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You Don’t Have The Power

BY Zephyr Teachout | Wednesday, October 10 2007

Power is when you get to decide the rules of the game, not when you get to play it. A factory worker uses a lot of force, but doesn’t—not in his daily job—have power.

And in the vast majority of Presidential campaigns, the message sent repeatedly from the campaigns is “its all about you,” but the subtext is “you don’t have the power.” It’s the message parents send children, or the message airlines tell consumers, not the message of co-collaborators in the act of trying to create a more small d democratic country.

The key message in Hillary’s call for a million hours is “you are valuable as a collection of hours, not as a collection of autonomous, self-governing people (aka citizens).” The Reiner video is supposed to be funny, but it is a parody about what's wrong with this "decentralized" effort: YOU WILL BE TOLD HOW TO CANVAS AND PHONE BANK. BY A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON WHO UNDERSTANDS HUMANS BETTER THAN YOU DO.

The key message in Obama’s training video in California is: “some very smart people have figured out how to organize your excitement.”

John Edwards One Corps initial message—volunteer, don’t organize—emphasizes one of the most disturbing trends in volunteerism in the country: you are responsible for your community but not through politics. Looking at the events, however, it’s a more open platform than either Obama or Hillary, and is being used for real organizing where the organizers do have some power. But it’s not being emphasized by the campaign.

In the final chapter of Mousepads, Shoe Leather and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics, Tom Streeter and I argue that argued that Internet has two political possibilities: it can increase a candidates’ control over activity, or it can enable the genuine distribution of power:

One question for the future is whether that [internet-enabled] involvement will become increasingly rationalized—consistent, strategically driven—or whether a federalist model like that which emerged, through an almost accidental convergence of personality and technology, because of the Dean meetups, will continue to develop. Although there is no doubt that candidates will be eager to experiment with decentralized action, it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to work with any meaningful degree of decentralized power, and whether candidates who refuse to use decentralized power will be punished for their lack of democratic sensibility.

It is important to distinguish between distributed work and decentralized power. Distributed work will be clearly central to future electoral politics. Candidates will experiment with more complicated Internet-enabled phone banking matching systems, door-knocking systems, and donor incentive systems. However, distributed work is not necessarily work in which the power is decentralized. The fact that I can send a suggestion into coke.com or participate in a contest about their next marketing effort does not meaningfully transform my lack of power in the organization into a fact of power. Likewise, the fact that a citizen might sign a petition or engage in a massive distributed literature-dropping effort may show great ingenuity on the part of the designer of that system, and involve new technologies, and enable people to be part of the political process—without giving any person involved any meaningful political power, or meaningful way to have strategic input or make creative decisions.
The particular, data-driven capacities of the Internet allow for two opposing tendencies to flourish. On the one hand, the Internet provides many opportunities for creativity, dissidence within a group, and collaboration that were never previously available—and with them, new opportunities for learning the habit of responsibility taking. Data in the hands of many leads to creativity and mashups and unexpected outcomes and iterative strategies—strategies that are constantly being adjusted based on constant feedback. On the other hand, more and more precise data allows for managing experiences very closely, through iterative surveys of experience. The strong political tendency of the past half-century is toward the completely mediated experience—shown most humorously in G.W. Bush’s “town hall” speeches to people who have been handpicked for their affection for the president. However, the appeal of the perfect political experience also draws people from across the political and technological spectrums.

Many of the leading Democratic candidates’ internet efforts so far have felt distributed as in “coke.com contests” instead of distributed as in federalism.

So what can they do differently? Maybe they don't know any better? Its hard, granted, to move from a classic Senate campaign to a true federated system--Governor's are more comfortable with not controlling everything, because they've actually governed, so they understand that you can't. One big thing they can do is encourage regular offline meetings of their supporters.

This doesn't mean they couldn't also do big canvassing drives, and some top-down strategy (the epitome of top-down strategy in the Dean campaign, remember, was the Iowa Storm, so do with that what you will...). In fact, they will have greater resources to call upon for the heirarchical, coke-is-it "send us your time" distributed-work challenges ...