We’re Breaking Up: Reinventing Politics for the iPad Age

Photo: Website Pakhuis de Zwijger

Photo: Website Pakhuis de Zwijger


Ellyn's interview in Confrontation

An interview with Wouter Welling from Positief Links

By Ellyn van Valkengoed

Friday night. When I arrive at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, the DJ is already on stage and I can feel the bass thumping beneath my feet. People are milling around the bar or sitting at round tables, talking and studying the shiny black iPad at the centre of every table.

It’s crowded: late-comers are standing, nursing their beers. Purple disco lights flash across their faces. Nothing about the scene suggests this is a political meet-up, but that’s exactly what I’ve come for.

“Politics should be fun,” says Wouter Welling (30). “You want to go out, meet your friends.” Wouter is the co-founder of Positief Links (the Positive Left), Amsterdam’s ‘first political start-up’, as the movement calls itself. Positief Links is not a political party: there are no candidates, no slogans and no televised debates.

Instead, Positief Links is all about generating ideas. These meet-ups aren’t called meet-ups, but ‘Idea Factories’. They’re hoping for the kind of ideas that could change politics by inspiring left-wing parties to work together.

The main goal is to reach people who have given up on politics. Whether you find politicians too cynical, feel disappointed by promises broken or you zone out when people start saying things like ‘coalition government’ and ‘proportional representation’: there’s a place at the bar for you tonight.

Connection lost

For Wouter, it made sense to look for a solution to political disengagement online. In his day job, Wouter works for the Dutch government in The Hague on the digitalization of citizen information. In other words, he helps people find their way to government services online.

“If you’re worried about privacy, don’t be: the records are a mess, the government isn’t very good at keeping up with technological developments,” he grins.

I decide not to take his word for it, since he warmly recommends the dystopian Netflix tv-series Black Mirror to me in the same breath (“chilling”).

When I ask Wouter what he is worried about, he becomes earnest:

“Not many people get involved with political parties anymore.  Not because they’re not interested in political issues – my friends talk a lot about what should be different in society in the pub or at the kitchen table – but because they don’t connect with politicians.”

“Especially on the left, politicians come across as angry and bitter. They seem to be competing against each other to point out everything that’s bad, there isn’t much room for optimism. Of course, it’s advantageous to say we’re all doomed. If you create a problem and blow it up to huge proportions, people will be very relieved when you come up with the solution.”

But recently this tactic hasn’t been paying off: many left-wing parties are struggling in the polls, losing their traditional demographic to populist movements.

That’s where Positief Links and their iPads come in.

So what’s the deal with the iPad?

“What’s missing is a way to take ideas that are going around online and put them on the political agenda,” Wouter explains.

That’s why Positief Links works with a website and social media channels where you can share ideas and give your feedback. But that’s not enough: “It’s easy to feel powerless online and become an internet troll, raging against the system,” Wouter says. “But you end up going unheard, because politicians don’t really listen to what is going on online anyway. We think people would rather meet up in real life than always communicate from behind their keyboards.”

At my table, I quickly find that most of the others are at a Positief Links meet-up for the first time as well. Across from me, a postgraduate student in biology tells me that she supports the green party, but that she strongly feels a need for more optimism in the debates about politics. The young man to my left works in logistics. Within five minutes, he brings up Donald Trump and how worried he is about ‘the bomb’.

One older gentleman – grey beard, eyes somewhat clouded behind thick glasses– shrugs when I ask him what brought him here. “I had nothing else to do tonight, anyway.”

The moment the pitches start, the old man sits up straight in his chair. It turns out he has an opinion on every pitch’s topic: whether VAT-free repairs are a good idea (“yes! It’ll create so many jobs”) or if we should appoint a minister of the future (“depends on the party providing him”).

Meanwhile, the students are laughing and filming the live band on their phones, which performs humorous songs in the intervals - think three men, a guitar and an xylophone.

Talking heads

The light-hearted, relaxed atmosphere is also what attracts criticism of Positief Links. How can five minute discussions be anything but shallow? Aren’t the iPads just gimmicks? How will PL influence anyone?

From what I’ve seen, I’m surprised how fast a room of people debating each other can come to key arguments relating to the ideas they have just heard. But observation aside, I think these critics misinterpret what Positief Links is and what it isn’t. Wouter considers it a “movement”, one that “most likely” will not ever run for government itself.

He implies we should rely less on politicians and on old ways of doing politics, and instead should put more of our own energy and effort into the state of our democracy. “Politicians are just talking heads, they appeal to people’s intellectual laziness,” Wouter says, “they point us to the easy solution. But that’s not necessarily the best solution.”

I wonder if a more fitting description of Positief Links could be that it’s not renewing the political party at all, but instead works more like a think tank.

That’s why PL doesn’t invite people who are already well known public figures to pitch their ideas. “If we can provide anyone with a stage for their idea that otherwise might never have been heard, then we have succeeded.” It seems like people appreciate this approach: Positief Links is now into its second year, sustained by volunteers and crowdfunders.

I wonder if a more fitting description of the organization could be that it’s not renewing the political party at all, but instead works more like a think tank.

When I point this out to Wouter afterwards (on Twitter, of course), he writes: “I thought about what you said and I think it’s right – we’re making the think tank modern and open to everyone, in order to influence politicians with great, positive, left-wing ideas.”

The platforms we choose for public debate say a great deal about the ways in which we integrate our digital lives with our real ones. In a time defined by fake news and filter bubbles, it’s high time for a more optimistic vision of the role the internet could play in politics.