Micah Sifry co-edited the Iraq War Reader. A senior analyst at Public Campaign, Sifry was formerly the Middle East editor for The Nation. His talk at WTF 2004 addressed whether some of the changes in political organizing that new technology can bring will really make a difference. What follows is a partial transcript of his comments.
For a long time, I was an editor at The Nation. I now freelance write and work for a public-interest group called Public Campaign. I also authored a book on third parties in America, and I’m just finishing a new book on money and politics called Is That a Politician in Your Pocket?
I’m here partly because of my brother David who’s been tutoring me for a couple of years since he got involved in Linux and open source development. I’ve always been interested in outside-the-box politics, and it’s been really fun to finally see our paths converge and be part of this conversation. I still feel like somebody’s on Mars, somebody’s on Venus, but hopefully we’ll be able to speak each others language.
The question I have is if this is the end of politics as we know it, or are we just being fooled by the flash and dash of MoveOn, Meetup, the blogosphere, self publishers, and the thing that got everybody in mu worlds attention, a presidential campaign that broke all sorts of records in raising money from small donors? Are we just seeing power and voice just as it ever was?
There are two key features in our political situation. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is. That’s absolutely right. Organized money, capital, is what organizes campaigns, determines who can campaign, and what policy gets discussed. What we need to remember is that organized people matters too.
We live today in a capital-intensive system built around not listening to people but listening to polls. You dont get elected unless you’re already rich or know a lot of rich people. Then we have all the lobbies, which effectively give voice to the top quarter of the population. There are a few minor examples, which do integrate people further down the socio-economic ladder. It’s no surprise that the bottom half has dropped off and doesn’t vote.
Second, the other salient feature about American politics is that it’s a duopoly. Picture a beach with two ice cream stands. Where are they going to locate themselves on the beach? Right next to each other in the middle of the beach. As long as they can keep out any other competition, they can act jointly to raise their prices and go on vacation at the same time, and nobody on the beach has any choice.
Most of our politics is conducted under these duopoly conditions. That brings paralysis. We have no real competitive elections in America. They don’t just tacitly divide up the votes, but they write laws and enforce customs that restrict access of other parties to the ballot and the media. Different voices have trouble reaching voters because they can’t get on the beach. Without meaningful competition, it becomes a joke. Bipartisan politics basically means buy one party, get one free.
The incumbents as a class have very little fear about being punished at the poles. That brings on costly blunders like the Enron implosion and failing to take elementary steps to better secure planes. Now the wolves announce that they’re going to investigate the chicken coop that was broken into.
Can technologies and the Internet tip the scales toward organizing people and forcing ideas to the table that the duopoly would rather not address? I don’t know. I’m on a search to figure this out. History teaches us to be skeptical. Cable was supposed to revolutionize politics because of community access. Has that happened? Direct mail was also supposed to change politics for the better. What you have now is a lot of little organizations with letterheads and mailing lists. Members have no real power but write checks.
At the same time, there is something that hasn’t died. We want direct connection to our public representatives. There was a time when participation rates were double what they are today. That was when we were a multi-party country in the 1880s. The cracks in the system over the last 20 years like talk radio, which is a quasi-interactive medium, 800 numbers, and the Internet makes the optimist in me think that broadcast politics isn’t ending but something up is rising up beside it.
Any political institution that organizes itself like a cathedral is going to be under assault and routed around. Clearly the swarm can be smarter than the queen bee. I’ve been telling my journalist friends to listen. Your audience is smarter than you. People like to be listened to, and they like to listen to each other. As the number of clued-in citizens steadily grows, people’s ideas of what they can do themselves is enlarging. Dean activists have gotten a taste of their own power. Now they want to use it themselves.
On the other hand, the pessimist in me says that this is not a substitute for nuts-and-bolts organizing. Just because you can get a bunch of people in a room doesn’t mean that anyone knows how to run a meeting. And you also can get echo chambers. Maybe all we’re seeing is a way for already well-represented, college-educated, relatively wealthy people to have more voice. Instead of representing the top quarter of the population, we’ll get the top third. These tools are good ways to organize people who already know they want to get involved. Traditional community organizations brought people into a shared sense of common civic structures, not a narrow sense of involvement.
There’s a difference between groups that meet occasionally with self-appointed leaders and groups that meet on a schedule with leaders who’ve been elected. Is this going to be meet the old boss same as the old boss, or are we on the verge of something new?