Mainstream media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign so far has been mostly cynical and vacuous. Nine out of ten campaign stories ignore policy and focus instead on electoral tactics and the horse race, according a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. It is disturbing to consider that most voters learn about candidates either from this shallow coverage or from nationally televised debates. (The first presidential debate of 2004 drew 63 million viewers.)
Yet now the netroots–that amorphous collection of bloggers, political operatives and web activists–is trying to transcend politics as usual by pushing candidates and reporters to focus on the issues.
At the second annual YearlyKos Convention in Chicago the first week of August, web activists plan to explore new ways to communicate voter concerns to Democratic presidential candidates. The convention’s Presidential Leadership Forum–the first candidate gathering for the netroots–seeks to provide an alternative to mainstream media’s “gotcha” questions and horse-race coverage. Instead, the plan calls for a thoughtful, inclusive discussion that draws its topics and questions from citizens and activists, voters and nonvoters. Forum moderators will be Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine and Joan McCarter of Daily Kos; blogger and NYU professor Jeffrey Feldman will ask questions submitted by the public. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd have all confirmed that they will participate in the two-hour discussion, which will be followed by separate, unstructured meetings with activists attending the convention. The process is designed to spark a thoughtful national discussion that results in a more reflective, substantive and participatory candidate forum.
You can begin the conversation now by suggesting questions, issues, ideas and criticism via this short web form. Bloggers writing original entries are asked to use the tag YKForum07. People interested in launching viral campaigns may float their issues to the top of the forum agenda by posting on blogs or encouraging friends on social networking sites to submit similar questions or topics.
We are serving on an all-volunteer advisory committee of bloggers, grassroots activists and a few former presidential candidates. Members of the committee are now reaching out to voters and activists to discuss ideas and issues that the forum should consider. (More on that below.)
The candidates, who often talk about participating in “national conversations,” are now invited to actually have one. We think politicians who eagerly embrace the online discussions in the days leading up to the convention, such as responding to questions and suggesting topics, will enrich the dialogue and enhance their own credibility as leaders who respect the Internet’s participatory culture.
To kick off one conversation, here are three priorities we’ve identified that could be worthwhile for the candidates to address.
The Founding Fathers were famously skeptical of concentrated power, devising elaborate checks to protect the public against potential harm by the government. They could not foresee that multinational corporations would become huge sources of unchecked power. Our political system has not yet evolved to address the issue, even though we live in an era marred by corporate scandals, fraud, pension crashes, illegal lobbying and massive related government corruption–and despite the widespread public opinion that “big companies” have too much power over government policy (a view held by a whopping 84 percent of Americans, according to a February Harris poll).
So how do the candidates view the impact of corporations on our society and our government? Can politicians effectively confront corporate influence before achieving systemic campaign finance reform? What is the proper role for corporations pursuing their interest through US foreign policy and domestic policy? As the gap between rich and poor widens, should there be any limit on the ratio of CEO compensation to the average worker? Do candidates view the private sector as an ally or adversary on these issues? How do the candidates define globalization? Have corporations distorted the public perception of the benefits and drawbacks of globalization and trade agreements? These questions are usually ignored at media debates run by subsidiaries of General Electric and NewsCorp, yet they are issues that voters clearly prioritize and candidates should address.
Many campaign events and forums are mired in the single-issue politics of a bygone era. This forum could push candidates instead to define (and contrast) their overarching governing philosophy.
What is the appropriate role of government in our lives today? How will candidates lead the country? Why and specifically how are they willing to advance the philosophy of Democrats–or progressives or liberals or centrists? What have the candidates learned from their biggest mistake in elected government? What have the candidates learned from their greatest successes? (Readers: Feel free to suggest mistakes and successes that candidates can reflect on.)
Alternative Foreign Policy Doctrine
Far beyond Iraq, President Bush’s tenure is significant for the radical foreign policy doctrines he has advanced: preventive war, unilateralism, neoconservatism, the unitary executive, the global “war on terror,” the suspension of habeas corpus, prolonged illegal detentions and torture as a tool and international symbol of American foreign policy.
What alternative foreign policy doctrines do the candidates espouse? Beyond Iraq, what doctrines and values would guide the candidates’ decisions about when to use force, how to contain failed states, when to pursue humanitarian intervention and how to wage an effective war on Al Qaeda and like-minded enemies of the United States? Would these alternative doctrines focus strictly on defending the homeland or also on rebuilding the moral authority and international prestige that America has lost over the past seven years?
These are some of our thoughts. We look forward to reading yours. (In addition to the link on the YearlyKos website, you can also send your suggestions via the “Web Letters” link on the top of this page. We’ll convey these questions to the moderators.)
It’s worth remembering that our presidential campaigns did not always turn on “gotcha” press coverage and vapid attacks. In fact, the modern nomination process is so expensive, lengthy and insulting to deliberative democracy, it’s easy to forget that the system was created to empower voters. The new primaries were designed to take power from party insiders, who selected nominees, and shift it to voters. Yet today, the rushed state primary calendar has shifted power from party insiders to media insiders, who have more influence in picking frontrunners and framing the race than actual voters in primary states.
Even David Broder, the insider “dean” of the Washington press corps, acknowledged this problem twenty years ago. Writing in the Washington Post in 1987, Broder explained that the “super-primary” calendar gave the media the power to “reduce the number of candidates treated as serious contenders,” because the “existing communications system simply will not accommodate more than two or three candidates in each party.”
“These news judgments will be arbitrary,” he added, “but not subject to appeal.” That was definitely true for a very long time. But now the “existing communications system” is clearly changing, and its judgments might even be subject to appeal. This candidate forum, like much of the public-spirited Internet activism that continues to change our politics, is an opportunity to finish the project of those early primary reformers, wresting some power from the media in favor of regular Americans.
So beyond criticizing the traditional media, the challenge for the netroots next month will be how to enrich public discourse while convening a politically powerful event that benefits candidates who boldly seize the opportunity.
We think most Internet activists aspire not only to accurately comment on the world but to change it. With solid public participation, this forum might help clear a path toward meaningful change to our broken campaign system.