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Do the Pirates stand a chance in the US?

Brad Hall’s first encounter with the Pirate Party happened when he happened across a post on Boingboing.net regarding the party. Intrigued, Brad decided to ingratiate himself in the US movement, aiming to become an embedded journalist. While supporting the cause, he tried to distance himself from it. He failed and became one of its top US members.

Felicitas Steinhoff, whose first encounter with the Pirate Party took place when she attended a meeting of the Pirate Party Massachusetts in Boston this spring, quickly became an involved member of the Pirate Party Germany after she moved to Hildesheim, Lower Saxony.

The two of them sat down to chat about the success of the Pirate movement in Germany and the US Pirate Parties in general with regards to their chances within the American political system.

Although founded in Sweden in 2006, the Pirate Party movement has seen its most successful rise to political power in Germany, where it is now represented in three state parliaments and is projected to pass the 5% hurdle in next September’s national election.
In addition, all over Germany, Pirate Party members have been elected into city and county councils, where they work hard to make administrative processes more transparent and to enable citizens to participate in direct democracy through Liquid Feedback Software.
Now, between our election campaign here, leading to the election of state parliament in Lower Saxony this coming January, and the upcoming US election, I want to ask: Do you see the US Pirate Parties capable of achieving an equally large momentum?

I believe it’s possible. The main problems facing the US party are that hardly anyone knows of us, we’re currently a small minority, and ballot access varies from state to state. Contrary to popular thought, there isn’t just one Democratic Party, there’s fifty individual state parties that join together as the Democratic Party. In Florida, where I live, it’s relatively easy to establish a political party. Whereas somewhere like Washington state, their laws seem to be written to exclude third parties. In New York several thousand signatures must be gathered. You live in Germany, how are political parties created and maintained there? Do they have national parties or do they have the equivalent of state parties?

Germany makes it easier for people to form a party on a national, but also on a state level. There are a few strictly state-level parties. Individual state and national elections are stacked, just like in the US. The difficulty comes, much like in the US, with the need to collect signatures, when you actually want to stand for elections on any level – cities, state parliaments and nationally. The biggest difference, I think, is that the Pirate Party here was established as a national party first, which then worked on a state level to create structures in order to to first get in state parliaments or city councils.
I think what really works in our favor in Germany is the election system where any party that gets above 5% of the vote will get seats in parliament, whether state, or national. This made it easy for the Pirate Party to quickly translate its popularity into political influence.
In terms of the chicken-egg metaphor: Over here, the chicken laid the eggs (we first had the national Party, which organized itself due to the election cycle primarily on a state level at first), whereas in the US you have the eggs (the different state Pirate Parties) but have to wait for them to hatch.

I’m afraid US Pirates will have a much harder time and it will take much longer. What I’m struggling with, in terms of the Pirate movement in the US, is related to that: Do you think that there is chance for you to go beyond the strictly local level within the American two party system?

There’s always a chance. The problem with the US Pirate Party’s platform is that for them to really be able to work, they would have to be implemented or at least started from a high level, such as governor, senator, or even President. Of course, there is plenty a Pirate can do in a local capacity as a mayor or other county commissioner-type position. Being able to advocate certain changes can go a long way to making those changes happen. In order for change to happen, someone has to speak up.

How does it go over in Germany? From what I hear they have a President and a Chancellor, how does that work?

Regardless of the people very high up, such as the Chancellor or President, the fact that there is that 5% hurdle that I mentioned before makes it easier for us to be elected. What I find fascinating with regard to the US is that, because of the Patriot Act and the increasing government surveillance in the US, e.g. wiretapping, surveillance drones, you name it, the Pirate Party could become such a strong voice in your country. In Germany, people who are older are not yet as aware of these things as in the US. I think that’s a huge opportunity for the US Pirates.
To be provocative: I think the US Pirates will never stand Presidents, or Senators or Governors, but if you get people into city councils or even just into the streets with information and protests, as you have been, you can really influence the discourse on these topics already. I find that people in the US are much more easily motivated to participate in such events. Maybe that’s enough? What if the US Pirates would focus on local issues and city councils and then also stage large statewide protests and info-blasts on civil rights, renewable energy, gay rights, etc?

I think you’re right in that regard. Even if we never have a person in public office, just making people aware of the situation would help sway public opinion enough that the top two parties would have to make mention of our aims. But, every political party, no matter how small, always wants to win elections and eventually make their way to the White House.

I think this sort of thinking is irrelevant, as far as the political system in the US is concerned. It’s, in my opinion, a system that actively prohibits more than the major two parties from participating. The Pirates in the US have the unique chance of questioning this system from the outside, by adopting the participatory structures the party uses in Europe. Would you agree that this should be your main focus: To kick off a national debate about the flawed political system?

Absolutely. By shining light on the inefficiencies of the current system, we can hope to be able to introduce systems that would work better for this country.

So, no run for the White House, but being the voice that advocates an overhaul of the American political system as such?

Oh, we’ll definitely run for the White House, when we’re big enough to be able to do that.

🙂 Spoken like a true American;) Keep me posted! It was nice chatting with you!

Thank you, see you at the polls.

Featured image:
Original: CC BY-NC John Shao
Adapted by Andrew Reitemeyer 

Felicitas Steinhoff

About Felicitas Steinhoff

I recently moved back to Germany, after having lived in Santa Fe (BA St. John’s College), Morocco (MA in International Relations Al Akhawayn University) and Boston. In Boston, I worked with Grassroots Camapaigns to raise awareness and funds for organizations such as the ACLU, Oxfam and Planned Parenthood. While in Boston, Dewey Square was occupied and I attended a meeting of the Pirate Party MA, which very much shaped my current outlook on participatory democracy and transparent politics. Now, back in Germany in the picturesque town of Hildesheim, I’m the assistant secretary of the Pirate Party Fraction in our city council, do some translation work and tutoring in English, German and Latin.