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New Models of Politics
Jamais Cascio, 25 Apr 04

Political parties and political campaigns in coming years will bear little resemblence to the familiar structures of the late 20th century. We've looked at some of the new models being used and debated and where they could go, but two more examples of 21st century politics have shown up on our radar -- and they couldn't be more divergent. The Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign has embraced the information-dense, top-down control of the so-called "multilevel marketing" campaigns; the Green Party of Canada, conversely, in its bid to become a new player in Canadian parliamentary politics, has opened its platform on a Wiki, allowing all members to shape its contents directly. The contrast between these two approaches demonstrates that this new era of networked politics is still very much in its earliest days.

At its core, the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign diverges very little from traditional political campaigns. Field campaigners are given explicit instructions coming down from the top, and their reports filter back up to feed the campaign's growing database. Hierarchical control, established talking points, and registration quotas are all familiar elements to experienced political observers. What makes the campaign's approach different from past efforts is the degree to which dense information flows (albeit one-way) and rich communication media are the fuel for the process, and the explicit adoption of multilevel marketing as a process model. This sort of campaign would have been far more unweildy in the era prior to instant messages, GIS, GPS, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones. In many respects, the Bush-Cheney 2004 exemplifies how a traditional approach can evolve to take advantage of new technologies and systems, without ever changing its underlying nature.

The Green Party of Canada, conversely, is clearly trying something entirely new. The party platform -- its collection of core beliefs, policy agendas, and issue positions -- is editable by all members in a Wiki, and the process is visible to all visitors. By using a Wiki format, all Green Party Canada members have a say in the evolution of the party's approach to Canadian concerns. This will inevitably be somewhat chaotic, as even in a small, activist group, there will be diverging beliefs and ideas; nonetheless, it's the perfect tool for a movement espousing individual empowerment coupled with community collaboration.

It's entirely possible that both of these approaches will suffer setbacks this year, or demonstrate surprising strength. Politics is undergoing a transition, and it's not obvious what new model will come to dominate the next few decades. While we may have a strong bias towards empowered/collaborative approaches, we have to be clear that the tools which make it possible for smaller, disparate groups to come together and function effectively also make it possible for established, large-scale organizations to leverage their depth of resources to build new abilities and power. In the 1990s, it was a consultant mantra that smaller, nimbler new entrants in various industries would devour the older "dinosaur" companies; in reality, the older dinosaurs usually managed to learn from the new models, take advantage of what worked, and happily devoured the little guys. We shouldn't be shocked if we see history repeat itself.

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Comments

Great post. Hadn't really conceived of the "multilevel marketing" model. It really fits!


Posted by: Jimm on 25 Apr 04

Very interesting article. Thanks.


Posted by: Zach on 25 Apr 04

Here's a direct link to the NY Times article

I think it will work for non-suscribers.


Posted by: Jimm on 25 Apr 04



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