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Just Do It
Jon Lebkowsky, 22 Apr 04

No surprise to Internet mavens: the global network has become an essential part of politics in the USA and other countries where there's significant adoption. This is good news to the extent that the Internet supports more and better participation in the political process, though there's an obvious down side, the fact that folks with no Internet access are left in the virtual dust. Obviously we have to work on the digital divide thing, but the net effect of net-based political activity still looks positive from here.

A variety of tools are emerging for web-based activism in the wake of the Howard Dean campaign's success in promoting the former Vermont governor from virtual unknown to short-term front-runner and second or third place in various primaries. Dean raised money and visibility using a combination of technologies including weblogs, RSS feeds, and Yahoo groups. The Dean organization made especially effective use of Meetup.com to build support through a national schedule of monthly face-to-face meetings that gathered increasing, eventually impressive numbers of Dean supporters nationwide. There was also the volunteer project Deanspace, which created a modification of the Open Source content management system Drupal to deploy as a platform for numerous sites supporting Dean's campaign.

Other Democratic presidential campaigns (especially Clark's) made effective use of web-based tools, and Republicans have also created effective political sites such as GOP Team Leader. The there's issues-focused organizations like Moveon.org and its just-launched cousin, DriveDemocracy.org.

After Dean left the presidential race, technologists who had been supporting his effort organized efforts to create general-use campaign software incorporating lessons they had learned working with the Dean campaign. The Deanspace team is working on a more robust version of the Drupal-based toolkit under the name CivicSpace, and Pat Dunlavey and Dan Robinson are leading development of a "Get Out the Vote" web application called Advokit.

So what's the future of the political web?

It could be that, after the presidential election, the excitement will die down and all this will fall away. We're conditioned to see the "voting ritual" as our fundamental political act/responsibility through which we not only select candidates, but reaffirm process – after which we can return to our daily lives and leave political decisons to the representatives we've elected. The way this process has evolved over the years is broadcast-focused. Elections are won by managing voter perceptions through expensive television advertising and through a contest of broadcast news sound bites orchestrated by campaign handlers and media relations experts. The voter passively consumes campaign messages, and the campaign with the most effective messaging – which usually means the campaign that can afford to buy the most effective messaging – wins. We pay lip service to concepts like democracy, but in this view of political process citizens are passive. In fact over the years we've been so passive that we've lost touch with the process, become apathetic, lost the sense of any political debate that isn't carefully orchestrated by handlers; many citizens have stopped voting altogether, losing their sole tenuous connection to the process of governance.

I'd like to offer an alternative, a post-broadcast politics wherein citizens take back the process using the Internet as a tool for civic engagement. With tools we have available now we can build activist networks and sustain our engagement with politics and governance as an everyday year-round part of our lives. We can blog, post to forums, chat - debate issues, research problems, expose poor or corrupt governance wherever it occurs, communicate with our represenatives – challenge them to be responsive and make sure they know what we're thinking about the issues du jour. We can evolve a world where elections are decided, not by expensive one-way broadcast advertising, but by ongoing public conversation and a candidate's ability to prove, not ideological alignment, but competent, effective leadership.

To make this happen, we just have to do it. We just have to get engaged, however we define engagement personally. We all have issues that we care about, issues that affect us in some way; that's where we can start.

We're not going to see perfection here. There's still a lot of work we have to do, such as finding ways to represent the views and concerns of those folks who don't have access to this technology. Such as accommodating the mess that democracy can become as more voices are added to the mix. Such as educating and informing citizens about issues that difficult to grasp, even for experts. We just have to tackle these problems head-on. We just have to do it.

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Comments

The Internet is a great medium for active citizens to more easily communicate and organize, but it doesn't make apathetic citizens any more active. We need something to make apathetic citizens feel like the Internet is more than just porn and email.

I think the Dean campaign briefly being in the media spot-light has raised awareness a bit, but we need more high profile examples to get people motivated.


Posted by: augie on 22 Apr 04

Aggregation and organization are very different from actual power.

At the moment, the hope people have have is that the internet will allow people to organize to encourage them, and others, to get out to vote. But that's not actually shifting power. It might be a more efficient medium for expressing political power, but it doesn't create any. McGovern??? pioneered the use of direct mail in political campaigns, and a lot of people are using the internet that way.

http://www.yourparty.org/index.php?areaid=1

takes a different approach: basically people in the party vote to determine the stance of the party.

That might be a little closer to the mark. If they had any actual power, that is...

The two places I can see the internet actually shifting the power base are open source software, and outfits like The Memory Hole.

As Lessig states, "code is law" - and the existence of large, well supported open source software has made certain kinds of legislation impossible: you can't just persuade Apple and Microsoft to lock down their operating system in some way, and then have all computers back under control.

And http://thememoryhole.org/ is a public archive of FOIA and other documents which are politically sensitive. Blogs are helping to keep stories alive, but it's really the ability to post hard evidence, to *prove* things, which looksl like power to me.


Posted by: Vinay on 22 Apr 04

Take the internet out of the equation, and everything's still true. Politics isn't a function of who's on which side of the digital divide; it's about who shoots the shotgun that causes the avalanche.

I've been reading 'They Thought They Were Free' by Mayer, who talked to normal everyday Nazis in post-war Germany, to find out how all that could have happened. The most common thread throughout the book is the separation of people from political desires. They had power (Germany was a democracy at that point), but no desire to change things because their culture was one of strict heirarchical order. We have the opposite problem: So much power that it's overwhelming to try and use it responsibly.


Posted by: Paul on 22 Apr 04



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