Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Can the Netroots Recondition Congress?

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 22 2010

Credit: Pavlov Museum

While, at this moment in early 2010, a vast majority of Americans believe that the American system of government is broken -- 86%, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll that came out yesterday -- only one in 20 Americans believe that the damage to institutional democracy in the United States is irreparable and the democratic experiment hopeless. Where does that hopefulness find its footing? Of course, the great promise of online politics was, is, that by tapping into the distributed world that the web has helped to cultivate, the channels might open up between the electorate and the elected, and great waves of participatory democracy might gush forth. Maybe the very nature of representative government isn't altered as a result, the thinking behind distributed democracy goes. But in this new world order, Congress and others in office would be forced into a relationship of greater accountability. Good, responsive members of Congress would flourish in a system of incentives that wasn't so dominated by the wealth-funded interests of a few or the hollow arguments of those with the establishment standing to get their voices heard.

Credit: ActBlue

The targeted, sophisticated grassroots drive now unfolding to provide political cover to the nearly two dozen Senate Democrats who signed the so-called Bennet letter, calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the public option in the great debate over health care reconciliation, is shaping up to be a something of a case study in how the "netroots" might force change by tweaking the legislative process as it functions today. The trick? To push Democrats out in favor of a progressive priority, and then make the experience a pleasant one for the senator or representative. Reward what is, in the eyes of the movement, good behavior, and create an environment where progressive political risk doesn't necessarily trigger in politicians a negative response.

The traditional "bad responses" of stepping outside the political pack are still present. Freshman Senator Michael Bennet has been getting beaten up in the Colorado press for his somewhat surprising choice to champion the public option's return after his Colorado colleague Jared Polis co-led a duplicate of the letter in the House. "Bennet Doesn't Get the Message" was the title of the Denver Post's editorial. "Is the Democrat appointed to the U.S. Senate last year standing on principle when it comes to health care reform," asked the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, "or is he playing to the political left as he faces a tough Democratic primary challenge?" The Pueblo Chieftain editorialized, "Anybody who thought Sen. Michael Bennet might be a moderate Democrat now knows that he is an unreconstructed ultra-liberal." Bennet, who was appointed to the Senate seat in Colorado after Ken Salazer's appointment as Secretary of the Interior in December of 2008, is facing a potentially difficult election fight this November.

Credit: Democracy for America

But the same organizations that worked to recruit Bennet as the public option's renewed voice in the Senate are strategizing ways to introduces some new carrots. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America have been hitting their email lists and otherwise circulating a call to support those who support the public option. The best case scenario is that other members, even ones in close races, see that a potentially dangerous political move can also be a rewarding one.

For one thing, there's money. Asks the PCCC and DFA on ActBlue: "Can you show Bennet he has support -- and encourage him to keep being bold -- by chipping in $5 to his campaign?" Since the fundraising call went live this weekend, $62,000 has been raised for Bennet on ActBlue. More than 7,200 people have donated as part of that campaign to not only Bennet, but to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ($36,000), who was an early signer to the Bennet letter and is facing a tough election landscape, and to the PCCC and DFA themselves, at $20,000 a pop -- money that goes back into the movement to make further campaigns possible.

As a point of comparison, a recent fundraising stop in Colorado by President Obama on Bennet's behalf pulled in some $700,000 for both his campaign and the senatorial committee. That, of course, trumps the $60k raised by the grassroots in this drive, but (a) he's the President and (b) small dollars -- the average donation on the PCCC/DFA "Public Option Heroes" page is $20 -- have some advantages. One plus in the small donor case is that many of those funders haven't maxed out their contributions to the candidate. Another strong point: according to ActBlue representatives, the campaigns targeted in an ActBlue fundraising drive get to hang on to the email addresses of their donors. That gives them a nice base of activated people who have already shown a tangible commitment to his or her candidacy.

And for members of Congress, worn down by relentless dialing-for-dollars, inane fundraisers, and vapid lobbyist meetings, the money raised online is like a Christmas/Hanukkah/what-have-you gift wrapped and delivered to them. The netroots have given them back a few precious hours of their life and some measure of their political and personal dignity.

CREDO Action, another group involved in the Bennet letter organizing campaign, has been leading a push to get letters of the editor sent to Colorado papers. Volunteer writers are prompted with the data point that, according to a Research 2000 Colorado poll, 58% of Coloradans are in favor of a public health care option. A friendlier news environment can change the tenor of the political discussion in Bennet's home state -- and making it somewhat less unpleasant for someone like Bennet to go out on a limb.

The Bennet letter organizing push draws inspiration from Pavlov. The more risk-taking members of Congress associate "doing the right thing" (putting aside the fact that you might not agree with the public option push) with a positive, rewarding experience, the greater the likelihood that other members of Congress will watch, learn, and repeat the good behavior. In some cases, the stimulus-response connection in the Bennet drive is actually visceral. A key component of the whip drive around the public option has been to have a swarm of phone calls to their Hill offices pushing for support. When the member finally relents -- perhaps just to get the ceaseless pealing of their offices phones to stop and the complaint of their staff assistants to quiet -- there is a quick burst of "thank you" calls praising the member for their support. And then the phones go silent, a welcome respite from the flood of sound.

Will all the money, email lists, phone calls, and letters to the editor be enough? For the perspective of organizers on the left, it really only has to be "enough" for other politicians to get the message that siding with progressive outcomes isn't all risk. There's reward in there too.

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

GO

The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

YouTube Still Blocked In Turkey, Even After Courts Rule It Violates Human Rights, Infringes on Free Speech

Reuters reports that even after a Turkish court ruled to lift the ban on YouTube, Turkey's telecommunications companies continue to block the video sharing site.

GO

wednesday >

Everything You Need to Know About Social Media and India's General Election

The biggest democratic election in the world to date is taking place in India from April 7 to May 14, and, for the first time in India, the results might hinge on who runs a better social media campaign. The Mumbai research firm Iris Knowledge Foundation has said that Facebook will “wield a tremendous influence” but Indian politicians are not limiting their attentions to India's most popular social media platform. In addition to virtual campaigning are initiatives to inform, educate and encourage Indians to participate in their democracy.

GO

EU Court Rejects Data Retention Law, But Data Retention Won't End Overnight

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg struck down a data retention law Tuesday that required telecoms to keep customers' communications data for up to two years, declaring it violated privacy rights. However, experts warn that the ruling will have no automatic effect on relevant laws in member states, which could lead to “messy consequences.”

GO

More