Interview with Michael Cornfield: Vice President of Public Affairs, ElectionMall.com

Associate research professor in Political Management, George Washington University

Fri Jun. 29, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: Tell me about ElectionMall.

Michael Cornfield: We see ourselves as an online campaign Staples or Home Depot. We want to sell everything you could possibly want to do, from fundraising to communications to database management to Amazon-style shopping for bumper stickers and coffee mugs. If you can do it through the web, we wanna do it.

MJ: What's the most exciting new use of technology in politics?

MC: YouTube and the democratization of video communication.

MJ: Why?

MC: Because it now means that anybody can document their experiences or their observations and submit them into a space where they have a chance of becoming part of the public discourse. Visual communication, which is a powerful method of communication, is no longer limited to those who can afford to buy a camera and, even more expensive, have access to a broadcast network. Audiovisual communication has an authenticity or a seeming authenticity that words can't match. Words have their own powers but in a different context. The central point to make is that there was a Web 1.0 and there will be a Web 3.0, that the innovations never seem to stop, and that's because of the industry in your part of the country and elsewhere that is devoted to constantly innovating and adding new forms of communication and new channels of communication to our world.

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MJ: To what degree do you think the intersection between technology and politics, so-called "open-source politics," will change the political process?

MC: I think there's a big difference between having a technical capacity to do something and having the willpower to organize people and persuade them and make history. There's just a huge gap there. It's one thing to do something innovative. It's another thing to have a momentary impact, and it's a third thing to have it become a regular weapon of power. You might defeat a lobbyist with a very effective online grassroots campaign, but the lobbyist and the industry are going to be back tomorrow. Where are you gonna be? Where is your group going to be? The thing that's really amazing about MoveOn is that they've been able to wield power consistently over a period of years and almost nobody, at least in the American context, has been able to do that. The displays we've seen of the revolutionary potential of online politicking have been lighting in a bottle. MoveOn has somehow found a way to continuously wield power. To me, they remain the most fascinating players online, far more than the presidential candidates.

MJ: Some have suggested that the right is lagging in the use of technology.

MC: The right has not had a need or a perceived need among its supporters to resort to the Internet to exercise power. They've had control of all three branches of the federal government and sort of the zeitgeist in their favor for quite some time. A second reason is that the people involved in MoveOn have a knack for writing their fundraising and mobilizing appeals and they have a way of reacting to the news very quickly and knowing what their membership or their readership wants to do in response to the news.

MJ: Will the right modern up?

MC: The right has been more successful in a different use of Internet technology than the left, which is there's no left Drudge Report. Huffington Post does not drive the agenda the way the Drudge Report does. There's more than one way to use the web. Many more than one way to use the web, where there really is only one way to use television or radio or newspapers.

MJ: Peter Leyden thinks the left is uniquely well positioned to capitalize on web apps and harness all the disparate voices into a mobilized force better than the right.

MC: I agree that there's no doubt that right now the vigor in online political communication and especially online political mobilization is on the left. There's no doubt about it. But does that mean that it's gonna stay that way? No, it doesn't.

MJ: Does the right's rise to online power require the development of a new strategy or just doing what the left is doing, only better?

MC: Strategy is part of it. Leadership, some very talented personalities, is part of it. Above all there has to be a population in the tens of thousands, in the low millions, who just respond to the messages because it strikes them as a compelling appeal.

MJ: What part of Web 2.0 makes the political process less democratic and what part makes it more?

MC: I don't think that the democratic quality of a technological usage has much to do with the intrinsic technology. There are democratic ways of using email and there are undemocratic ways of using email, and the same goes all the way down the line to search engines and avatars and videos.

MJ: What are the downsides for candidates who embrace Web 2.0?

MC: The standard answer to that question is that they lose control of their message and somebody will say something in their name that will come back to bite them, but I don't see that as a big a problem. The bigger problem for them is that once you get involved in the multidimensional pluralistic conversation—it's similar to the problem that bloggers have, which is that you can't stop. Lots of people want your time and you end up spending so much time attending to your online network that you don't have time to think or to do anything else. The threat to a candidate is similar to what I've heard from people who blog: that it would just become all consuming. And then you would lose perspective because Internet communication is very much of the moment, and it becomes very hard to step back and see what you should be doing today that will be of value five years from now.

 

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