SXSW: Are Political Parties Obsolete?
(12 Of 53 people in the room I think are women)
Dan Robinson, E-volve Foundation
Christian Crumlish – mediajunkie.com, editor, writer, The Power of Many and blogger, personaldemocracy.com,powerofmany.com
Andy Rappaport – Silicon valley VC, August Capital, Skyline Public Works, Civic Space Labs
Glenn Smith – Drive Democracy, managed Anne Richard’s campaign, Texans for Truth
Mike Weiksner (e-thepeople.org) – Founded e-the people, a non partisan non profit since 1999 to improve civic engagement through information technologies, issues PA, clearinghouse for political issues, voter guide tool kit
Quick room poll. No Republicans. Do they not care about if political parties are obsolete? Mike says there is concern in both parties about corporate dominance in politics, and special interest.
Andy: I thought about the question, are political parties are obsolete. WE learned in the last election that the Republican party isn’t and the Democratic party is. There are a lot of subtle issues making it unlikely that we’ll have mjore than two major parties, different at local level. Then thinking about it, what is the most successful third party movement is the modern Republican party. What happened was a clear thinking, infective motivated group of people did not like the direction their party and country was heading and they changed it. We are not necessarily stuck with the particular Republicans or Democrats, or the lack of Democratic effectiveness. How do we want to engineer change and redefinition of these parties.
Glenn : The current Republican party as a third party. Political parties are like a dying tree, hollow inside and still standing. Formerly they were membership organizations, voices were heard, participatory clubs. They are no longer like that. Television is one culprit. They were participatory magnets for people. They are alienating people rather than bring them into the decision making process. Worse on Dem side – dominated by the gentry. A small group of consultants who make a lot of money and they drive the message. We lost 2004 in 2002 by letting Bush run away with the national security, “I’m going to protect you.” We put him in a general’s uniform in 2002 and we could not get him out of it and it was caused by the centralized Democratic party. A lot of work to change but we can.
Christian: I thought about the topic. My personal story, movement is towards the two party system, not away from it. Generation W, older than X, cynical, end of the baby boom. You get these little troughs, none of them got to be candidates. My parents are that age. I’m in another in between generation and we will probably never be empowered due to lack of numbers. Was comfortable sitting on the sidelines holier than thou no party is good enough for me. I learned critiques of the parties. I stood on the sidelines and a pox on both your houses, and voted for the most liberal candidate but did not support a party. The polarizing effect of George Bush, the refreshing voice of Dean, I decided there were two teams in this game and imaginary referee is a powerless place to be. Get in there and mix it up, make it better, that you have to learn things like compromise. My own personal political identification to say I’m a Democrat. I worked for Dean, tried to become a delegate, credentialed at the convention as a blogger. It was a trade show. The computer convention;. People who work in the same industry meet, hand business cards, but there was no politics. Now I’m a Democrat. Back to my family roots – grandparents were new deal Democrats, cousins working on campaigns. Reconnected. Back in the family business. We’re stuck with this Duopoly. My utopian side says lets vote green, robust left, but my realistic side says the name of the game is a two party system. I want one party to win and the other to loose. Believe in reform and openness. Believe the Republicans can be more responsive to their members and not screw them. I’m liberal but believe there are legitimate conservative interests. Shared impulses for wanting things to be ok. Wish there was more integrity on the right to legitimately support Republican interests. Want reform on both parties and I’m working on reforming the Democrats. I think the Democratic party is the only hope for third parties, but they probably won’t do it either. Gorbachov tried to reform Communism and in the end that brought it down. America never had it’s glasnost moment to explore our own flaws. IF the Democrats could have enough of a reform effort, to accept that Greens take votes away, the short term consequences might destroy the party but something good could come out of it.
Q: Henry Poole: Imagine it is 2012. Your dreams have come true. Things have worked out well the last 7 years From that place I’d like you describe what measurable things have happened that made that work out and how did you personally contribute to that?
Andy: I’m reveling in the wonderful feeling of 2012! I think that it’s a broad question. One of the things that has to have happened by then that we transformed our thinking that believing that politics and life happens in 4 year, presidential cycles, but happens every minute of every day in every community. When Democrats lost in 2004 they started planning on how to loose in 2008. It is about building a local sense of community and belonging. Strength does not come from a TV dictation, but from a sense of belonging. Tip O’Neill was right, all politics are local. What do we do to recreate power from things like labor unions. Single most important thing, strengthen community organizing, local politics, state parties connection with people and a bottoms up, not just grass roots, reformulation of who we are, what we believe and how that informs our leaders.
Tom: IN a commercial world we think hierarchical, top down and you are talking about something coming from bottom up. What’s your thing. What made that happen?
Andy: In business you are right, we think about hierarchy. Successful large organizations will tell you that from the top is goals, objectives and philosophy. Build an organization that understand what it means to pursue those then you operate from the bottom up. Second, we think about this notion of the long tail, Chris Anderson. Technology has allowed us to create and mine more value from a collection of otherwise disparate things. The same thing is going to happen and has to happen in politics. 1. Express our objectives clearly and as objectives. One problem now everyone is trying to come up with a unified field of politics. What’s the single strategy. If we define a set of objectives, then we can communicate that. Then get a million things resonant in the things they need to be resonate. What I’m doing is preaching this and helping create organizations and tools that empower this, like Civic space, and organizations operating on those principles and building on that strength.
Tom: There are a bunch of other questions and we are going to run out of time, so going to let this question go to one other person.
Mike: I’m non partisan, Christian’s original point that people feel disempowered because the system itself needs to be transformed. I care about deliberation. What I mean by that is people’s voices can be heard. In a pluralistic not everyone’s ideas can be adopted, but the entire system is broken and it doesn’t have to be. How do we get there. I think a lot of the structural changes needed to be made, both parties, like campaign finance response is like stopping water flowing down hill. We need to ID and pursue an alternative. We have to have campaign advertising, but we need alternative public spaces where candidates and citizens can interact, scaling particular at the national level. Red and Blue not talking to each other can be potentially solved through internet applications. Transformation by creating an alternatives.
Q: I do think the US has had a number of Perstroika moments led by people who led a movement. The Civil War, when Lincoln said now that we’ve beaten slavery, lets bring back in the South. The labor movement, Civil Rights. (Christian – no post Cold War). What small things might catalyze that moment now?
Christian: What has withered in the grassroots. I like the hollow log analogy. For all the back room deals of before, they were locally based. Deep roots to the local level. Now campaigning is national broadcast media. The parties are holding companies raising money. Shell corporations. Nothing there there. What we were trying to do on the Dean campaign getting locals to have conversations at local levels and decide what they care about. Every four years trying to overturn the system is never going to work, you have to build up from the local level. A lot of my attention will be at Oakland. Would like to offer at the national level, but I don’t have that kind of influence. But city council, who is being groomed for leadership, then we can take it up.
Q: I’d like to suggest there is only one party, the money party. We need to walk away from the money party and become the party of the people. We need to restore the true two party system. Other wise it is the politics of money and the weak.
Tom: There are a few things I’d like to note is we are on the panel all steeped in technology and we have not talked about technology;. We are firmly focused on the reality of politics. What is driving this is money. Glenn, does technology counterbalance that? Take a look at the Dean thing. It was all about money and it was not about money at all. Glenn, what’s the role of the strategic role of technology in creating this change for 2012. How does a it change the rules?
Glenn: The single best determinant of political participation is self esteem via expressing their view on something. My child doesn’t have a crossing guard. The internet gave a lot more of us to express and impact the political scene and more of us got involved. Simple way that internet activism has already added vigor to American Political life. WE need to treat technology what it is – a tool, a mechanism for talking to one another, it is interactive, not top down, and you can communicate back. The magic is you express your view in a meaningful way and you stay involved. One of the reasons drivedemocracy.org has driven to faith leaders. Need to get out to the streets to plant new seeds of community organizing with people who don’t and won’t see themselves as internet activist. It won’t get the entire job done.
Q: Some have referred to the Democratic party as dead, but want to bring it back to life. Can you explain that necrophilia or life support?
Tom: It’s about civic engagement. IN your day ato day world, you ‘re not talking directly about political parties. Are they a problem? Do they have to be swept away or use tools, technologies, new ideas to create those things.
Mike: I think that I believe we’re in a non-deterministic state right now. Good and bad paths. Some cautionary things that have happened. MoveOn has corrupted a lot of message for the potential of the internet by being a top down group that chooses its issues in a hierarchical way. Parties are part of the problem, but the commercial example is publishers clearing house – manipulating, you have the choice of choosing which prize you are choosing, you choose, you don’t win, but they get your marketing info. Manipulation under the guise of empowerment. Parties have often been on the wrong side. Empowerment for their own control, not citizen engagement.
Tom: Richard Vagary started using this thing called a computer to do things like take your name, address, and I would get a piece of mail that said “Dear Dan Robinson.’ Personalized. The way I found out what was going on with the election was the from the Sierra Club, top down. The internet has changed the economics of this, allow it to be more interactive and personalized. Red dress/blue dress - -is that interactivity. The other problem is the fire hydrant problem. Dean campaign. Every month new people come in the door. I live in Berkeley, we have talented, smart people come in the door and want to come in and want to talk to the campaign, can you put me in touch. No, I can’t there is nothing I can do and I was involved early on. It’s actually talking to these guys is like standing in front of a fire hydrant with a squirt gun.
Andy: How do y0ou get to the dead tree to life support. No more like night of the living dead. No the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Someone with a chainsaw saying I must be stopped and then cutting his own legs off. Two points. It’s not about money. It really is about power. People see, because campaigns are expensive, that money is a tool to achieve poor. Hard to envisage where you don’t need money. What are the roots of power. How do we uproot the existing and plant new seeds. What are the levers of power. Why was and is Howard Dean threatened by Dean? The gentry don’t like the grassroots, you raise a lot of money, but you threaten them. Where does power come from and create it in other places. Local organizations define where votes come from, where leaders come from. Look who voted Dean in as chairman – state leaders. Build new leaders and strengths. Technology – we have to be very careful as people who are thinking about and creating new technologies, committed to a philosophical notion of participatory democracy. We cannot assume people will adopt and that everyone wants a flat participatory structure. Republicans give people comfort of being part of a movement with people they can trust and follow and can take action. One of the greatest lesson I learned through Music for America. We saw tech can be effective and efficient in reaching youth. We had this idea of a portal for youth, creating community, content, fun. What we found the greatest online contribution was that the online community was used by the activists, trained and connected them and carried that to the offline community. Reached 100 times the number of people that hit the website. We cannot expect everyone to join the discussion, but for leaders to emerge and take it to the ground.
Tom: A lot of times we talk about the tools going all the way out to the leaf ends. We saw this as well. The internet as tool for enabling the activists.
Andy: We’ll get to the leaves but we have to be realistic about it
Q: How do people who are innovating the technology determine the direction of the application of these technologies. How is this innovative exploration of technology live up to what it is about.
Christian: I’m hoping some stay outside the party and put pressure on it. What this technology does enable people to organize around issues that matter most to them. The thing that goes to their heart/core. Technology can enable you to find other people who share those same concerns and propose an agenda together (even if not co-located). There can be all kinds of modular organizations, self organized around issues of common interest, lobby and infiltrate the parties and put their issues on the table. Never going to get an elite tech group to decide what other people want.
Somewhat happening is that the tech developers are trying to drive that
WE are early, interfaces suck. We want people to talk back to the software. Instead of saying the users are stupid, using and taking that feedback. Not about mapping it out once, getting it right, putting it in place and assume others use it, but to put it out there, adjust it as people use it. Customer service. Listen to the human beings trying to use your technology. Not disparage them but move it closer to what they want. I hope the kinds of tech that enable communities to self organize become easier to use, to get connected to, more persistent, flexible. I don’t have a map to get there. I am not smart enough, no one person is. Go more toward humaneness and less about plugging people into machines. You an listen to what people are really saying.
Tom: How many of you know what a power law is? (not very many). Long tail market? I just kind of got this recently. A power law is the thing that creates what we see in real life in terms of networks. You have lots of players, a few very big players, lots of small players. On a network map, on an airline route map, some cities have a lot of lines, some have few. The big places get a lot of attention. If you live in a smaller place it is harder to get to . The long tail market ideas is about using technology to aggregate the little players and make them into bigger players. Important concept to get. Underpinning what the tech folks are trying to get to. One of my aha moments.
Q Isn’t there a conundrum here. The ideal way to use technology is to encourage more connectivity, grassroots, representative democracy. The Democratic view. The Republicans view technology more as establishment of a brand, a message, superficial involvement, Kerry flipper/flopper poll. Reinforcing their message. In today’s world people work long. In the end they tend to view each party as a brand. One is branding, the other is doing the difficult and in theory ideal.
Glenn: The brand we recognize as the Republican brand came from outside of the party after 1964. Conservative intellectuals. If I had to choose right now, have written a lot of ads, message works. If I had to choose between developing a brand or organizing 5million people I’ll choose the latter. That is the Democratic strength. The New Deal – the democrats brand was as the local party. The people on the ground helping you. I’d like to reestablish us as the brand of the people next door.
(A few broken links fixed March 18)