Friday, August 1, 2008

Towards What? A Review of Netroots Rising

Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists Is Changing American Politics By Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox Praeger Publishers Westport, CT: 2008 230 Pages, $39.95

Introduction.

Political Science has a concept known as “empowerment theory.” The idea is that, among other things, giving people an opportunity to participate meaningfully in campaigns is one way of showing respect for their skill, energy, judgment, and intelligence. As formerly frustrated political outsiders begin to perceive such an opportunity for empowerment, many of them will seize that opportunity. As a result of their action, they will feel more efficacious, their lives will seem more meaningful to them, and their belief in democracy will deepen.

This book is a confirmation of empowerment theory. It is a true story of how outsiders to an established campaign process found a new way to become effective participants in the system. As the authors suggest, this may be the beginning of a real revolution.

Who are the netroots? They include men and women, paid website designers and managers, bloggers (paid and unpaid), and especially the readers of these information sources. It is these readers who participate early in campaigns by using the net to seek and to spread information, and to contribute funds to favored candidates, whether in or out of their own voting jurisdictions. By no means monolithic in their opinions, the netroots does lean liberal.

To fully appreciate the achievement of the netroots, let us first consider the historical context out of which the netroots have grown. (I include this section because it is not in the book.)

The Political Context.

The modern two-party system took shape in the mid-1800s. General Andrew Jackson organized the Democratic Party in 1825. He won his first of two elections to the presidency in 1828. Using Abe Lincoln as their candidate, and Jackson’s organizing strategies, the Republican Party came to power in 1860. Soon thereafter, the bosses of the two parties took charge of how campaigns would be conducted. Early in the 20th Century, progressives tried to wrest power from the party bosses by instituting primaries in various states. This ended the reign of the bosses, but not of the rich. They quickly learned to use the primaries to select a favorable presidential candidate by granting or withholding funds.

Most presidents since the end of the 19th Century have been recruited and supported by wealthy insiders. Their campaigns are financed by the massive contributions of corporations and rich individuals. A cadre of Washington lawyers and lobbyists organize fund-raisers, and “bundle” checks to skirt FEC laws limiting campaign contribution amounts. The dough is channeled to clever ad makers and media manipulators, who know just how to fool the voting public into thinking this candidate is what they really want. Professional public relations experts craft a policy platform designed to mean what polls show the voters want to hear. Paid speech writers adapt the platform to candidate speeches. As we all know, it’s like selling soap.

Seasoned professionals run the campaign in the traditional top-down manner. The elected officials in both parties have a home base organization of volunteers. This army of reservists consists of the beneficiaries of earmarks and pork, which steer the public’s tax dollars into businesses and services in the districts and states. Some of that former tax money is returned to the elected officials in the form of campaign contributions “from the people.” For each election cycle, this army of reservists is called out to recruit their friends and acquaintances to campaign for the candidate that the wealthy elites have chosen for them to back. Party conventions have become festivals to reward the reservists for their efforts. Conventions no longer choose candidates – they have already been chosen in “the wealth primary.”

Thus, for well over 100 years the US has had a political system with a relatively closed campaign and election process run by the rich. Until, that is, 2002 when Howard Dean began his presidential bid.

The Deaniacs.

This book is rich in detail about the Dean movement, and other campaigns. However, the authors do not mention a particularly important move made by the Dean campaign, which may be another of its firsts. Dean asked his supporters to vote online to help decide whether his campaign should apply for millions of dollars in federal matching funds during the primary campaign. If the campaign did this, it would also have to abide by federal limitations on how much it could spend. In November of 2003 the majority voted to stay out of the system, and just self-finance. And so that is what Dean did. This was authentic democratic empowerment.

As the authors show, the Dean campaign listened to its supporters in several ways. It took suggestions made in comments on its blog and in emails to its website. It joined with Meetup.com, and encouraged its supports to meet together, unsupervised by the campaign, and brainstorm over ways to support the candidate on their own initiative.

People who felt frustrated by a perceived lack of empowerment saw an opportunity to exercise some significant power by using the Internet. Some started their own pro-Dean blogs. Daily Kos took up the Dean cause early in 2003. Dozens of Yahoo Groups came together, many self-organized by states.

As the narrative suggests, two of the major moving factors in this period were anger and frustration. The anger was over the Bush theft of the presidency in 2000, and even more so at the unprecedented preemptive invasion of Iraq in response to 9/11, which was justified by lies and deception.

The frustration came from believing in the ideal of democracy, while in reality being locked out of the political system, which was dominated by the military/industrial complex, as well as other rich corporations and individuals.

No one proclaimed “let’s use the Internet to storm the barricades!” It just happened spontaneously. As the book shows, it happened at the same time in the Dean campaign, and in the Clark campaign. Never mind that both campaigns ultimately failed. Lessons were learned, people gained new and valuable experience, and precedents were set for a truly new politics.

Pros v. Joes.

Needless to say, the Old Guard is uncomfortable with this Internet Insurgency. The long practiced habit of putting professionals in charge of a tightly knit campaign organization, after Jackson’s military style, is a hard to shake addiction. The Dean campaign was extraordinary, in part, because it thought outside the box, and actually encouraged free-spirited Deaniacs to do their own thing.

Thus, one of the recurring themes in the book is the conflict between, what I call, “the pros and the joes.” At one point, for one of the authors, it nearly came to blows! We see numerous examples of old style control freaks trying to shape the message put out by independent-minded bloggers. It just can’t be done.

That conflict haunted the “Webb for Senate” campaign in Virginia. Here is the story of a hard fought campaign against a seemingly invulnerable incumbent. The pros failed to appreciate the power of the joes and their freewheeling blogs. Remember the word “macaca”? All the details are in the book. The netroots played a big role in helping to draft Webb when he was unsure of his chances, at getting out the Webb message, and at exposing the racism of the incumbent. They deserve credit for their significant share in bringing about Webb’s victory.

Other effective uses of the net in politics will be found in a variety of well-told vignettes. These include the story of Tim Kaine’s victorious campaign for governor of Virginia. The netroots also played a big part in bringing down “the hammer,” former House majority leader Republican Tom Delay. These authors speak from experience, because they were in on the action.

From the democratic point of view, a good campaign is an education to the electorate. Certainly the Internet is full of potential for educating. While no Lincoln/Douglas debates yet, the book does show some instances of positive e-education for the voters about issues. As an example of their candor, the authors also record some instances of embarrassingly stupid mud-slinging and balderdash put out on the net.

Net Neutrality.

Another theme of the book is that the Internet is not neutral; it has a progressive bias. At first you might think that the Internet is just a tool, to be used as well by conservatives as progressives. But that’s not the way it works out in practice. Because this technology is an instrument for changing, not preserving, the present campaign and election process, it is biased in favor of progressives. Because it connects people equally, it elevates the value of all users. All users are equally empowered, and limited only by their own personal skills, drive, and wit. That is why progressives, like the anti-war pro-reform Deaniacs, were the first to put the Internet into effective political use. Progressive minded people are more energized by the net’s possibilities than are conservative minded folks.

The authors see clearly the stronger appeal to progressives. Although not in the book, here are some statistics that tend to validate their vision.

According to Pew surveys taken in 2000, 20% of respondents reported using the Internet to obtain political news. But in early 2008, 74% of Obama supporters reported using the Internet to get political information – more than three times the number eight years prior. In the same 2008 survey, 57% of Clinton supporters reported using the net for news, and 56% of McCain supporters. Clearly, supporters of the candidate for change are way ahead of the competition when it comes to net savvy.

Only 3% reported political donating online in all of 2006. But by early 2008, the number had nearly tripled to 8%; and, 17% of Obama supporters had reported donating online in this survey, taken during the time when Clinton was still in the primary race.

36% of Democrats report having a social network profile. Its only 21% for Republicans and 28% for Independents. 66% of those under 30 have a social network profile. 35% of respondents say they have watched political videos online. That is three times the number for 2004.

These numbers are a measure of momentum. Net use, and sophistication, is growing. Our country is far from having reached its full potential for Internet-based politics. If 80% of those with some college own a computer, as some surveys suggest, and only 20% with a high school diploma own a computer, that means there is room for 20% growth in the first group, and 80% growth in the second group. If a little more than half the computer owners in the US go online for political news, that means that almost half of them have room to grow in their sophistication.

The writers of Netroots Rising are well aware that Internet technology also tilts progressive because it confronts one of the premises of consumer culture. That is, passivity. Corporations require consumers who will respond to advertising, and play the consumer game without questioning it. Thus, most Americans get their political information from watching TV. Listening to the radio, and reading newspapers and magazines, are a distant second. But Internet technology requires its users to ask questions, and to actively seek answers. To use a search engine, for example, someone must first formulate in their mind what it is they want to know about. Then they conduct a search. Active Internet users are a different kind of person than the average TV viewer who simply turns on “the evening news.” Also, passive media make no provision for participation. One may shout at a talking head on the Boob Tube, or at a voice coming out of the radio, but those acts are inconsequential. Writing a letter to the local newspaper isn’t much more effective. But commenting on a blog can engage others in a discussion, and the dialogue can not only inform, but change minds. The netroots, then, is progressive in that it is acting out of line with the corporate-culture mainstream. As the book suggests, the netroots are the advance guard of changes yet to come.

Concluding Questions.

A two-party, top-down system that dominated much of the 19th Century, and all of the 20th Century, cannot be uprooted all at once – not even in a decade. But this book points in the direction for politics that the new Internet-related technology indicates.

Of course, no revolution can succeed without struggle. Struggle, as Marx learned from Hegel, is the birthing process of history. For some joes, it might actually come to blows. Also, there will be set-backs. And success is never guaranteed.

While the authors sense the revolutionary potential of the netroots, they could have sketched in a little more vision in their last chapter. How, for example, can the netroots lead America towards a fuller realization of its potential for a more direct democracy?

Can the new net technology make the direct election of the president possible (that is, without the Electoral College, which contributed to Gore’s loss in 2000)? Can the Internet be used to create a virtual republic in each Congressional district, or each state?

What is the full potential of the Internet and its related electronic technology? Is the political potential of this technology maxed out by the speed of communication it allows, or by the efficiency of its computerized record keeping? Is it maxed out by the profitability of its fund-raising efforts? Is it maxed out by its ability to publicize and to popularize a progressive candidate, or to let everyone know about the faults of an incumbent or an opponent of a progressive? Is it maxed out in its role as gadfly to the mainstream media?

One might also ask the authors, “what is the netroots long-term strategy?” Do the netroots want to become merely accepted as equals in the money-dependent presently dominant system, or do they want to find a way to compel that system to break out of its current wealth-serving mold altogether, and use Internet technologies to create a new system, which greatly magnifies the degree of democracy we progressives now find so frustrating? Are the current uses of the net the final realization of its full potential for democratizing our politics?

One author has partly answered when he commented recently on a blog that this book is not the announcement of a triumph, but of a beginning. Read this important book and you will see just how a new chapter in American politics has begun to unfold.

In concluding, the authors recognize that Internet technology has a long way to go before it can rise to the level of influence of print and broadcast media. But, those may be a measure of its potential. For the Internet to realize its full potential, and surpass the passive absorption of political information, will require a new kind of American. That’s what real revolutions do; they change character.

I would only add that as people become more sophisticated with e-commerce, and other forms of Internet usage, they will become more prepared for increased participation in e-politics. Mistrust and reluctance are currently high about the prospects of online voting; yet, as we have seen, this too was done by Dean. But once the electorate is as comfortable with the prospects of e-politics as they now are with the use of e-commerce and e-banking they will be more receptive for a great leap forward.

Attention teachers. This book is not only excellent as current history, it is a fantastic stimulant for critical thinking. Almost every page makes a claim for a causal relationship between netroots action and some political success, such as fund-raising, drafting a candidate, or winning an election. Your students will have a ball refuting or defending these claims. The book is easy to read, and the authors provide material for both sides of the arguments.

I highly recommend this book.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
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Dr. Kelleher is the author of Progressive Logic, and The New Election Game. His latest essay is “Internet Voting is Coming!” at:
http://www.webcitation.org/5ZbugIFU0
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Sunday, February 24, 2008

World Wide Electronic Democracy Now!

Friends of Democracy!

Internet Voting can be as safe as a bank transfer of funds, or an on-line purchase. Both are done millions of times a day without loss. Hackers can't get in to these systems.

People all over the world can elect government officials conveniently through internet voting. Elections can be held without advantage to elites. This model for the United States can be adapted to any country.

Think of it, in the US: No Electoral College, with the people directly electing the president and vice-president. All states equal partners. Full public funding, so no special interest advantages. Open to all self-nominated persons, after passing a written exam.

How is this possible?

Read:

Start at http://ssrn.com/author=1053589