The Rise of Open-Source Politics | The Nation


The Rise of Open-Source Politics

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Micah L. Sifry blogs about the issues in this article at www.personaldemocracy.com.

Loss of Control Freaks

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Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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Ganz seems to think my book blames technology alone for the Internet’s failure to democratize politics. That’s far from the case.

For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.

That message has been very slow in reaching the Democratic establishment. On his blog, Weinberger tells of meeting DNC chair Terry McAuliffe at a cocktail party. "I tried to say that the Net can do things for campaigns other than raise money...for example, bring in a portion of the population that is feeling a tad alienated in part because of the relentless money 'n' marketing focus of the campaign. McAuliffe agreed, and then went on to re-express my point in terms of using the Net to raise money." Nor did this message penetrate the Kerry campaign. "They don't take part in the conversation on the Kerry blog," complained Mathew Gross this past summer. "They're still sort of issuing press releases, albeit in a more human voice."

That's because top-down politics is all about maintaining control. "Think of an established brand with a lot invested in control of its image," says Jonah Seiger, founding partner of Connections Media and a veteran of Internet politicking since the late 1980s. "The idea of opening that up is scary."

"Anybody who does politics the old way will fight doing things the new way because it's harder to get paid for it," says Mark Walsh, CEO of Progress Media, the parent of Air America and a veteran of such companies as VerticalNet and America Online. "Look at every other industry and how the Internet has altered it. Take E-Trade and the selling of stocks. Or Orbitz and the travel industry. In every case, the Internet enables getting rid of the middlemen." For about a year, starting in late 2001, Walsh was McAuliffe's chief technology officer, earning $1 a year to help the Democratic Party upgrade its tech systems. "Terry did want to do the right thing," Walsh says, "but I found the same buzz saw--legacy behavior and consultants who are compensated highly for non-cyber-centric behavior. TV, telemarketing, direct mail--that's where the margins are."

Another veteran of early efforts to convince top Democrats to embrace the new technology, who asked not to be named, said "At the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] the executive director, Jim Jordan, flatly didn't care. He said it was in the hands of then-political director Andy Grossman, who said, 'The day someone can show me that the Internet will make a difference in raising money or casting votes, that's the day I will care.'" He said this in 2001--after MoveOn's anti-impeachment campaign, after Jesse Ventura's breakthrough use of the Internet in 1998, after John McCain and Bill Bradley raised millions online in the 2000 primaries.

"The disconnect is now gone," says my source, noting that top Democratic Party staff are all embracing new web-based tools, "but the willingness to acknowledge that change must happen to accompany that is not. The Internet has to become the center of the organization. But the notion of the party's committees having well-defined departments with a top-down hierarchical structure hasn't changed." Walsh adds, "We have to go through a generational purge. People have been fed crap--the McPolitics diet--for so long, the body politic will respond slowly to new tools that will make them smarter and more powerful." Thus one big question for the coming year will be the extent to which grassroots activists, small donors and bloggers decide to raise hard questions about the functioning of the party organs and interest groups that until now have been able to act on their behalf without having to pay a price for their mistakes. The Kerry debacle is a good place to start.

Open-source politics is still a long way off. The term "open source" specifically refers to allowing any software developer to see the underlying source code of a program, so that anyone can analyze it and improve it; better code trumps bad code, and programmers who have proven their smarts have greater credibility and status. Applied to political organizing, open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.

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