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Crashing The System

Are we entering a new era of digital democracy—or just being conned by a bunch of smooth-talking geeks?

Wed Jun. 20, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Google "open-source politics" and among the top hits is a November 2004 Nation article by writer and campaign-reform activist Micah Sifry. In it, Sifry recalled a seminal moment early in Howard Dean's presidential run when a staffer posted an "Ask the Dean Campaign" thread on the anti-Bush website Smirking Chimp. Within a day, there were 400 comments—a lot at the time—many of them professing amazement that campaign staffers were actually responding. "Never before had the top-down world of presidential campaigning been opened to a bottom-up, laterally networked community of ordinary voters," Sifry wrote.

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Of course, Dean lost. But the following year, Iraq veteran Paul Hackett almost knocked off a powerful incumbent congressman in Ohio thanks to the liberal blogosphere. By the 2006 election cycle, MoveOn was able to raise almost $1 million in a single day, "macaca" felled Virginia Senator George Allen, and on Election Day Senate Majority Leader-to-be Harry Reid posted a personal message on Daily Kos thanking the site's users. These days, D.C. sounds like Silicon Valley circa 1998, with everyone peddling some New New Thing.

But what, really, is new? At best, the potential exists for the political equivalent of software's open-source movement: a system in which the best results are accomplished not by secretive, commercial, top-down, individual effort but by communities of interested people wielding collective, uncopyrighted, free, and yes, democratic tools. Open-source politics is about more than having a MySpace page or courting the blogosphere. It's about a different notion of leadership, says Peter Leyden of the netroots-focused New Politics Institute: "The 20th century was the cult of the artiste, the director, the president or the CEO, the mad genius who knows everything and controls everything. But the way our economy works now, the way our media works now—it's increasingly made up of all kinds of people contributing at all different levels. Why wouldn't our politics work like that, too?"

Why not? Well, mostly because politics today is antithetical to the open-source principle in every way. It is about controlling the candidate, controlling the message, controlling who participates when, where, and how, down to—as Karl Rove has so well demonstrated—tailoring door-knocking strategies with the help of consumer credit card data. It is about lobbyists, donors, bundlers, consultants, ad makers, and the rest of the political-industrial complex. Why would this crowd suddenly abdicate to the crowd? In fact, it's evident it won't: This spring's much-hyped new-politics moment, the "Hillary 1984" ad, came courtesy of a political consultant (see The Attack Ad's Second Life). In May, Barack Obama, whose campaign built a social-networking site before he even announced, unceremoniously grabbed control of the hyperpopular Obama MySpace page a fan had painstakingly built (see Stupid Tech Tricks). In the space of a few short years, some bloggers have become remarkably Boss Tweed-like (see Meet the New Bosses). And thus far all this digital-democracy stuff involves, at best, a tiny portion of the voting-age population and skews heavily white and male. So isn't this just a slightly younger, hipper, and more chaotic version of the same old circus?

Politics 2.0: Ready or Not

  1. Podcasts of Kos diarists grilling candidates
  2. Stephen Colbert's "Better Know a Candidate" series
  3. Rudy Giuliani on The Surreal Life
  4. War-room webcams
  5. Candidates fisking opponents' speeches
  6. Bill Clinton on Twitter
  1. Hillary ring tone
  2. Kucinich avatar
  3. Sam Brownback on The Surreal Life
  4. Stump speech MySpace shout-outs
  5. Gingrich's eHarmony profile
  6. Trading votes for casual encounters on Craigslist

—Greg Veis

Open-source politics has the potential to fundamentally change the way we govern ourselves—to fulfill the democratic promise that Web 1.0 pioneers dreamed of before they grabbed for the ipo brass ring. It also has the potential to become exactly what Web 1.0 turned into—a delivery system where most of us are mere "customers." To get a sense of what's hype and what's real, we surveyed bloggers, politicos, and all manner of netizens. The full interviews can be found here; excerpts appear throughout this package.

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