Monday, February 12, 2007

Send An Email, Save the World

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

805 words

So John Edwards hitched his cybercampaign to a couple of unknown mules and found himself yanking on the reins in horror. I'm not surprised. The internet is supposed to be the next big thing in democracy, but when it comes down to it, U.S. candidates really only see it as another fundraising and advertising tool.

Hence the outcry about bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan. They were hired for their popularity and democratic cred, then had to issue a bushel of mea culpas for pre-historic, pre-hiring comments on abortion, queers, and the "Christofascist" Catholic Church.

Don't you know you should wipe your feet, ladies, before you come in the door?

The internet is a lot of things, but the blogosphere more than any other part of it is one big intimate invitation into somebody else's brain. People don't mince words or go salt-free all worried about the neighbors.

American politics needs more of that. There's so much pressure on candidates to sanitize themselves that in '04 we ended up with a Kerry so wooden he made Pinocchio look spry.

As candidates get more pre-fab, they look for ways to seem more hip, more current, accessible even, so they put up a site, hire bloggers and scream, "I'm on the internet. Visit my site."

But just what are we really invited to do? Watch their videos. Read their press releases. And give, give, give. Howard Dean's glorious and doomed assertion, "You have the power," has largely been transformed into, "You have the money, hand it to me." Even votes seem like an afterthought.

Not to say there isn't window dressing. The Take Action page of Hillary Clinton's "exploratory" site promises an open blog that is "a crucial part of our exciting national conversation about the direction of our country and the place to go to learn more about Hillary." Whoopee.

Mostly though, her Take Action page is about money. Giving it yourself, or getting someone else to.

Ditto for Barak Obama and the embattled Mr. Edwards whose Take Action page tells us that, "If we want to live in a moral and just America tomorrow, we must act today. Please donate using our secure online form." Rad, man.

McCain, who's had his own blogging controversies, doesn't even pretend. His action page asks supporters to "join our team here. Then choose actions on the right to help raise money, recruit your friends, and help get others involved in this effort." That's it.

In this internet age, we've mistaken information for participation. In their January report on the use of the internet in the 2006 elections, the Pew Research Center rightly touted the increasing importance of the internet, but if you look at what they're actually saying, it seems almost all of the activity goes one direction.

A small, but significant, percentage gave money. Most users just sucked up information about candidates' positions on the issues or voting records, or tried to confirm what they'd already learned. Twenty percent shockingly relied on the candidate's own site for the info.

Plenty of people forward emails or sent links to articles, but only eight percent posted their own political commentary. One percent created and posted their own political video or audio.

What that means to me is that the internet creates a false sense of involvement. Send an email, save the world. Even Pew fell into the trap, defining 23 percent of "campaign internet users" as "activists," not only people that came up with their own opinion, but anybody who hit forward on their email program.

Sure, informing yourself is an important prelude to participation, but passing on an email is just a kind of online gossip, barbershop and beauty parlor stuff. You feel connected, create community, but that's only the appetizer to democracy. There's nothing terribly active about it.

Frankly, there's only one presidential candidate using the internet to empower voters. And she's running in the wrong country.

In France, Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate has used internet organizing from the beginning, in part to sidestep the old boy (elephant) network of the Socialist Party, but more importantly to get feedback and organize real world meetings to ask people what they think are France's most significant problems, and, get this, found out what they think should be done to address them.

The big question in the press has been if she would actually incorporate all this feedback, all these opinions. From her definitive policy speech on February 11th, the answer is "Yes."

As the people demanded, she promised to boost pensions of poor people, raise minimum wage, support job creation for young people, and institute "citizen juries" to evaluate the work of local and federal government.

Win or lose, she's already made a difference just by raising expectations, and redefining political debate as something that should include us all.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at

No comments: