Commentary - #1 April 29, 2004

Political Participation

The big news from the standpoint of peoples? political participation is that it?s mounting a comeback. Why? ? for two reasons:

(1) The political pro?s have finally woken up to smell the political coffee -- to recognize two facts that the old timers who have been ?laboring in the vineyards? of grassroots politics have known for years, that (i) saturation political ads on TV tend to turn people off and (ii) person-to-person (P2P) politics is much more effective.

(2) Use of the new Internet technology has made it easier to reach out and mobilize much greater numbers of people who share similar views on candidates or issues; e.g., the Bush haters identified and mobilized by MoveOn.org and DeanforAmerica.com.

And so, the dean of American congressional politics, Michael Barone (who does the biannual Almanac of American Politics) writes of ?The new shoe-leather politics?, while Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, announces that the 2004 presidential race will feature ?the most intense ground war in memory??

On the Polarization of Internet Politics

Michael Barone (2004) ?The new shoe-leather politics? (U.S. News & World Report, January 19):

?Using meetup.com and MoveOn.org, the Dean campaign located Iraq war opponents and Bush haters in every part of the country?to?bring them into highly cohesive electronically connected communities.?

Heileman, John (2004), ?Rewiring the War Room,? Business 2.0 (April).

Former political director of the AFL-CIO, Steve Rosenthal, ?says databases will radically transform the way they (politicians) spend it (money)? via ?microtargeting? ? ?layering consumer and commercial data on top of electoral data?already common practice in the business world?campaigns have been profoundly influenced by developments in commercial marketing and media?CRM tools are moving into campaigns?? (to precisely, precinct by precinct, down to ?customers? one-by-one, who are most likely to be the supporters of any candidates).

The common denominator between these two articles, one originating with a Republican, one with a Democrat, is that both parties are now in the business of divide and conquer ? using the new electronic technologies to slice and dice the electorate every which way so that the party focuses only on those favoring, or strongly likely to favor, its candidate(s). Thus, the 2004 election will aggravate the country?s political divisions that were thrown into high relief by the 2000 election, especially the country?s division into ?Reds? (Bush supporters, not communists) and ?Blues? (Gore supporters, some of whom may have been communists). The political process, instead of finding ways to bring people together to make compromises or to define some semblance of what might be called ?the public interest,? is serving to fragment the electorate into a greater number of private interests, each of whom would like to make some claim on the public fisc. You might say: ?What else is new; isn?t that the American Way?? But the rediscovery and reuse of person-to-person politics via technical power tools does not empower people. These represent nothing more than the culmination of another, longer-term trend ? turning people into political consumers to whom candidates are marketed no differently than the latest brand of detergent, using sophisticated marketing tools borrowed from business. Political parties are the prime culprits in this degenerate (not advanced) political process. These are the same old major parties (no longer ?grand old?) but they?ve thrown off the old, traditional party roles that provided their most basic reason-for-being ? the roles of bringing people and ideas together to forge coalitions and formulate platforms that could win majorities of the American people. 3rd party anyone? Nader may do much better this time around than anyone expects.

Besides ?slice and dice?, the other major feature of the current political scene a la political participation is the growing effort by political parties, foundations and not-for-profit organizations to excite and bring out the ?youth? vote to, as one recent headline put it, ?Turn?a generation into a political force.? So, we see a more aggressive effort than in 2000, via MTV and others, to ?Rock the Vote.? We see a sophisticated youth website called Millennial Politics (www.millennialpolitics.com) designed to get youth involved. There is also the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) that launched Hip-Hop Team Vote in 2003 ? ?a national voter registration drive and coordinated grassroots and media campaign designed to organize the hip-hop generation into a political force? (as reported by L. Lexis McGill in ?The hip-hop vote,? Boston Globe, April 18, 2004, p.E12). McGill goes on to recognize, however, the limits to voter registration and voting as markers of political ?participation.? He writes: ?To engage my generation (he is HSAN?s political director), will mean more than voter registration. Lack of formal political participation speaks to a fundamental disconnect with the political process.?

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#1 April 29, 2004 - Political Participation