Three’s Not a Crowd: Technology and the Political Shakeup

BY HANNA SIEGEL

The American political system is exhibiting cracks. The approval rating for Congress has reached a record low of 13 percent, and more than 2.5 million voters have left the two major parties since the 2008 election (Washington Post-ABC News Poll 2012; Wolf 2011). Yet many Americans want change, and they are organizing to affect it.

The Tea Party movement, born in 2009, galvanized conservatives against taxation and helped elect more than sixty-five Congressional candidates during the 2010 midterm elections (Liasson 2010). On the other side of the political spectrum, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spurred protests in dozens of major U.S. cities, and its slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” has infiltrated American culture and politics. Several Democrats in Congress have invoked the Occupy movement to push for legislation including President Barack Obama’s jobs act and Internet access regulation reform. Meanwhile, less ideologically aligned organizations, including Americans Elect, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization working to create a platform for an alternative presidential ticket, are also challenging the political status quo. All three of these groups have used technology to help them organize around a growing climate of discontent, and all three of these groups demonstrate the impact that political networks organized via the Internet can have on the American political process. Under the right conditions, these alternative networks could someday lead to a president who is not a Democrat or a Republican and eventually to the transformation of the American political system as we know it.

The Long Tail

Central to the development of these new networks is a concept called the long tail. The long tail is the idea that the aggregate total of small, niche markets (the tail) is greater than the sum of the few mainstream ones (the head). Originally put forth by Chris Anderson in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine, the long tail describes how industries, unencumbered by the pre-Internet costs of mass production, advertising, and distribution, can customize their services to individuals and make money at the same time. As Anderson describes it: “By overcoming the limitations of geography and scale . . . [businesses] have discovered new markets and expanded existing ones” (Anderson 2004).

Before the Internet, devising a cost-efficient way to aggregate all of these smaller markets had been a near insurmountable challenge. But now, with obstacles like geography and communications costs reduced, a self-organizing marketplace of people has been able to form. This ability to connect has created a new customer base that, in many cases, has proven to be more profitable than the traditional base. The classic example of a long tail market model is Amazon.com, which has become a one-stop shop for every person who has a taste for Swedish documentaries or an obsession with Dziga Vertov movies. In effect, business models like Amazon’s mean that everyone with nonmainstream tastes now has a place to shop.

Like the long tail of consumers, there is also a long tail of voters, ready to be tapped and mobilized if they are given the right options. The head of the political system is clear: the Democratic and Republican parties, along with the major donors who fund them. These groups monopolize campaign donations and set the rules for the American electoral process as they have for the past one-hundred years. Then there is the tail. This begins with the millions of eligible voters who do not participate, which in 2008 amounted to 37 percent of the voting population, but it also includes the millions of other voters who begrudgingly choose among the Democratic and Republican nominees because those are the only realistic options on the table (AU News 2008).

The New Way to Organize

Many Americans do not participate in politics, discouraged by what they see as an ineffective system that is unresponsive to their needs. Now more than ever, they feel powerless and unable to have an effect on the public policy decisions made by their political leaders. In the fall of 2011, a Washington Post poll showed that a majority of respondents think the American political system is not working. Furthermore, about 75 percent did not think the government could fix the country’s current economic problems, while a majority disagreed with the debt ceiling compromise (Washington Post Poll 2011).

But the Internet has made it easier and cheaper to get involved in politics. Any voter can become an organizer or a donor just by using his or her computer. What’s more, like-minded people can create cross-country networks and communicate digitally in order to organize effectively around a cause or candidate. Social media, in particular, has played a special role in enhancing what Hu Yong, a blogger and media critic in Beijing, calls micro-power. His concept refers to the power that small groups can have on the larger society when they exchange information. By changing the definition of political activism and the role of the activist, platforms like Facebook and Twitter increase the micro-power, or influence, of their members.

The New Way to Fund-Raise

These new organization tools have already been utilized to great effect. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Howard Dean pioneered a new model for political campaigns that used the Internet to tap into the long tail and raise millions of dollars. Through a Web site called Meetup, Dean connected his supporters in the same area to each other resulting in “Dean for President” gatherings across the country. Of the overall $50 million Dean raised, $20 million was raised through the Internet, with an average donation of just $80 (Rice 2004).

But it was Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign that demonstrated the full fund-raising potential of the long tail strategy. Historically, presidential candidates have relied mostly on big donors to cover the exorbitant costs of running a campaign. As a result, most candidates have catered to the small, wealthy population—the head. Although Obama, like other candidates, raised a huge amount of money from big donors, he also raised an unprecedented amount from small donors, and this small donor money was crucial for his defeat of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

The New Networks

The Tea Party formed when a relatively small number of people used the Internet to connect and organize antitax rallies in cities across the United States. Although the movement for small government and minimal taxation has existed for a long time in American politics, the Internet allowed the Tea Party to be more effective than groups in the past. It helped elect dozens of new members to Congress in 2010 and had a significant impact on the American debate over health care reform and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, helping defeat the public option and reduce the perceived economic benefit of the stimulus.

Occupy Wall Street also brought groups of people together in an effort to gain momentum and bring attention to their cause. They did this both digitally, through the Internet, and physically, through hundreds of occupations in cities nationwide. Although it is too early to tell what their electoral impact will be, they have already influenced the American political conversation. President Obama has addressed the movement personally, and the “We are the 99 percent” catchphrase has become a slogan for the income inequality debate happening today. Some commentators have even credited the Occupy movement as being one of the major political forces behind the recent tax increase on the wealthy approved in December by the State of New York.

The Tea Party and Occupy movements represent just two examples among many of new political networks that are being organized on the Internet. Their activity has caused an increasing number of political analysts to view Internet-based political networks as a potential threat to the political establishment, with many arguing that as technology becomes more sophisticated, more Americans will connect and form groups and this could eventually remake the American political system. Yet despite this new reality, there is little sign that the current Democratic and Republican parties are willing or able to adapt to this changing landscape. As Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, told me in a 16 February 2012 interview: “There’s no sense that either party really understands how profound that yearning is in the electorate or how different [the parties would] have to act. I think [a challenge] is just as likely if not more so to come outside the two-party system if the status quo holds the way it is.” This has already happened in Rhode Island, where voters elected Lincoln Chafee, an independent, as their governor in 2010.

Obstacles to Change

There are, of course, many ingrained barriers in the American political system that make it very hard for an outside candidate, or a third party, to have a significant impact. Our electoral system favors two major parties, and the “winner-takes-all” mechanism means that it is difficult for third parties to have real influence on the national level. Furthermore, ballot access is a complex, technical, and expensive part of American campaigns that discourages many people from entering the race, and there are few signs that the rules will become simpler or more streamlined among states. Perhaps most critically, running a successful campaign in this country requires an increasingly huge amount of money, making it more difficult for outside groups to compete. The rise of television advertising and the addition of political action committees (PACs), and now Super PACS, into the mix make a deep pocketbook necessary, and there is no denying the major parties have an advantage when it comes to raising that kind of money.

All of these trends have been exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2009). The ruling gave establishment candidates access to more money through Super PACs, corporations, and other rich entities. But it also gave wealthy individuals and groups, regardless of party affiliation, more of an ability to independently influence campaigns. If, for instance, these individuals coalesced around an alternative candidate their impact would be amplified. For example, as of the time of this writing, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign was still going primarily because of one man: hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson. Gingrich is not the GOP establishment’s first-choice candidate, but Adelson’s hefty contributions have made Gingrich impossible for them to ignore. Although this ability to influence the political process through money alone may not be good for democracy overall, it may help provide a platform for alternative candidates.

Recent events have also demonstrated regular citizens’ ability to mobilize around issues and have a political impact, without a major donor. In early 2012, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, the nation’s largest breast cancer advocacy organization, announced that it would cut the majority of its funding to Planned Parenthood amidst worry that it might lose key political support and donations. The decision sparked an online backlash that proved impossible for the Komen foundation to ignore. Within a week, Twitter users, for example, had sent 1.3 million tweets mentioning “Planned Parenthood” (Belluck et al. 2012), and a few days later the foundation reversed its position. Similarly, huge online protests to The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two bills aimed at restricting access to certain Web sites in an attempt to curb copyright infringement, caused lawmakers in both the House and the Senate to indefinitely postpone any movement on the bills. These issue-driven campaigns have always existed, of course. But the speed and power with which they were able to organize, respond, and ultimately change major policy illuminates exactly how the Internet and the long tail together can have an impact that only large donors, powerful party members, or PACs could have had previously.

Building an Alternative

Mark McKinnon, who has worked in the establishment for thirty years advising such Republican Party leaders as George W. Bush and John McCain, has recently distanced himself from the traditional system, aligning himself with groups like No Labels and Americans Elect, which are dedicated to finding an alternative to the current state of politics. He argues that for these groups to take hold, we will need to create alternatives to the current primary process, which he believes is too long and tends to “drive people to the extremes.” What’s McKinnon’s alternative? The technological platforms that have allowed the Tea Party and Occupy movements to thrive. “We’d want to use technology to [help] eliminate the primary process, and we’d try to eliminate other hurdles to engaging not only voters but others to run,” McKinnon told me in a 1 February 2012 interview. “We’d adopt technology to encourage other people to participate.”

Americans Elect is an organization that is trying to put this idea into practice. It seeks to provide a vehicle for a new nominating process, using online voting, in order to create an alternative ticket for the 2012 presidential election. The group is both notably bipartisan (its bylaws state that a vice presidential and presidential candidate cannot be from the same major party) and widely connected (it has collected more than 2.4 million signatures and is well on its way to ending up on the ballot). “If you change the way you nominate our leaders, you can change the way that leaders govern,” the organization’s CEO Kahlil Byrd told me in a 6 February 2012 interview. “As we change the way leaders govern . . . they are able to support solutions that take the best ideas from both the right and the left.”

By facilitating this new nominating process, Americans Elect boosts opportunities for all of the groups that make up the long tail. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman describes this potential: “What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents, and let the people in. Watch out” (Friedman 2011).

The Way Forward

The Internet has facilitated the organization of thousands of latent networks—what I call the long tail—into political forces that challenge the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties. As these new political networks come together, and their power increases, they could present a real challenge to the current political party duopoly and could lead to alternative leaders in our political system. Of course, our current system is not built to support more than two parties, and there are plenty of barriers to a nonestablishment group. But the movement has already started, and the road is being paved. While the two major parties are not likely to go away anytime soon, it is unlikely that they will remain alone for long.

 

References

Anderson, Chris. 2004. The long tail. Wired, October.

AU News. 2008. African-Americans, anger, fear and youth propel turnout to highest level since 1964. American University, 17 December.

Belluck, Pam, Jennifer Preston, and Gardner Harris. 2012. Cancer group backs down on cutting off Planned Parenthood. New York Times, 3 February.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. 2009. Docket No. 08-205. Summary, Cornell University School of Law.

Friedman, Thomas L. 2011. Make way for the radical center. New York Times, 23 July.

Liasson, Mara. 2010. Tea Party clout: How will it affect Congress, 2012? National Public Radio, 4 November.

Rice, Alexis. 2004. The power of the Internet. CampaignsOnline.org, November.

Washington Post Poll. 2011. PostPolitics, Washington Post. Conducted 9 August.

Washington Post-ABC News Poll. 2012. PostPolitics, Washington Post. Conducted 12-15 January.

Wolf, Richard. 2011. Voters leaving Republican, Democratic parties in droves. USA Today, 22 December.

 

Hanna Siegel is a 2013 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, focusing on domestic policy and democratic governance. Previously, she spent four years at ABC News in New York City working for the evening news and then for the investigative team, where she worked on pieces for Good Morning America, Nightline, 20/20, World News, and abcnews.com.

Photo source here.

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