Mother Jones: Do you think the concept of open-source politics is overhyped?
John Byrne: It has allowed for a lot more people to participate. I think Daily Kos is a really great example of where it’s really worked in terms of putting the opinions of a larger group of people forward. And Kos has obviously had a huge impact on politics. I think you’re going to keep seeing that and see even more of that in 2008. Particularly with Lieberman-he’s in the Senate, but the fact that he had to run as an independent and really fight for his race-that was a testament to how effective open-source politics has been.
MJ: What do you consider to be the most exciting new use of technology in politics?
JB: YouTube, probably.
MJ: What is the most overhyped technology?
JB: The campaign chats and these controlled Washington Post discussions-anything where there is a layer of editors between the person asking the question and the person answering it. Whenever they have someone go on a Washington Post chat, you’re getting a very filtered version of what the questions were. That’s what the “1984” ad was getting at with Clinton, that these kind of conversations are just exploiting a medium to their advantage. And it’s not like Hillary’s the only one doing it. You can’t have an honest conversation, because there are people that are really upset with any given candidate. And if you answered all the questions, it would be impossible. There has to be a filtration system, but you just shouldn’t posit that it’s really a candid conversation unless you’re standing there on a street willing to take questions from anybody who’s walking by.
MJ: So do you think that this more open dialogue makes politicians more responsive?
JB: John Conyers’ office has been very responsive to citizen concerns and the Internet has presented a way to communicate them in a way that’s never before been there. They started a blog when everybody started a blog. Their office is very aggressively reading blogs and has a two-way dialogue with bloggers, but it all depends on what you call responsive. People aren’t necessarily changing their positions because we called them, but they’re responding to the questions and concerns that people have raised. Let me speak to one other thing I was thinking about, which is fundraising. Any candidate is going to respond to a fundraiser, and a lot of these blogs are major fundraisers for the party. Not necessarily on the level that a Hollywood mogul is, but politicians respond to people who raise money. You don’t want to alienate Kos or other big players because if you’re on their good list, you’re going to be able to raise more money. Online fundraising is so important to the Democratic Party.
MJ: In your view, how has the political landscape changed since the Dean campaign? Will campaign-run blogs have the same impact that they did in 2004?
JB: Blogs succeed, live, and die on personality. I think campaigns could have a blog as effective as Dean’s. But from my experience, campaigns tend to be more conservative in their approaches because they don’t want to piss somebody off.
MJ: What do you think open-source technologies do to old models of campaigning like canvassing, polling, flyer hanging, phone banking, and TV attack ads?
JB: I don’t think they take away from anything that already exists.
MJ: So you don’t think that they’ll replace them-they’re just supplementing them?
JB: You’re not going to not go to Iowa. That’s just odd. Like, “Oh, I went to the Iowa blog.” I don’t think so.
MJ: Do you think that open-source politics affects most Americans?
JB: Yes, but not necessarily directly. It affects people the way that polls affect people that aren’t polled because they are the means by which people decide what’s the majority opinion.
MJ: Do you think that open-source politics will bring anyone into politics for the first time?
JB: I’ve seen so many more people engaged, because they feel like they’re a part of the process as opposed to being talked down to.
MJ: What pitfalls do you see for candidates who harness these technologies?
JB: I think candidates who play in the online world have to be very cognizant of what they’re doing and be very sensitive to what has come before them. You can have a blogger that says something dumb and then you have Drudge and then you have Fox and then everybody else writing about it.
MJ: Do you think either party has an early lead in using these technologies?
JB: Definitely the Democrats. The right is a lot more top-down and the left is a lot more ground-up.
MJ: If a candidate doesn’t harness technology, does he or she really have a chance?
JB: If you’re running in a House race in a nonmetropolitan area.