in july 2005, Mother Jones sent a writer to a deep-red district in Ohio to follow a candidate in a special House election. For the millions who had mobilized against George W. Bush, the political moment was one of profound despair. Conservative pundits were crowing about a permanent majority. Democrats needed a Joan of Arc; instead they found themselves stuck between timid and triangulating party leaders and progressives captive to academic disquisition and factional purity. Against all that, Paul Hackett was an electrifying figure. A Marine just back from Iraq, he was an unapologetic, populist Democrat who was prone to saying things such as “Bush is a chicken hawk, okay? Tough shit.” He was, in other words, very much like the progressive bloggers then coming into their own. Like Hackett, these new pamphleteers had been shaped by a lifetime of watching the disciplined, ruthless Republican message machine. Like him, they were voluble, pissed off, and itching for a fight.
In the end, Hackett didn’t deliver the upset that the bloggers who converged on his campaign—setting up their laptops in local taverns and raising almost two-thirds of his $850,000 war chest—had hoped for. But he came close enough to signal the possibility of a new kind of politics, a merger of door-knocking and digital outreach. By 2006, the blogosphere and its organizing and fundraising cohorts (MoveOn, ActBlue, et al.) were forces to be reckoned with, supporting hundreds of feisty Democrats in supposedly impossible districts, and…well, you know the rest.
Of course, blogs—and before them listservs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms—had been around for a while. What changed, somewhere between 2003 and 2006, was that ordinary voters discounted by politics-as-usual began to take part in the rowdy conversation happening online, and some politicians began to listen to it. “Politicians have to understand that the Internet is not just a tool,” Howard Dean told Mother Jones as we pulled together this issue’s Politics 2.0. cover package. “It’s a community of human beings who are tired of what I call the one-way campaign, which began essentially during the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Well, it’s not about communicating our message to you anymore; it’s about listening to you first before we formulate the message.” By which, Dean insists, he doesn’t mean just a new way of poll-testing soundbites, but the radical assumption that the people can, and should, drive the political process.
Let’s assume, for a second, that he’s right. How did this change come about? In part, inspiration came from a generation of coders raised on peer-to-peer networking and hacker zines like 2600 and Phrack. They believed that true innovation wouldn’t be led by top-down commercial enterprises like Microsoft or even Apple, but by an open-source movement that “allows users to create user-generated software content through incremental individual effort or through collaboration,” as Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, puts it (at least as of this writing). The open-source movement gave us nonproprietary platforms, browsers, and frameworks such as Linux, Firefox, and Drupal. But beyond nifty lines of code, there was a much larger philosophical implication: that the masses, given time and free rein, could forge a better, more transparent system.
So the question now is: Can there be such a thing as open-source politics? True believers promise a marriage of freewheeling pluralism and the technological tools to share and refine its goals and strategies. Bottom-up organizing, they promise, will trump top-down messaging; “from many, one” will actually mean something again.
It sounds really appealing. But we live in San Francisco, and saw what happened the last time the tech Kool-Aid was passed around. Innovation was quickly co-opted by the money sloshing about, a sock puppet told us it made perfect sense to ship bulk pet food around the country by air…and, well, you know the rest.
Not only do we have to be wary of the geeks and vcs trying to sell us (literally) on MyDemocracy, but ultimately these are politicians we’re talking about—creatures of spin, beholden to many, sincerity challenged, and risk averse. Who says that “listening to the netroots” is not just another “listening tour”?
And what of the glorious netroots? Already we’ve seen some of these gate-crashers act more like gatekeepers, promoting groupthink, punishing dissent, and growing drunk on the tribute that old-school pols and the msm now provide them. Not only that, but the blogosphere hardly looks like America yet: as Afro-Netizen’s Chris Rabb notes, those “who could afford to sleep on Howard Dean’s couch in Vermont are the same people who can raise the money to build a digital consultancy or a social networking site.” Is democracy’s best hope just another—if somewhat bigger and younger—elite? Even if the online conversation broadens, not everyone in the crowd is wise, as the digital road rage in comment threads so often proves. And if you thought Willie Horton and Swift Boating were slimy, wait till every last racist smear or dirty lie finds its way to YouTube or Digg.
Will we supplant a corrupt elite with a tyranny of the masses? Can revolutionaries hold true to their lofty declarations, or will they inevitably be corrupted by power? These are the questions America has been wrestling with since its founding. Countless elections and 231 years later, one thing we can safely say about Politics 2.0 is that everything old is new again.