This piece was originally written in August, 1995, revised in 1999, and again shortly after the 2000 elections.
Americans desperately need a new political organizing strategy — a new way to reconnect with the ideal of participatory democracy, to reclaim power from the political and media elites who control too much of the process, and to renew their belief in self-governance. Actually, they don’t need to look far to find that power…to the computers on their own desks, and to the Internet.
By now everyone knows the Net is growing exponentially. It is also generating new political energy. Average citizens–no longer politically isolated, no longer sitting passively in front of their TV sets–are networking around the world, and intensely debating the news of the day. Citizens of every political stripe are creating networks and online communities, lobbying legislators online, and participating in social movements through the Internet. The axiom, “let a thousand flowers bloom” in the marketplace of ideas is actually happening on the Internet.
As people of all political persuasions understand the ease of political activism on the Net, citizen participation is growing by leaps and bounds. Look at what Democrats.com is doing to mobilize and provide a gathering place for grassroots Democrats. After Election Day is usually a quiet, sleepy period for presidential politics. But the special circumstances of the 2000 election led to an explosion of online activism. Democrats.com, for example, raised $20,000 in just 36 hours in the post-election period, and grew by more than 15,000 members. On the conservative side, http://www.freerepublic.com/ boasts 60,000 members.
These emerging internet-based political networks are impressive because they CANNOT be controlled by top-down Washington-based elites, who put out a message of the day, hoard important information, and polish their own image with constituents they rarely listen to. Many Internet-based organizations get their energy from people at the grassroots, they are “bottom-up”, they share and disperse information widely. They thrive on creative chaos and individual action.
One of the early leaders of this movement, Ed Schwartz of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia, wrote that “Americans are no longer rallying around leaders. [Through the Internet], we are rallying around ourselves.”
To use this new medium effectively, we must return to an old, pre-television way of thinking. It is retail politics, community-organizing, community-building. The mass-market mentality of television, radio and newspaper “broad casts” does not necessarily work in this new medium. It is niche-marketing, narrow-casting, interaction between individuals one-to-one — mass customization, perhaps, but not one-size-fits-all mass marketing.
NOT TARGETS, BUT PARTNERS
Internet users aren’t simply direct-mail targets to be hit with a field-tested message that will manipulate them to feel or vote a certain way. This depersonalization of politics over the last 30 years has left people feeling used, manipulated and abandoned once the campaign is over. Mass Marketing has contributed greatly to cynicism and alienation from the political process.
In the new Internet economy, citizens can be PARTNERS in citizenship and partners in the customization of consumer products. (This strategy can be extrapolated from an excellent book by Regis McKenna called Real-Time Marketing)
Instead of concentrating almost totally on a television “air war,” political campaigns must return to the old-fashioned notion that citizen-volunteers are a valued asset. Democracy does, after all, belong to the people. Maybe that explains the success of Jesse Ventura, the Reform candidate in Minnesota in 1988, who used the Internet to stage a remarkable come-from-behind victory. He bypassed the disdainful mainstream media gatekeepers, beat both the Democrats and the Republicans, communicated directly with voters and mobilized 3,000 volunteers over the Internet. These volunteers spread the candidate’s message and news of his campaign with enthusiasm.
They used their computers and other new technologies to build a virtual campaign organization. Volunteers turned their home computers, phones and fax machines into valuable political campaign tools, at a fraction of the cost of traditional television campaigning.
Through his web site, Ventura also raised more than $60,000–mostly in $25 and $50 and $100 contributions rather than in big contributions from special interests or fat cats.
This new campaign style gives citizens themselves a chance to be more involved in politics–and not just as envelope stuffers. The “five-minute activist” can keep up with the campaign and spread the word to friends and colleagues. Students can learn about politics while maintaining political Web pages in their spare time. They can support and train older citizens who may have a computer but who don’t know how to use their hardware and software.
In 1996, America Online created a program called “yard signs in cyberspace.” Thousands of AOL members created web pages to explain why they support or oppose specific candidates. Just imagine the mass appeal of a program like that next year, when nearly 70 percent of American voters are projected to have Internet access by the time of the November elections.
In the years prior to the American Revolution, citizens in the various colonies organized “correspondence committees” to share ideas in the new experiment called self-government. Something similar may be happening again. Small steps evolve into big events. Several Internet activists sign their e-mail with these words from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The Internet alone certainly can’t solve the problem of alienation from politics and civic participation. But it can instantly connect citizens with candidates and campaigns, with thinkers and doers at the precinct level, and generate a host of new volunteers. That synergy just might lift American democracy out of its funk.