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Talk Notes: The Invention That Is American Democracy

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 7 2011

Engraving of George Washington taking the presidential oath of office on the balcony of the Senate Chamber at Federal Hall; via

This week just so happens to be Social Media Week, an annual global taking-stock of all that is communications technology, and I just so happened to sit on a panel here in New York City this afternoon on the topic of "The Future of Participatory Democracy," alongside Katherine Maher of the New Democratic Institute, Sunlight Labs' Tom Lee, the New York City Department of Education's Ryan Brack, and PopVox's Marci Harris, all moderated by Zack Brisson of Reboot. If you'll indulge me, I thought I'd pass along my very short talk, as written, that made the simple point that American democracy is a human-made invention, and thus eminently tweakable. (For "as delivered," add in a slight New Jersey accent and considerable umms.) It all begins, as these things tend to, with George Washington...

Just this weekend I heard this wonderful story of what happened when, in 1789, President of the United States George Washington showed up at the United States Senate with a treaty in hand for the very first time.* The Senate knew that it was to advise and consent; that was a cornerstone of the new democracy’s system of checks and balances. But beyond that, the Senate didn’t quite know what to actually do with the paper that an anxious Washington was standing in the hallway and holding in his hand. And to the shock of many, the Senate said, ‘Well, Mr. President. We’re not sure how to proceed, but we think it’d be best if you go home and wait while we figure it out.’

The point there is a simple one: American democracy is very much an invention -- the product of men (and women), not gods. That fact seems sometimes forgotten. But I think you can make the case that that understanding was revitalized in the early part of this decade with the run-up to the Iraq war. In my past life as a Hill staffer, a defining moment was witnessing Congress rushing to overwhelmingly pass the Iraq War Resolution back in 2002. I can still feel the almost collective realization rising up from the twenty-something and thirty-something staffers on Capitol Hill that their bosses, these elected representatives of the American people, really were making it all up as they went along. It was during this time, unsurprisingly, that you’ll remember that the progressive blogosphere really took root, a place for anyone on the left side of the political spectrum to engage in discussion -- often in mind-blowingly minute detail -- on how the practice of American democracy should be done differently.

Now, that Washington resisted that tinkering is really only natural. The underbelly of innovation is that people invested in an invention will push back against changes to it that come from the outside -- a point that Tim Wu makes so well in his book “The Master Switch.” So, the AM radio people resisted FM radio. The people behind mechanical television hated electronic television. That resistance isn’t always rooted in corruption, or even fear, but in the fact that people invested in an invention want to be the ones that control changes to it. It isn’t, necessarily, that AT&T doesn’t actually want a “better” Internet. But their overwhelming concern is with being the ones to say what that change looks like. You can look at the recent State of the Union “prom,” where Republicans sat next to Democrats, as a type of political innovation. It at least managed, it seems, to cut down on the length of the evening. Washington was enormously proud of that modest innovation, in large part because it thought of it itself.

As to where participatory democracy goes from here, there’s good news and bad news, I think.

The good news is that in less than a decade this idea of using the Internet to truly engage in public affairs has expanded far beyond that hard-core set of bloggers and blog readers to include a tremendous swath of the American population. So, we are now all content creators, opinion makers, and debaters -- whether that’s or tweeting about the State of the Union, or posting a note about your town to Facebook, or sending an email to your friends about what’s wrong with Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. And it’s remarkable, if you take a step back, to see how quickly that ability has infiltrated what has passed for the elite level of American discourse. You can’t watch CNN for three minutes these days without someone reading a tweet. It seems natural for YouTube’s Steve Grove to host an interview with Barack Obama after the State of the Union where he asked him questions voted on by the online public. Online, nearly every one of us has the ability to do two incredibly powerful things: to share ideas and to constantly shape our interactions with other people.

Which brings us to the bad news, where I’d argue that modern participatory democracy hasn’t justified all the hype. With all due respect to folks in the American transparency movement, politics isn’t about data. Politics is still very much about people, their ideas and how they interact with one another. I’d argue that much of what has passed for participatory democracy in these early stages of its reinvention has been obsessed with re-engineering a system -- while largely ignoring the role of real-live flesh and blood people in that system. Tools like Twitter, and Facebook, and mobile, and the good old World Wide Web are potentially incredibly powerful. But they are the how of participatory democracy; they’re not the what.  The hopeful side is that the what consists of exactly what I’ve talked about social media being very good at – sharing ideas and shaping our engagements with other people. Once we figure out how to apply the same new power we have over our personal lives to our political lives, that’s when I suspect we might see democracy’s real re-invention.


*"Heard" as in watched recounted while watching the Ken Burns' documentary "The Congress." The historic episode, which involved a set of treaties with Native American tribes, is also mentioned on the website of the United States Senate.