Friday, November 05, 2004

A Tip to the Politically Defeated: Democracy Doesn't End on Election Day

You're sad. You're down. You're out. Your candidate lost.

Game over? Not by a long shot.

At this auspicious time in U.S. history, I am especially inclined to state what should be the obvious, to go Kung Fu on your asses and make a simple observation to you jumpy and upset grasshoppers out there: The vote isn't democracy's only tool... nor even its most powerful. We Americans don't vote and forget, leaving elected officials with unchallenged dictatorial powers for years on end (or at least we're not supposed to let them get away with that).

In reality, the most powerful tool is sustained, rational argument. Votes and their associated election results may win battles, but only your undying commitment to a cause and the building of sturdy rational cases for your cause's positions is what wins the war. The overwhelming reality of democracy is that 1) arguments never cease, and 2) your opponents never die. To deny this reality is to declare others your master, and you their slave. Heck, let's make this even more clear: Argue or perish.

But, you say, “The irrational, the powerful, the 'monied' control the mass media! How can we get our arguments out there if we are effectively silenced?” ...To which I reply, “I hear what you're saying, I really do, but you, Grasshopper, speaketh nonsense.”

I'll save deep discussion of our so-called Fourth Estate (otherwise known as the “murder, weather and sports brigade”) and its failures for another day. But for now, for the sake of healing, it's helpful to review how the “losers” can continue to achieve their objectives after painful election defeats, despite the coarse crosswinds of mass media malarkey.

As many of us well know, legislators of the so-called “loyal opposition” have several tools in their tool belt for dealing with the winning majority, the key ones being obstructionism, bipartisan approaches and the development of alternative policies to pronounce or reinforce when things go wrong with prevailing policies. To take one example, in the Republican majority government at the U.S. federal level, the opposition Democrats still have the power of filibuster in the Senate to obstruct any legislation or appointments they deem too extreme. At any rate, certainly this range of tools is well-known to the political junkies in most of us. We Americans take it as faith that our elected elites in the loyal opposition will do what they can do to protect the interests of the electoral losers.

But that's not all folks! We the people also have our own tools to bandy about—especially in recent times, our tools are becoming far more numerous, comprehensive and effective. To be cute, I could analogize that we now have Ginsu knives compared to the butter knives we used to brandish.

From the beginning of civilization, we human beings always possessed the ability to discuss issues with each other in our direct attempts to persuade or influence. Even before the Internet came on the scene in a big way in the 1990's, the people already had possessed the “power of the pen” to write letters to their newspaper editors as well as to their representatives. Further, through direct participation in governmental hearings, citizens always could take their case to present before their elected representatives in hopes of influencing some of the votes that made the real difference. On top of all this, citizens always could engage in civic activities and activism to extend the reach of their causes.

Once the Internet achieved wide use, its first use in the realm of politics (still ongoing today) was to extend activities that were already taking place in the “offline world”. Letters became emails. Discussion moved into discussion boards and blogs. Some governmental meetings have transmogrified into “online consultation.” Activism has mushroomed through the awesome power of the Internet to bring together citizens of like minds and organize them in ways unforeseen before Internet access became virtually ubiquitous. Howard Dean's campaign for the U.S. Presidency especially highlighted this new organizational power.

As time goes by, we are discovering that the Internet is providing a catalyst for a collective power that was previously unimagined. The public's new power base, or the Internet as political platform, is not simply facilitating and not simply amplifying—it is also in some respects already replacing elements within our traditional democratic experience! In the 2004 Presidential campaign, we experienced some cases where blogs and other online campaigns acted as the determinants of which stories deserved coverage by the mass media, thereby diminishing the role of the traditional gatekeepers. Examples of stories advanced by the new public power base include the phony documents CBS touted with regards to President Bush's National Guard service as well as the big end-of-campaign brouhaha regarding missing high explosives stockpiles in Iraq.

Another previously unimagined focus of this new political platform is its increasing glocalization of political and other activities. The Internet originally seemed to be the medium for bringing together like-minded people from across wide distances, rather than helping people (whether like-minded or not) gather in their own communities and cities. But increasingly, we are seeing efforts through websites like Meetup, and Craigslist to create an economically viable global access for congregation while also paying attention to the ability for people to meet others they can actually run into at the grocery store. Certainly, the possibilities here are endless for influencing local politics over the long run—exchanging arguments with a group of people dispersed throughout your town will have never been so easy.

Going from local political activity to the global, we are now also witnessing the growth of a movement some are calling the Second Superpower. No matter what you think of America's superpower position, there's no question that many in the world see American hegemony as, at best, a point-of-view that requires some counteracting or rebuttal, or at worst, a cancer that requires strong opposition. This new global public power base, as it were, may hope to achieve what no other nation in the world could imagine achieving—that is, providing the same degree of political counterbalance that was “enjoyed” during the Cold War. For better or worse, anti-U.S. political power is growing, and this power will indeed be exerted against any U.S. policies deemed to be too extreme.

World citizens didn't vote in the 2004 U.S. election, but don't think for a minute that this prevents them from influencing U.S. politics in a major way. Denouncing this new “outside influence” will do nothing to diminish it—the world's citizens are now effectively U.S. citizens and they aren't going to let go. And the Internet, along with globalization, will increasingly lock this new reality into place. To those Americans who fear this future, I say, “Fear not, as this power works both ways.” At the same time, we do have to be concerned that this inevitable conflict of national sovereignty and global democratic activism is going to cause of lot of troubles that we can only now barely imagine.

To close, I will reiterate that despite any hidden influence or critical events beyond anyone's control, it is sustained, rational arguments from U.S. citizens as well as world citizens that will ultimately control our nation's political destiny. This is not to say that your vote on November 2 didn't count. It very certainly did count. However, it is but one step in an ongoing process that will never end.

The bottom line is that ever-advancing communications technologies will always continue to change how we live and exercise our political rights in a way that increasingly empowers us. By now, this must be such a straightforward idea that we can even sloganize it...

Democracy... it's never over.

Thanks to everyone for the gracious comments they added to the first PPB article.

First, a big 'hello' to the other Steve Magruder out there. May you live a good life. Just don't pretend you're me and we'll be in good shape. :)

Second, I want to acknowledge those who wish to see the old Democracy 2.0 site reappear somehow. I have to admit that I neither have the time nor the finances to continue the site. I may be interested in reviving it at a future time, but for now, if there's any particular feature from the D2 site that you liked, please let me know and I'll try to develop that into an article or series of articles.

Last, I know I promised an article every two days at the max, but alas, the election season pretty much had me tied up. I felt that being so immersed in partisan activities might end up tainting what I had meant to be a mostly nonpartisan blog.

See ya next article!


Patrick said...

Good piece Steve. I was just thinking this morning about the power of the internet and have been telling people that it has and can continue to greatly enhance our democratic process. One of the first things to pop into my head after learning of the bush re-election? They understand the power of the internet too, and that they will start doing their damnest to dismantle it. I don't believe for a minute that they will allow such a potent tool of democracy to continue growing unchecked. I'm not being doom and gloom, just preparing for the assault.

Jean-Daniel said...

Hello Steve,

I liked that your article reminded that although Bush did win (which, as a Canadian, I have a hard time comprehending) there is another reality. You referenced the "second superpower" - which encapsulates the concern that Bush/America is not operating in a self-contained bubble and you write that democracy was about the sustained right and obligation to think for ones-self and to voice concern.

Behind the truism that one should never trust a politician hides the ugly truth that politicians basically will do anything to get re-elected and that the basic purpose of government, above all else, is to perpetuate itself. Most of what we take for granted as being part of the democratic process is in fact not democratic at all. For instance, voting is a debased process when we realize to what extent public awareness is deliberately shaped and manipulated to focus on extremely narrow issues. Bush got his victory by goading the fear factor right to the end. Moreover, the unsustainability of his decisions undercuts the future of America to such an extent that had Kerry won, his hands would have been tied, dealing with a war abroad, deficits without precedent on the home front, and a dangerously high dependancy on the Chinese to buy up the bonds printed to soak up the imbalance created by the equally high trade deficit, created primarily by the loss of American manufacturing to the Chinese. Nothing in the public voting was an explicit statement of support for the deleterious effects of Bush's decision making even if Bush triumphantly believes than it is.

The biggest problem we face as a democracy is the lack of real choices. In the best of situations, voting is basically about choosing among a couple possible options. There is nothing in the voting process that garantees these choices are good or even valid choices. It is as if the tremendous complexity of running a country could be distilled down to voting for one talking head instead of the other, Its ludicrous.

The main challenge for democracy, which originally meant "governance for the people by the people" is to get "the people" involved in the strategic decision making, taking back the power the citizenry has delegated to the government, now that our citizens have education, are able to read and write, and have the ability to think.

The recapturing of the power to govern by citizens is at the extreme opposite of government's mission, which as noted above, is to perpetuate itself. So clearly, the reform of government and of democracy can not, by definition, be spearheaded by government. It probably needs to happen outside of government.

In the past, such a recapturing happened by revolution, usually with weapons, bloody and messy interface and unfortuately, the military. Can we do better? I think there could be an interesting debate here about how to recapture the power of the citizenry without such mess. Have we evolved enough, as a species, to accomplish that? And if we managed to pull it off, knowing what we know of government, how would we redesign the machinery that would be mandated to carry out the will of the citizens?

Anonymous said...

Do you have any interest in bundling up democracy 2.0 and distributing it p2p?