Candidates and elections are surface manifestations of the democratic intention behind a republican or representative system of government. An indvidual's vote in an election is more ritual than real participation. The relatively low sense of true participation is the probable cause of a sense of disconnection that manifests as voter apathy. Even in 2004, when it appeared that voters were fired up and the vote was very close, the actual turnout was only 55.3%. This is better than the supposed ten to one lurk ratio for online communities and conversations, but it's pretty low considering that the vote is the citizen's most obvious and relatively frictionless way to participate in governance.
To be clear, voting doesn't assure democracy. The national election should be the final tally after a long process of discussion and debate - and I don't mean candidates answering a few questions in the context of highly-controlled mass media dog-and-pony shows. Those are better than we might have expected from the "broadcast politics" of the last half of the 20th century, wherein mass media cracked our heads, dumped in a few carefully-selected ideas, and waited for us to spit out votes. In that world, there was the same barrier between candidates and voters as there was between companies and consumers, a barrier that resulted from the attempt to scale via mass marketing, which was applied to candidates as well as products.
Kennedy famously won the presidency over Nixon because his television presence was more appealing. Johnson won a decisive victory over Goldwater through effective marketing imagery with the implicit message that Goldwater would blow the world to kingdom come. Nixon came back in '68 with a campaign that was all about carefully managed media presence. Joe McGinniss, in The Selling of the President, quotes former national Republican chairman Leonard Hall saying of the '68 campaign, "You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products."
Markets are changing because of the Internet, as noted in The Cluetrain Manifesto and Waiting for Your Cat to Bark. Both emphasize the need for interaction between markets and "consumers" (aka "human beings"). This was hard to do (and the need was harder to see) before the Internet emerged as an environment for many media. Its interactive infrastructure and multiplicity of convergent media channels replaces limited broadcast with seemingly infinite programming options and content production from all directions, with a blurring of the line between consumer and producer. What this means for politics isn't completely clear yet. The 2004 and 2006 elections did appear to be transformed and more participatory. Citizen involvement seemed greater. However voter turnout wasn't significantly higher - just a few percentage points.
This election season, I see campaigns gearing up to make greater use of the Internet, now a well-established tool for appealing to voters and organizing volunteers. Does this bring candidates closer to the people? Only in a sense. I recall David Weinberger saying, of the Dean campaign, that it was most effective not in connecting Dean to his supporters, but in connecting his supporters to each other.
In fact, I've never been much for candidate politics, and I think the most effective use of the Internet is in creating unaligned grassroots coalitions and building their influence. Grassroots efforts have always been tough to build and sustain, let along make effective, but the Internet certainly makes that more doable.
Rather than aligning with candidates, online or off, I'd like to see people aligning with each other, and learning how to use the Internet to demand responsiveness and hard work from all politicians and all parties.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Wow. Well said. I was surprised and pleased to see voting shown for what it truly is--a small part in the democratic process. Rock the vote campaigns are just another way that we, as disenfranchised citizens, delude ourselves into thinking we can make a difference without doing any hard work.
As you said, the only real way to make a difference is to not be aligned with a candidate or party, but to an idea.
Amen. The only way we're ever going to get a meaningful candidate is if we take real action before the election process begins. It seems like so many people always complain about the choices we inevitably have for candidates, yet few of them take any active interest in politics until a presidential election comes around.
Excellent point about Dean's campaign. It's noteworthy that the biggest developments in modern political media haven't been influenced by the candidates, but by the base. It would be a big mistake for the candidates themselves to ignore what the blog community has to say.