority requirements make it harder to find majorities and potentially create presumed or actual pressure for conformity. They increase the risk of resentment, hidden conflicts, and stagnancy. However, they can also provide stability.

When it comes to LiquidFeedback, decision rules—so called policies—with supermajority requirements can be easily defined, but should only be used for decisions where supermajorities are either required or justified by a need for stability. A typical example are policies to be used when attempting to change the statutes of an organization.

Reaching across the aisle

An important question is about preconditions for the merit of an argument to reach across the aisle: What is necessary to make people willing to consider an argument from the opposite side in a highly polarized society? In order to create telling arguments, it may, for instance, be worth to take the (perceived) moral values of different target groups into account. People don't easily change their moral values, which makes it somewhat futile to go against them. On the other hand, moral values, such as loyalty (conservative) and equality (liberal), are often acceptable on all sides, and less polarizing than political opinions. An adaption of moral empathy, or moral reframing [5], could hold a key to finding common ground on many important issues. Asking a holistic question, such as “Why should liberals/ conservatives/ independents support this initiative,” is one such example. Further strategies to limit negative effects of strong faultlines can be derived from models on cohesion in demographically diverse teams such as “timing of contacts”.[6]

Beyond software

The success of an online participation system depends not only on the functionality of the software, but also on the overall participation process, including its proper embedding into administrative processes. Together with practitioners from political parties, civil society organizations, and public administrations, I plan to discuss questions of democratic self-organization for large organisations and the specific challenges of citizen participation when it comes to creating generally accepted infrastructures for participation.

Considering the vibrant culture of town hall meetings in the United States, one of the practical questions in this context is how traditional participation can go hand in glove with permanent online participation infrastructure by enriching one another, and if providing a credible quantification of an opinion formation can contribute to a local community’s overall social cohesion.

The transatlantic roots of LiquidFeedback

LiquidFeedback was also inspired by an American idea. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison reflected on the differences between a republic, in which elected individuals represent the people, and a (direct) democracy, in which the people themselves deliberate. They emphasized advantages of the republic, i.e. representative democracy, partly based on scalability considerations but also expressing more general reservations towards direct democracy.[7][8] In 1787, the United States Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the republic. Ever since, representative democracy has always been more than an adequate response to technical limitations in its time; representation is division of labor in politics.

Nevertheless, the dream of more direct democracy has remained alive, a tradition that has also led to the development of an idea that makes the choice between direct and representative democracy an individual decision: transitive proxy voting, sometimes referred to as liquid democracy.[9] Ranging from direct democracy on the one hand to representative democracy on the other, anyone can select their own way. Basically one participates in what one is interested in but for all other areas gives their vote to somebody acting in their interest. Gordon Tullock, James C. Miller, Rob Lanphier, Bryan Ford and James Green-Armytage contributed to this idea between 1967 and 2005.[10]

What about the practical value of this approach? First of all, it provides an alternative organizational concept wherever defined groups, i.e. organizations, decide on issues. Sure enough and for good reasons, we will not see any republic being replaced in the foreseeable future and maybe never will. But liquid democracy has the potential to revolutionize decision-making within political parties and civil society organizations.[11]

LiquidFeedback takes up the idea of transitive proxy voting in the context of decision making within large scale groups, using it not only for the voting process but also for deliberation, applied as a mutual debate empowerment. This introduces an element of dynamic division of labor into the decision-making processes of an organization, and allows it to scale up a structured deliberation to an unlimited number of participants. Transitive proxy voting is only one of the concepts around LiquidFeedback, and being stateside, I would very much like to highlight this American idea.

Pre-Columbian inspiration and inclusion

Of great interest to me are the democratic traditions in Native American culture. An outstanding example is the Iroquois Confederacy, self-named Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse”), which influenced the thinking of the founding fathers and shaped U.S. democracy. A 1988 resolution of the U.S. Senate acknowledges “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”[12] Founded in 1142, the Iroquois Confederacy is one of the oldest participatory democracies, that has persisted into the 21st century.

Apart from the influence on the United States constitution and, by extension, the West as a whole, the Native American model of governance pursues fairness and sustainability: Decisions made today shall meet the needs of seven generations into the future. Many Indigenous Nations across North America value service to others over material gain and see great honor in voluntarily redistributing wealth to those who have the least.[13]

Democratic challenges also extend to the new context of transnational regions and immigration. A case in point is civic participation in Southern California, where mayors told me that bilingual participation offers are essential for inclusive participation. This poses enormous challenges, particularly for deliberative processes. As food for thought, I’d like to consider how strategies and solutions in this area would not only be of interest for the USA, but also for border regions and where, for example due to migration, there is no lingua franca equally adopted by everyone in the area.

The big tent

Thomas Mann believed in the ability of democracies to renew themselves, and so should we when it comes to the challenges of our times. For an adequate response to societal polarization and populism, we not only need to embrace cultural diversity, but also find strength in political difference. That’s a long shot - but a deliberation undertaken with mutual respect and based on facts provides a chance to develop solutions which work for all and contribute to social cohesion.

Washington Post columnist and CNN host, Fareed Zakaria, used the term “big tent policies” for this kind of political inclusiveness.[14] And what about technology? Much has been said about exploitation for disinformation and network effects, which can foster segregation and isolation. But it can also greatly support the much needed, transparent big tent deliberation. It behooves the Golden State to discuss the societal impact of technology, and there is arguably no better place for a transatlantic dialogue on renewing democracy than this emblematic place, which was home to Thomas Mann during his exile in California, and which has been referred to as the “intellectual German White House”.


The Thomas Mann House was bought by the German government in June of 2016 and inaugurated by German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2018. The Thomas Mann House is a residence for distinguished researchers, thinkers and intellectuals from a variety of disciplines, who will tackle the challenges of our times, and foster intellectual and cultural exchange between Germany and the U.S.

The residencies are financed by the Berthold Leibinger Foundation, the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach-Foundation. Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House are funded by the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as well as the Goethe-Institut.

Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House, an independent and politically unaffiliated organization of the Federal Republic of Germany, fosters the intellectual and cultural exchange between the United States and Germany.

The institution awards fellowships in the two residences, Villa Aurora and Thomas Mann House, in Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles, CA., and organizes cultural programs in the U.S. and Germany. It is a reminder of the history of the European exile to California, while presenting a lively, current, and diverse image of Germany, and allowing contemplation of societal, cultural, and political challenges.

[1] 2021 Thomas Mann Fellowship Recipients, Press release Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House e. V.

[2] Svante Janson: “Thresholds Quantifying Proportionality Criteria for Election Methods”.

[3] Skowron, Lackner, Brill, Peters, Elkind: “Proportional Rankings”.

[4] Behrens, Kistner, Nitsche, Swierczek: “The Principles of LiquidFeedback”. ISBN 978-3-00-044795-2. Published January 2014 by Interaktive Demokratie e. V.

[5] Feinberg, M., Willer, R.: “Moral reframing: A technique for effective and persuasive communication across political divides”.

[6] Flache, A., Mäs, M.: “How to get the timing right. A computational model of the effects of the timing of contacts on team cohesion in demographically diverse teams”. Comput Math Organiz Theor 14, 23–51 (2008).

[7] Alexander Hamilton: Speech at the New York convention for constitutional ratification, June 21, 1788. Michael P. Federici: “The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton”, 2012, p. 76. ISBN 978-1-4214-0539-1. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

[8] James Madison (as “Publius”): The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. “Federalist No. 10”, November 22, 1787.

[9] Liquid Democracy - what all the noise is about

[10] The Origins of Liquid Democracy

[11] Liquid Democracy Provides No Alternative to the Republic

[12] United States Select Committee on Indian Affairs (1988). H.Con.Res.331 (PDF)

[13] Terri Hansen (2018). How the Iroquois Great Law of Peace Shaped U.S. Democracy. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

[14] Fareed Zakaria. FAREED'S TAKE. Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square (GPS), CNN 2020-08-23.