In the past several months, Internet-and-democracy types have wondered how Obama’s Netroots-savvy campaign might translate into governance. Should Obama win on Tuesday, will we see some form of wiki governance? How “Google-transparent” will the Administration and its agencies be? Will Obama focus an empowered blogosphere to pressure Congress to pass major reforms?
These are useful speculations, and for those of us who desperately await universal health care and a “Manhattan Plan” for green energy, critical ones. Yet I suspect that the most important question will not be how a President Obama might leverage Internet power. Eight years of Bush-Cheney executive imperialism has made our President quite powerful enough, thank you. Rather, the health of our democracy depends on whether Congress will figure out this Internet thing.
Americans hold Congress in greater contempt than even W., yet it was not always this way. The Founders had intended the legislative branch to function as the heart of our democracy; John Quincy Adams even went on to become a Congressman after his tenure as President. Since then, though, legislators’ relationships with their constituents has diluted as states and Congressional districts have grown in population. Meanwhile, television concentrated national attention on that dude on the tube. The office of President thrives in an age of mass celebrity.
The Internet – the realm of the “long tail” – was supposed to break concentrations of power. It would be more than ironic, then, if blogs and social networking instead super-powers an already-muscular Presidency. It would also endanger the legislative essence of our democracy.
We now have definitive proof that the Internet can power up a grassroots political network. If the Obama campaign is the most successful startup in American political history, then it’s vital that its core techniques not remain a trade secret. Those methods are more desperately needed to strengthen our fractured and anemic Congress — supposedly the People’s branch of government.
If you harbor any doubt about the danger an emasculated Congress presents American democracy, consider the bailout debacle. This sad chapter in American legislative history saw Congress not only cede leadership to the Administration, but also abrogate its relationship to the American people. Yes, they ultimately passed something, but not without engendering serious suspicion that they were merely authorizing the economic equivalent of the Iraq War resolution. (And, on the other hand, there was a serious risk that they would pass nothing at all.)
What we need, then, is a movement – a movement to Change Congress. But while Larry Lessig is right that it’s time we flushed earmarks and other corrupting influences out into the open, I would love to see big thinkers like him also apply their brilliance towards something even more audacious than transparency. We need something like a Geek Corps; a Geek Corps for Democracy that will rework the interface between legislators and their constituencies: to rebuild trust and honest, genuine relationships between lawmakers and We the People. Television atrophied these relationships, replacing them with top-down “communications” that withered our citizenry’s bottom-up power. The Internet can restore them in the very ways that Obama has shown us we can.
What would such a reworking look like? In the example of the bailout, perhaps a set of YouTube videos that explain, in simple illustrations and plain English, exactly where things had gone wrong. Or maybe, more ambitiously, a collaborative public solution-building exercise joining the expertise of economists with the values of everyday citizens. Who knows? The point of a Geek Corps for Democracy would not be to apply preconceived ideas but rather to embed themselves within several Congressional Districts and experiment, in hundreds of little ways, how to rebuild community within each District and then between the District and its representatives in Congress. Probably, this would entail a lot of parties and other social gatherings at first, just to bring people together. Over time, though, each Geek would try many different approaches – listservs, wikis, virtual worlds, house parties, social networking, etc, etc, – and keeping track of what works. And what works will probably not be sexy, probably work because of the implementation not concept, and probably be different from one part of the country to the next.
Carefully noting what’s worked for the Obama campaign would, of course, give the Geek Corps a head start. But it would be the benefit of all of American democracy that these lessons give some authority back to the “people’s branch” of government. Regardless of who occupies the White House, concentrating even more power with the Presidency threatens to compound one of the gravest errors of the past eight years.