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Episode 34: What can Mars teach us about politics on Earth?

The future of Congress has been on our minds.

Recently, we considered how advances in technology and data analysis can and will change the way legislators do their work. There are places that are pushing the envelope in this arena. In Brazil official state hackers are building apps, games and data visualizations to help Brazilians – and the members of Parliament – understand the legislative process. In Finland, they are trying legal reform through crowdsourcing – literally turning the legislative process over to the people.

There’s one other place we wanted to explore for ideas about the future and politics – Mars.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson is probably best known for a trilogy of novels called “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars.” Their story follows the first human colony on the Red Planet, from scientific outpost through growing villages and cities, to political revolutions, independence from Earth, and a new constitution.

Science fiction is like a big sandbox of ideas in science and technology, but also in culture, politics, and governance. “Lincoln’s great sentence, ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from the Earth,’ is a utopian science fiction story because it’s in future tense,” Robison says. “We do science fiction all the time in stating our political goals and then acting on them.”

A broad theme in Robinson’s work is tinkering with Mars to make it more hospitable to human life. He’s concocted a Martian constitution where the environment itself is an acknowledged stakeholder that has rights.

As his characters embark on this massive experiment, two factions emerge: those who believe that it is right and good for humans to manipulate and change the planet as much as they like, and those who believe the wild Martian environment should be protected. Sound familiar?

In this case, Robinson’s work is more about NOW than the future.  He uses his science fiction to express a clear point of view on issues such as climate change. As far as he is concerned, we are actually in a better position to protect earth than his characters are on Mars.

This week on the DecodeDC podcast, it’s the future of Congress from about as far outside the Beltway as you can get.

Special thanks to Jeremy Stursberg for his original music in this week's podcast.

Episode 33: Future Congress

We have always been innovators. It is in our nature as Americans. Heck, democracy itself was born here, as part of what the 19th century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called the Great American Experiment.

But with the average age in Congress at around 60, plus a legislative process that has come to a grinding halt in the past several years, could the United States be losing its experimental edge?

Sure, it may feel like our civic lives are advancing with the Internet age, what with the massive proliferation of ways you can contact your representatives in Washington -- email, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. The problem is, the people on the receiving end of those messages -- Congress -- hasn’t really put in place ways to deal with the modern onslaught of messages.

In fact, unless you take great pains to be clear that you live in the district of the lawmaker you’re contacting, the truth is, by and large, members of Congress ignore your messages.

By contrast, consider Finland. There, lawmakers are experimenting with a bold new way of reforming a law: crowdsourcing -- meaning turning the legislative process over to the people.

Or consider Brazil, where there is now an experimental computer lab smack in the middle of the Parliament’s committee rooms. There, official staff hackers throw together apps and games and data visualizations to help Brazilians -- and the members of Parliament -- understand the legislative process.

Today on the DecodeDC weekly podcast, we explore these forward-looking examples of legislative innovation, and ask the question of our own lawmakers here in Washington, DC: What’s the future of Congress?

Repost Episode 1: House of (Mis) Representatives

This is it, folks — DecodeDC is relaunching next week! Keep an eye out for our new logo, and enjoy multimedia content on our daily blog, which will be posted on all Scripps websites.

Thanks for sticking with us as we’ve been preparing for the all new DecodeDC and reposting some of our favorite podcasts.

For the final repost, we’re going back to the very beginning of DecodeDC to Episode 1: House of (Mis) Representatives. This very first podcast focuses on a feeling many people get when dealing with Washington: “My voice isn’t being heard.” Why do they feel that way? It could be because they aren’t being heard.

Repost Episode 10: A Kind of Republican

As we prepare for the relaunch of DecodeDC, we are continuing to repost some of our past episodes. This week we re-present our conversation with former congressmen Jim Kolbe, a Republican from Arizona who served in the House for decades.

Similar to many of his Republican colleagues, Kolbe is a strong fiscal conservative. But what makes Kolbe such a fascinating political character is what makes him very different from many members of the GOP. He’s pro-choice, and he’s openly gay.

Kolbe describes his outlook on the future of Congress — what should change, and what can’t change.

On another note, stick with us as we prepare for the relaunch. Very soon we’ll have a multimedia blog, new logo and even more content!

Repost Episode 16: Belly of the Beast

Last week we re-posted an episode featuring former Congressman Lee Hamilton reading his essay on how politics has changed. As promised, we’re now reposting our follow-up conversation with Hamilton from July of 2013 about the biggest problem he sees in politics today: Money.

“While there’s a lot of rhetoric given to the ordinary voter — government of the people, by the people, for the people — the fact of the matter is, a politician spends most of his or her time courting money. And the people who give the money want something in return. That may not be corrupt, it’s certainly not illegal —but it does put disproportionate influence on the money side,” he says.

Hamilton cautions against the assumption that the American system has worked for more than 200 years, so it will continue to do so. 

And another reminder that we’re getting ready to relaunch in DecodeDC in the coming weeks. We’re almost ready with a new logo, a multimedia blog, and even more content.