Can new media change old politics?

BlogHer Original Post

One of the leaders in the movement to reform copyright laws to catch up with the cultural and technological changes in our society has turned his attention to reforming American politics, and he's using these same new cultural and technological phenomena to help him achieve it.

Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University* law professor and founder of the Creative Commons, and Joe Trippi, who made something of a name for himself working the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, have launched Change Congress:

...a movement to build support for basic reform in how our government functions. Using our tools, both candidates and citizens can pledge their support for basic changes to reduce the distorting influence of money in Washington. Our community will link candidates committed to a reform with volunteers and contributors who support it.

The home page provides an interactive map where you can find your district and see how much your representative gets from PACs. Some random clicks brought up Representatives all over the campaign financing map. Party did not seem to be a predictor in my admittedly non-scientific sampling.

On the website, you can Pledge your support by indicating....

...the level of reform you support, and we'll give you code to put on your own website.

1. Customize Your Pledge

I believe candidates should:

* not accept contributions from registered lobbyists or PACs.
* support the abolition of "earmarks."
* support reform to increase transparency in Congress.
* support public financing of public elections.

You check off one or more of those statements, provide your zipcode and you get a badge to put on your website like so:

Change Congress

Note that in true collaborative-economy spirit, the site does not require that you give personal information of any kind. It helps to know that they're not out to pick your identity pocket.

Here's Lessig's video presentation on the endeavor.

If you want to see him in the video, too:

The challenge, as Lessig puts it in a Huffington Post blog post, is that...

...not everyone in Congress is eager for change. Whatever they say, and however strongly they may deny it, there are many who have grown used to a system they understand well. And many of those are not about to support radically reforming that system, at least until pushed.

Currently the website is rather simple, but there are big plans:

Think of it as a kind of Google-mashup, but applied to politics. Our aim is not to displace primary reform organizations, but rather to complement and feed support back to these organizations. And in the process, we hope to make transparent just how broad and deep the support for fundamental reform is.

Change-Congress.org will develop in three stages. The first layer will give candidates and Members of Congress a simple way to signal their support for any mix of four fundamental planks of reform: (1) a promise not to accept PAC or lobbyist contributions, (2) a commitment to abolish "earmarks" permanently, (3) a commitment to support public financing of public elections, and (4) a commitment to compel transparency in the functioning of Congress. Once a candidate or Member selects the planks he or she supports, the site will give the candidate code to embed that pledge on the campaign website. Citizens too will be able to take a similar pledge, promising to support candidates who match their own vision of reform. When they do, they will be linked back to reform organizations that support each plank.

But the real contribution of citizens will reach far beyond simply making a pledge. Beginning in April, we will launch a second stage to the site: in a Wikipedia-inspired manner, wiki-workers will track the reform-related positions of candidates who have not yet taken a pledge. If a candidate, for example, has endorsed Public Campaign's bill for public financing, we will record that fact on our site. The same with a pledge to forgo money from PACS or lobbyists, or any of the other planks in the Change Congress pledge. And once this wiki-army has tracked the positions of all Members of Congress, we will display a map of reform, circa 2008: Each Congressional district will be colored in either (1) dark red, or dark blue, reflecting Republicans or Democrats who have taken a pledge, (2) light red or light blue, tracking Republicans and Democrats who have not taken our pledge, but who have signaled support for planks in the Change-Congress platform, or (3) for those not taking the pledge and not signaling support for a platform of reform, varying shades of sludge, representing the percentage of the Member's campaign contributions that come from PACs or lobbyists.

What this map will reveal, we believe, is something that not many now actually realize: that the support for fundamental reform is broad and deep.

This web-based effort does an end-run around the usual television-politician power paradigm by taking the matter straight to the people. Julian Sanchez of Ars Technica writes:

Though Lessig did not frame it in quite these terms, the project is a clear attempt to use distributed peer-production processes to overcome one of the fundamental political problems identified by public choice analysis, in much the same way open-source production allows for the creation of informational public goods that, on traditional economic models, would tend to be underproduced in the absence of government subsidy or artificial monopoly grants, such as copyrights or patents. The political equivalent of the public goods problem is what public choice theorists often describe as the problem of "concentrated benefits, diffuse costs". The problem arises when a poor policy produces a large benefit for a small number of actors, but distributes the costs (whether in the form of direct taxation or regulatory inefficiency) across the much larger general population. The beneficiaries have a powerful incentive to ally themselves and lobby for the policy in question, but the transaction costs of organizing and low individual burden on any one taxpayer or consumer mean ordinary citizens have little motivation to mobilize in opposition.

Open source can solve the public goods problem for software because digital networks and widespread computer ownership lower transaction costs and allow large projects to be broken into small enough pieces that individual coders are willing to lend a hand even when they can't directly internalize the marginal market value of their contributions. Change Congress attacks the parallel political problem in two ways. First, it bundles together many discrete bad policies under the aegis of a procedural reform. Lessig's favorite analogy here is to alcoholism: An alcohol problem leads to a variety of further personal, professional, and medical ills, none of which can be effectively dealt with until the alcoholic resolves to give up the bottle. But this approach also helps to aggregate the costs of those particular bad policies in the eyes of citizens, helping to overcome the incentive problem that results when each policy is considered in isolation. Second, the wiki format disperses the cost of monitoring politicians' professed positions and compliance with their promises, lowering the investment demanded of any particular activist.

This revolution will not be televised

Lessig himself points out that...

The web is not simply a replacement for broadcast. It is not simply a cheaper, more interactive political brochure. It is instead a technology which, if architected right, can enable an extraordinary range of citizens to engage -- to speak, to write, to investigate, and to pledge.

This point is the one that television, radio and newspaper media, for the most part, just don't understand. Trained, groomed and paid to think as information arbiters for the masses, they miss that we're not just getting more variety in our information, and not just talking back -- we're also talking to each other. There's an entire world of conversation happening outside of their Cluetrain-oblivious awareness.

In this past week, we've seen Barack Obama's speech addressing the we-don't-like-to-talk-about-it attitudes and issues of race in America rise to #1 on YouTube. In pundit circles, the Obama speech's popularity puzzles them. Today on This Week, Cynthia Tucker actually scowled in suspicious puzzlement over that, with the apparent assumption that nobody -- especially younger people -- would actually watch a 35-minute speech about anything. Certainly most of those people did not watch the whole speech!

(More clued in is comic Bill Maher, who used the YouTube stat not as a punch line, but as a set-up for a joke about all the attention on Elliot Spitzer's prostutute.)

So forget television -- they won't get it anyway. What are the reactions on the web?

Leslie Poston writes:

It sounds like Lessig and his team have lofty goal for their web site. The climate is indeed ripe for change with 67 congressional seats open in this election year, and a Presidency up for grabs. Can a web site really take big money out of government and effect change in Congress? It's a little early to say, but if it catches the right groundswell of support I think that yes, yes it can.

Marnie Web calls it "The most important thing you can do this year".

Megan McArdle is a bit more skeptical.

This actually doesn't sound like a terrible idea to me. It won't keep the money out of politics--campaign finance laws are as rocks in the stream to the money sloshing around Washington. But it might, at least, keep incumbents from spending 50% of their time trying to raise money for the next race. And it would erode the massive advantage that incumbents usually have in direct fundraising.

It will not, however, much reduce the size of government. Almost all of the money that government spends goes to entitlements, defense, or interest on the national debt, all of which are extremely popular programs. Earmarks tend to be aimed at impressing a state's voters, not its plutocrats. And regulations are as often enacted at the behest of angry but poor activist groups as of rich lobbyists.

Indeed, one thing that might worry conservatives is that this would work. That would leave activist group power--which tends to rest on their mailing list--intact, while eliminating the countervailing force from industry. I'm not siding with business here--I don't like the business lobbies any better than anyone else. But they do provide a check on activist groups which, left to their own devices, would ignore the practical questions about the consequences of their programs.

I'm not sure that business lobbies are a check on activist groups and not the other way around, but there's no doubt that we probably don't have any idea whether or how this endeavor will change Washington D.C.

Nancy Mathis clucks at the whole idea.

His heart is certainly in the right place, his intentions are commendable and his speech was full of thought-provoking issues. But his roadmap for achieving his goals seemed naive to the two of us who covered the event for ADMC. His whole effort turns upon persuading elected officials to sign a pledge not to take special interest money, and having a nationwide army of volunteers who monitor their subsequent behavior.

It is hard to imagine where the first volunteer will come from. This would put the pledged candidate at a tremendous financial disadvantage with respect to PAC-funded opponents during election campaigns. That might winnow the pledged candidates out of the Congress, the exact opposite of the desired result. Lessig is an admitted liberal, and like most liberals, he seems to be influenced more by wishful thinking than by an accurate assessment of likely human behavior.

His plan is also tantamount to a limitation on free speech. The premise behind a political action committee or advocacy member organization is that many ordinary citizens can pool their small donations and create a pot big enough to elect a candidate that represents their views. The National Rifle Association is a good example. It is viewed by many as having the most powerful influence on elections by a single organization. But it simply comprises thousands of ordinary folk who each chip in $35 per year, asking in return only that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution be preserved.

Lessig also suggested that in lieu of special interest money, campaign expenses should be funded by the US taxpayers — to protect the process from undue monetary influence. But, bureaucracy being what it is, it is easy to imagine that the government would then assume complete control of the election outcome over time. We’d be replacing monetary influence with government (read that incumbent) influence, hardly a step in the right direction.

And how would the qualified candidates be decided? Without an expression of public sentiment, now realized through donations to the campaigns, how would the responsible government agency decide who was a serious candidate and who was not? Most likely, the same way that they do now, but with the taxpayers being forced involuntarily to fund the process. Note to Lessig: Getting the government involved IS NOT A GOOD THING.

Then there's this post by Nicola de Carne, in Google translation:

To support this new Corsican hoped's own site Change in which Congress will be "mapped" those politicians who give faith to 4 cornerstones of transparency proposed by Lessig and, thanks to a Wiki, will be monitored and commented on by the voters their behaviour.

I do not know how all this will be feasible but as always is a great ladies' open provocation of life.

I'm not quite sure what that means.

Via Joe Solomon, Christine lines up 10 mash-ups for social change, which lists a few other politically focused endeavors:

OpenCongress.org :: Track Congress with Social Data. New data mashups on “My OpenCongress” will allow users to customize the stream of info they receive about their tracked items. In other words, it can be a lot easier to separate the signal from the noise on Capitol Hill-- to figure out what bills and votes are important or meaningful to you. Users will have access to a wider variety of content, more streams of helpfully-curated data about their interests, and more social wisdom from around the web....

MAPLight.org: Mapping Money and Politics. Anyone can create, view, and share maps of contributions from the oil industry, labor unions, or any other interest influencing government. You can compare candidates, to see who has the most local support and whose financial support comes from out-of-state. You can even display income, ethnic, and other demographic information....

CorpWatch - Government Data on Corporations. By adapting visualization software such as Prefuse into a Drupal module, a large database of unwieldy government information can be made accessible and intuitive for activists and citizens to interact with. The visualization would illustrate the relationships of who-owns-who in the global corporate landscape and shed light on the often dizzying maze of shell companies used to displace liability and avoid corporate accountability....

So can a website or dozens of them clean up politics? Count me as skeptical, but there certainly seems to be room for improvement, and a little sunlight couldn't hurt. My own sense is that efforts like this won't really make much difference until we get into the next phase of the Internet -- the truly semantic web where all websites create one mesh of information available to everyone. The "revolution" must be socially graphable.

Or maybe, just maybe, the revolution must be live.

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* Disclosure: Stanford University Law School's Center for Internet and Society is a client of my company.

Laura Scott blogs at rare pattern. and pingVision.

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