Blogging from PDF Conference: Zephyr Teachout on the Future of the Internet and Politics

BlogHer Original Post

Note: I'll be back with more later from Elizabeth Edwards and Arianna Huffington, among others. "We are still here at the beginning." Thus opened Zephyr Teachout at this Year's Personal Democracy Forum. We're at the beginning of the Internet's impact of politics, she says. And we have a choice about what kind of future we want to create using this incredible new social technology.

Zephyr was Howard Dean's Online Organizing Director in 2004 but she's also a law professor at Duke University. Most important, she's a visionary for those who believe the Internet is not just the future of politics, but of social change. And I think it's fair to say that Zephyr won't let candidates claim true grassroots power when their major claim to online fame is soliciting lots of donations online. Obama, for example, inspired a lot of people-powered online activity; then he opted out of public financing and bam, the system doesn't change. Sometimes it feels like the system will never change.

Teachout says this is because we have an "industrial" approach: it's about numbers and scope. The huge amount of numbers behind Internet political phenomena is often the most reported and most notice. OMG, 1.2 million people watched this video on YouTube! But watching doesn't change things. Teachout says it's like the wonder men must have felt when witnessing the first steam engine: a beautiful feat of technology, but it doesn't capture the human power and capacity to change things.

What are the democratic models? She cites the classicly American model of associations, which are the foundation of social capital in this country (see Robert Putnam on this). Everything from religious assoications to trade associations: a "nation of joiners" as DeTocqueville said. In the 1950's, 5% of Americans were Presidents of their organizations! We need to get this back. The measurement of Internet people power is not how many people have contributed, she argues, but how many people organize to change something. Form a small group, perhaps, to sort out new commuting needs. A lot of the technology-driven actvism you and I do is task-oriented, but the status quo is slower to change.

She ended with these questions: "Is what is being offered fundamentally an industrial innovation? Is power being distributed, or just tasks? Is the role of an individual that of a citizen, or of a useful volunteer"?

Zephyr's talk has real resonance in the face of Obama's recent decision to opt out of public financing. Obama announced he will not accept federal funds for his general election campaign (McCain will). In a video to his supporters:

“The public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system,” Mr. Obama said. “John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.”

Blaming a broken system on 527's is a bit rich. Obama doesn't want to be curtailed by public fund limits because HE CAN RAISE WAY MORE ON HIS OWN. And most likely, these will be in low-dollar donations from people like you and me. As the New York Times reports, "Under the federal presidential financing system, a candidate this year would be given $84.1 million from the Treasury to finance a general election campaign. In exchange, the candidate is barred from accepting private donations, or from spending more than the $84.1 million."

Obama can claim to have a person-powered campaign if it's driven by small donations from normal citizens. But the outcome is the same: billion dollar campaigns where money makes the difference, tons of TV ads, rich consultants, little systemic change. I was glad to learn of Zephyr's frame: if the over-funded American electoral system doesn't change, grassroots donations are an industrial innovation, not real social change.

As a side note: I was watching a presentation of a visual map of the blogosphere in politics and technology. "Mommybloggers," according to Matthew Hurst from Microsoft Live Labs, occupy their own dense hub of the political blogosphere, but they're not interconnected with other nodes in the blogosphere, such as DailyKos, or big tech bloggers, or just big deal bloggers like Jeff Jarvis' Buzzmachine. According to the chart, "mommybloggers" occupy a dense and busy spot on the network map of the poli-tech blogosphere. But like women's social networks in general, our networks are dense and familiar, and not as outreaching as others. We link to each other, and talk to each other a good deal. Do you think that's a fair characterization?

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