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Open Source Party 2.0: Liberty, Democracy, Transparency!

As Egypt undergoes its revolution, I find myself thinking about a strategy, a pathway to political agency; to real power; to liberty, transparency and democratic inclusion for the multitudes in America (and, ultimately, everywhere).

In November 2007, I presented a proposal to start a political organization I called the Open Source Party on the 10 Zen Monkeys website. The idea was to bring open source principles into the political realm.

It was around the time when the media started barraging us with presidential politics, and so I framed the proposal around the oncoming 2008 elections. Here’s a bit of it:

The duopoly will have its way again in this year’s election. 

Ralph Nader and whoever the Libertarians and Greens nominate as their candidates will drag their asses around the country, sometimes saying interesting and important things, sometimes not. Many of us will wish, once again, that there could be a dynamic discourse about the many real issues and problems that get ignored; and then we will vote (or not) for the one who has at least a fingernail grip on sanity, or for one of the sad and hopeless alterna-candidates.”

Links were provided to a (now defunct) Ning network, and to The Point – a site that allows you to set a fundraising goal, and then forwards you the money if you reach it. We (other Zen Monkeys and myself) promised that we would do the legal paperwork, and officially establish the Open Source Party as a political organization, if we received $5,000 in donations.

As is often the case with these sorts of things on the internet, the proposal was met with a barrage of excited claims of support and loose chatter (and, of course, criticism), followed by pretty much zero commitment and zero donations. Still, some of the discourse was pretty interesting.

Jon Lebkowsky provided these:

Principles of Open Source Politics:


Many of us who are tech-focused have come to understand the power of open approaches and open architectures. Even technologies that aren’t strictly “Open Source” benefit from Open APIs and exposure of operating code (kind of inherent with scripting languages like Perl and PHP). When we know how something works, we know how to work with it. And we know how to transform it to meet our needs.

Government should be as open and transparent as possible. There may be some rationales for closed doors, but few — for the most part, citizens should be able to clearly see how decisions are made. That’s a key component of our political platform: we want to see the actual “source code” for the decisions that affect our lives.


Open Source projects are often highly collaborative and can involve many stakeholders, not just manager and coders. The Open Source Party sees this as a great way to do government. (I’m partial to charrette methodology, personally.)

Emergent Leadership

Effective action and decison-making requires leadership. In an Open Source form of politics, leaders emerge through merit -— by providing real leadership and direction, not by appointment, assignment, or election. Nobody made Linus Torvalds the lead for Linux, or Matt Mullenweg the lead for WordPress. They saw a need, created a project, and found an effective following who acknowledged their vision, expertise, and ability to manage and lead. Emergent leaders aren’t handed authority. They earn it, and if they cease to be engaged or effective, they pass the baton to other leaders who emerge from within the group.

Extensible and Adaptable

Open Source projects and structures are agile and malleable. They can be adapted and extended as requirements changed. Governance should have this kind of flexibility, and our system of governance in the U.S. was actually built that way. We should ensure that bureaucracies and obsolete rule sets don’t undermine that flexibility.


Lovely, right? But without any real substantive support, I concluded that the time wasn’t right… and I let it slide.

Is the time right now?

A few months ago, a college student in Wisconsin asked me if I was interested in reviving the Open Source Party concept. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

6 things that have happened since 2007 that make me think it may be time for Open Source Party:

1: Economy Nearly Collapses

With the crash of 2008, we had our noses rubbed in the plutocratic — and even kleptocratic — nature of the US and global economy (“too big to fail”). As explored in the film, Inside Job and elsewhere, major players in the finance, corporate and political worlds have consciously and systematically ripped everybody off and they’ve gotten away with it. We need some power to the people.

2: Technologically Enhanced Revolution in the Middle East

The revolution will be tweeted. There’s a contagion for increased democracy, liberty and transparency. It could catch on here.

3: Wikileaks

The first intervention of radical transparency onto the global stage. It’s a force that ultimately can’t be stopped.

4: Pirate Parties in Europe

European hacker culture has created vital minority parties – “Pirate Parties” — largely based on open source cultural principles like liberalizing copyright laws and greater state transparency.

5: Netroots Elects a President (but gets the Same Old Shit)

Young “netroots” progressives put Barack Obama into the presidency by giving him an edge over Hillary Clinton in the primary. Once in office, Obama went into a huddle with the usual Democratic Party technocrats. The same old power centers — the giant corporations, the finance industry, the national security/drug war establishment ad infinitum — remain fully in charge, and in fact, they grow stronger. The Obama Administration represents the last gasp of “progressive” centrism — the strategy of trying to gently nudge these power centers toward being the engines of social responsibility. Now we have to learn how to do it ourselves.

6: Tea Party Populism

However wrongheaded and inchoate, the Tea Party is largely a populist uprising made up of people who don’t want to be ruled by elites. More importantly for our purposes here, they’ve liberated the word “Party”! Hopefully, people will no longer automatically assume that an Open Source Party is another hopeless attempt at a “third party”, organizing to run candidates in elections. Open Source Partiers could be a pressure group that operates outside the electoral process and/or operates as factions within extant political parties, depending upon the political leanings of the individuals or chapters.

What Is To Be Done?

To those of you interested in forming an Open Source Party, I suggest you (we) ditch my original script and start over from scratch. We should form a Wiki and create a new statement of purpose, charter, and plans.

I believe something like the Open Source Party is inevitable. Voluntary and open collaboration may well be the emergent socio-economics of the future and political activists will inevitably reflect that tendency. Eric S. Raymond’s seminal essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” may point the way forward. As Trevor Tomesh pointed out to me in an email, Raymond spoke about two contrasting models of software development:

The Cathedral model, in which source code is available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers.

The Bazaar model, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public.

Tomesh writes: “Let’s just replace a few words here:

The democratic republic model, in which policy is enforced with each bill passed, but policy development is restricted to an exclusive group of individuals (congress).

The direct-democracy model, in which policy is developed by the public in view of the public.

If we accept the latter rather than the former as the ideal way to go about democracy, we can reread Raymond’s essay not only in terms of an optimal software development model, but as an optimal societal and governmental development model. Let us create a new model of democracy, using the bazaar as an example.”

On the other hand, as Lebkowsky — who co-edited the book Extreme Democracy and has wrestled with questions about direct democracy for years — points out, the Cathedral and the Bazaar co-exist, and perhaps some mix of direct and representative democracy is the best way to go. Lebkowsky writes: “I used to say that we don’t replace representative democracy, we swarm it.”

Anyway, all this is open for discussion. And we’re wide open to your views and visions as well. If you want to help form an Open Source Party, please contact Trevor Tomesh at

Thanks to Jon Lebkowsky and Trevor Tomesh for contributing to this article.

Image courtesy of Political Realities