When John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he accepted the Democratic nomination with a stark declaration: “Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.” The 1960s were only beginning, but the young senator from Massachusetts was convinced that the new decade would be a time of momentous change. Kennedy secured a transformational election victory that year because he convinced the American people that he and an evolving Democratic Party had a dramatically better understanding of what that future should look like than Richard Nixon and the Republicans.
The Democratic Party of today desperately needs to renew its franchise as a party of the future. This is its greatest challenge and, unfortunately for the party and for the country, few if any prominent Democrats have proven to be up to the task.
That is why grassroots Democrats search so ardently for new leaders, for contenders who recognize, as Kennedy in 1960, that “The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high–to permit the customary passions of political debate.”
If today’s Democratic Party is ever going to get ahead of the debates of the moment, a new generation of Democratic leaders must recognize what Kennedy recognized: that there are “new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” This will, necessarily, require them to wrestle with the questions that arise at the intersection of technology and democracy. That’s what makes the candidacy of Dr. Abdul El-Sayed for governor of Michigan so remarkable, and so exciting.
The 33-year-old Rhodes scholar who gained national prominence as the crusading director of the Detroit Health Department has mounted a gubernatorial campaign that embraces the future–and that confirms the recognition he earned from the University of Michigan in 2017 as an alumnus “whose achievements carry on Michigan’s traditions of intellectual creativity and academic endeavor, of civic engagement, and of national and international service.”
El-Sayed’s campaign talks about the future with a confidence that distinguishes him from the vast majority of candidates of both parties–who are focused, at best, on the present and, at worst, on “great again” strategies for stumbling backward. That confidence is displayed in the position-paper specifics of a campaign that does not hesitate to explain that there really are solutions for today’s greatest challenges: an ambitious 24-page plan for establishing a Medicare-for-All health-care system in Michigan, a 37-page strategy for taking the profit motive out of education policy, and a 25-page plan for transitioning to a renewable-energy economy.
“The details matter,” declares the El-Sayed campaign. “So we wrote policies with them.”
The details do matter, especially when they are employed to address issues that too many elected leaders neglect. While there are plenty of Democrats, and even a few Republicans, who express concern about expanding broadband Internet access and maintaining net neutrality, there are few if any who recognize so clearly as does El-Sayed the fundamental challenges, and the genuine opportunities, of this contested moment.
As someone who has written or co-written a stack of books about media and democracy issues, and who has engaged with these issues for a very long time, I can name only a handful of politicians who understand what is at stake in today’s technology debates. And I have never encountered a first-time candidate who has a better sense of how to address them than El-Sayed. His “MI-Fi” plan to develop “Internet for All” in Michigan is tech-savvy and visionary. It is also doable—structurally, legally, and financially.
El-Sayed understands that “Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century. Access to fast and reliable internet services is essential to economic growth, education, healthcare, and quality of life.” He understands that unequal access to the internet is not just a communications issue but also an equity issue and a democracy issue. And he understands that these realities demand a response that gets around the lobbying power of the communications giants that choose profit over providing equal access to the future.
“Big corporations and internet monopolies like Comcast are more interested in their bottom line than making sure that Michiganders have access to the affordable internet that they deserve. They have become the biggest lobbyists in Lansing and D.C., taking home millions of dollars in salary and pumping millions more into corporate politicians that sell out the public,” explains the candidate’s outline for a fair and humane digital destiny. “All Michiganders deserve access to the internet. That means internet that is affordable, fast, and reliable. That’s why we are proposing the first state-operated internet service provider in the country called MI-Fi. Now more than ever, a large-scale investment in building publicly owned and operated broadband is the best–and perhaps only–way to close Michigan’s digital divide and provide every resident with access to high-speed internet.”
El-Sayed proposes to create the nation’s first state-operated Internet-service provider with an eye toward expanding access in rural and urban communities across Michigan. The plan would close the state’s digital divide. And it would protect net neutrality at a moment when “the First Amendment of the Internet”–the promise that all communications will be treated equally, especially when it comes to the speed at which they travel–is under assault by Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission.
The essence of the plan is summed up in an answer to the question: “Why Publicly-Owned Broadband?”
For too long, private ISPs have controlled not only the pace, path, and speed of broadband expansion but also the price, reliability, and quality of broadband connections–even though many of these connections are subsidized by public funds through public-private partnerships. That is why the El-Sayed plan for a fully connected Michigan focuses so much on the public provision of broadband. Much like with a public health insurance option, introducing a public broadband option is the best–and possibly the only–way to break up the broadband monopolies and alter the market enough to ensure that every household in Michigan has access.
Traditional public-private partnerships leverage public funds to incentivize private ISPs to invest in areas that would otherwise be unprofitable to serve. But often these partnerships leave both the state and the people powerless. The ISPs not only own whatever broadband infrastructure is built, but also control the price and quality of the internet provided. More importantly, public-private partnerships do nothing to change the profit motives that kept these same ISPs from serving certain areas–particularly rural areas. In the worst circumstances, these partnerships can actually help private ISPs create monopolies in previously unserved areas. Public-public partnerships (where the state partners with local governments to establish publicly-owned broadband networks in their communities) solve the problems in public-private partnerships. They also offer significant advantages for Michiganders in terms of equity, competition, quality, and control of service.
This is not a complicated agenda. This is a practical plan. It strives to “prioritize the needs of Michiganders over the corporate profits of internet monopolies like Comcast.” And it does so by promoting competition, oversight with an eye toward serving the public interest, and support for an embraces of cutting-edge technology.
Establishing and maintaining digital democracy should be at the top of every candidate’s agenda. Unfortunately, while most Republicans have sold out, most Democrats are unwilling or unprepared to entertain visionary plans for putting technology on the side of the people rather than the profiteers. That’s what distinguishes Abdul El-Sayed. He sees the future coming, and he wants to make it work for all of us.