Mother Jones: What do you think of the idea of open-source politics?
Ben Smith: Open source is a weird metaphor because open-source software is stuff that’s actually written by the community of coders, by the community out in the world, but I don’t think any of these campaigns are actually turning themselves over to their supporters yet. What would genuinely be open source is to allow your supporters to run the campaign. Most people in politics don’t do it because they think it would be a terrible idea. There’s a tension between the control the campaigns like to exert over their message and then the desire to involve supporters and give them something meaningful to do.
MJ: What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?
BS: Barack Obama’s website is the most exciting. I think the most innovative use of technology by any of the campaigns is by Obama; it is the liveliest. He’s bringing in a whole bunch of people who weren’t necessarily blogging and politically active on the web before and who are writing blogs on his site and organizing specifically around him. He’s building an alternate netroots.
MJ: Do you think that these new technologies are effective in making candidates more responsive?
BS: No, I think they still stick rigidly to their talking points. If any of these candidates were writing their own blogs, it would surprise me. I don’t think any of the candidates themselves are really personally engaged on the web. The only partial exception is John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who reads blogs and writes comments on them. She has won loyalty from the small but noisy and influential liberal bloggers by really taking them seriously and engaging them.
Politicians are scared that at any moment, somebody may be taking a picture of them with a cell-phone camera. And now that there’s YouTube, if you do something that’s entertainingly dumb, you can become the only thing anybody in the world knows about. Politicians are very aware of not creating YouTube moments.
MJ: What features make this shift more democratic or less democratic?
BS: There’s a democracy of message. For instance, the “Hillary 1984” ad, in some ways it was more democratic in that it became popular because it was cool and not because the campaign did focus groups and decided that it was the ideal message. But at the same time, it was created by an experienced political consultant working one degree removed from the Obama campaign, and not by some man in the street. It was the plausible, legitimate deniability of the Obama campaign that allowed him to do it.
MJ: Do you think that these changes affect most Americans?
BS: Most people aren’t paying attention to national politics right now, certainly not to presidential politics. The numbers are growing, though, and part of what’s interesting about the Obama campaign is that he raised a lot of money on the Internet. He has this website full of people who aren’t people from the existing blogosphere. There’s a new group of people who are less tech savvy, less of the early-adapter type, and maybe less ideological, but who are now more comfortable on the Internet because there are more people online than there were four years ago. I don’t know whether it’s going to empower and strengthen the existing online elite or whether it’s going to create more voices and more competition.
MJ: But does it affect people who aren’t online by influencing the landscape of the political dialogue?
BS: There’s this way to assert issues so that if they gain some traction online, everybody, including the politicians, have to talk about it. Often what happens is that this stuff pushes out into the mainstream media and that’s where the politicians have to talk about it.
MJ: Can you talk about how the landscape has changed since Dean? Do you think that the Internet has evolved and changed so much that a candidate’s blog can no longer be as successful as his was?
BS: Not at all. Dean captured an offline reality, which was this disgust with the Democrats for not standing up to Bush and the foundations of the war. That wasn’t an online phenomenon.