Al Gore, Sean Parker call for 'Occupy Democracy' movement online
Nothing gets my cynic juices flowing quite like hearing people call on the Internet to fix the political system.
Former Vice President Al Gore and online entrepreneur Sean Parker gave an overflow crowd at the South by Southwest trade show a pep talk Monday on the need to reform the political system, which Gore said is dominated by corporate interests.
"Our democracy has been hacked. It no longer works, in the main, to serve the best interests of the people of this country," Gore said. "I would like to see a new movement called Occupy Democracy, where people who have Internet savvy remedy this situation."
If we expand Gore's group of deep-pocketed dominators to include unions (and in California, public employee unions in particular), then I think we can all agree that he has a point. The issue is whether Gore and Parker have a realistic solution. And their comments suggest that they don't recognize the role the Internet is already playing in the electoral polarization of the country, which is a major factor in the political system's inability to solve problems.
Here's how Gore described the current situation and its historical antecedents:
In the early days of the republic, the printing press was the most powerful means of communication, and just about anyone could use it to enter the public debate. Now, the essential fact of political life, at least on the national stage, is that costly television advertising plays a crucial role in winning elections. "Television creates a very different public square," he said. "It has gatekeepers. You can't get in to where you can address the mass audience."
As a consequence, politicians spend half their time in office groveling for money. Deep-pocketed corporations end up controlling the system because incumbents don't dare cross them for fear of losing their financial lifeline.
Again, that view conveniently overlooks the influence of powerful noncorporate interests -- for example, Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union when Democrats are in power, and the National Rifle Assn. and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform when Republicans are in control.
So let's expand Gore's complaint to cover all the denizens of K Street collectively -- every interest group large enough to exert political power. The path to overcoming these groups' influence, by Gore and Parker's reckoning, is the Internet. That stems from more than just the printing-press-like quality of the Internet that enables just about anyone to publish online and broadcast his or her views for free. It's also the organizing tools the Net provides -- in the form of social media platforms -- that can amplify those views and spread them virally to large audiences.
Parker said he started wondering a few years ago, "How come these platforms aren't being used to get anything done? Why are there no interesting utilitarian applications?" So he invested in a series of start-ups that aim to fill that void: Causes, which enables people to create movements in support of social causes; NationBuilder, which gives office-seekers a low-cost means to do grass-roots organizing; and Votizen, which helps politically active people plumb their social networks for like-minded voters.
"We're still in very early days in terms of trying to leverage the power of social media" for political ends, Parker said. Nevertheless, he said the way to reform the current political system is "by creating those tool sets," giving online communities similar power to the PACs and super PACs of the world.
The objective for Parker is to enable candidates to get their message out at so little cost, effectively negating the role of money in politics. At that point, the ability to spend heavily on TV advertising will no longer be a prerequisite to conducting a campaign.
That's a fine goal, but there's a disconnect between reducing the cost of delivering a political message and increasing the quality of those messages. As long as negative, button-pushing advertisements remain the most effective way to change voter sentiment, they're just as likely to be delivered online as they are on TV. And negative ads work largely because voters don't invest the time and energy required to know the candidates and the issues.
Gore argued that when TV replaced print media as the main way for candidates to communicate with the public, it diminished the role that "reason" and "facts" played in campaigns. That ignores a long history in presidential politics of scurrilous allegations, such as the accusations, for example, that Andrew Jackson's mother had been a prostitute. At any rate, the answer Gore suggests is "using the wisdom of the crowds" online to develop "trusted, vetted, filtered body of information" about candidates and the issues. Said Gore, "Television advertising is the big kahuna. I think it needs to be balanced by this Internet discourse."
But the Internet doesn't magically sort through competing points of view to elevate the truth. Instead, it's an echo chamber where users with similar viewpoints find support for the opinions they prefer. It's a place where just about any theory can find some kind of factual support, and where assertions can become gospel through rote repetition.
In short, it's a lot like TV, only with an unlimited number of channels.
Another issue is the low turnout in elections, which hands power to those who can rally a cadre of motivated voters. Those tend not to be the folks in the middle of the political spectrum. Parker said that one reason for the apathy is that people believe their vote doesn't matter. The organizing tools of the Internet, however, can give them "extraordinary power to influence the process." A good example, he said, is the recent grass-roots revolt against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which derailed bills that once had overwhelming support in the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
Opponents of SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act, might point to that episode as a triumph of truth over the entertainment industry's spin. Supporters, however, argued that they were simply beaten in Washington by powerful tech companies with a contrary point of view.
That's not to say there are no absolute truths in politics. There are. But on so many issues that divide the country, from economic policy to immigration to healthcare, the debate is over governing philosophies, interpretations of data and speculation about a proposed policy's effects.
Like Gore and Parker, I too yearn for a political system that's not so beholden to special-interest money and 30-second attack ads. But I don't see the Internet transforming it or enabling "the people" to take back power. Social media and online platforms are tools that lend themselves just as well to the powers that be as to the reformers. As Parker noted, history has shown a pattern of new media emerging, then being co-opted by special interests for their own ends.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Al Gore in 2010. Credit: Guido Montani / EPA