Monday, July 25, 2011

The Internet will not save you

While I'm dumping all over Tom Friedman, I should probably mention another facet of Americans Elect that strikes me as problematic. Basically, what this organization is purporting to do is to create an on-line political convention. As Friedman explains:
First, anyone interested in becoming a delegate goes to the Americans Elect Web site and registers. As part of that process, you will be asked to fill in a questionnaire about your political priorities: education, foreign policy, the economy, etc. This enables Americans Elect to put you in contact with others who share your views so you can discuss them and organize together. Then you will be invited to draft a candidate or support one who has already been drafted and to contribute to the list of questions that anyone running on the Americans Elect platform will have to answer on the site.
Using the Internet to facilitate political dialogue and organization is hardly objectionable, but it's also hardly novel. This is exactly what people at NRO, Daily Kos, and other sites have been doing for years. If you're interested in politics and you have Internet access, chances are there's already a place for you out there. And if there isn't, the startup costs are extremely low. So it's not clear to me just what Americans Elect is bringing to the table.

This whole endeavor seems rather enamored of the idea that American Elect can change American politics by harnessing the power of the Internet. Or as the organization promises, "We’re using the Internet to give every single voter... the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012." Look, I love the Internet as much as anyone, but its transformative power in politics has been way overstated. Political activists use the Internet to fundraise, to contact voters, to spread information, and to debate issues. News flash: we were doing all those things before the Internet was invented. We may do those things differently -- sometimes more easily, sometimes more effectively, but not always -- but it's still the same basic tasks of politics. (Apple somewhat ironically drives this point home in a recent iPad ad.)

The Obama campaign really did make brilliant use of on-line social media in 2008, and just maybe it turned out some votes using these methods that would not have otherwise turned out. But does anyone think that McCain would have won if no one had ever invented the Internet?

The idea that a website is somehow going to reshape our national political system is kind of a joke. The idea that a website will be the great democratizer of American politics really flies in the face of everything we know about who participates in politics and who is on-line. If you think it's going to "give every single voter... the power to nominate a presidential ticket," just think about what percentage of voters are likely to participate in an on-line party convention next June to nominate a bipartisan ticket.

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