“Wikipedia Approach” to Save Congress?

Posted on March 21, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

Stanford law professor Larry Lessig is going to fix Congress by turning “the political process as we know it upside down.” On Thursday, he announced “an ambitious project that aims to use collaborative software to harness the extraordinary levels of pent-up political energy and dissatisfaction that voters have shown over the past two years with their members of congress.”

How will it work? Lessig explained on The Huffington Post:

Change-congress.org will be a bi-partisan, web-based effort to leverage and amplify the important reform work being done by others. Think of it as a kind of Google-mashup, but applied to politics.

Change-Congress.org will develop in three stages. The first layer will give candidates and Members of Congress a simple way to signal their support for any mix of four fundamental planks of reform: (1) a promise not to accept PAC or lobbyist contributions, (2) a commitment to abolish “earmarks” permanently, (3) a commitment to support public financing of public elections, and (4) a commitment to compel transparency in the functioning of Congress. Once a candidate or Member selects the planks he or she supports, the site will give the candidate code to embed that pledge on the campaign website. Citizens too will be able to take a similar pledge, promising to support candidates who match their own vision of reform. When they do, they will be linked back to reform organizations that support each plank.

But the real contribution of citizens will reach far beyond simply making a pledge. Beginning in April, we will launch a second stage to the site: in a Wikipedia-inspired manner, wiki-workers will track the reform-related positions of candidates who have not yet taken a pledge. If a candidate, for example, has endorsed Public Campaign’s bill for public financing, we will record that fact on our site. The same with a pledge to forgo money from PACS or lobbyists, or any of the other planks in the Change Congress pledge. And once this wiki-army has tracked the positions of all Members of Congress, we will display a map of reform, circa 2008: Each Congressional district will be colored in either (1) dark red, or dark blue, reflecting Republicans or Democrats who have taken a pledge, (2) light red or light blue, tracking Republicans and Democrats who have not taken our pledge, but who have signaled support for planks in the Change-Congress platform, or (3) for those not taking the pledge and not signaling support for a platform of reform, varying shades of sludge, representing the percentage of the Member’s campaign contributions that come from PACs or lobbyists.

I’ve written about Politics 2.0 before and therefore it’s not surprising that I think Lessig’s attempt to reform Congress will fail. I could easily rattle off a dozen reasons why Change-congress.org won’t go anywhere, from the fact that the American political system is inherently flawed to the fact that Change-congress.org will probably never gain the critical mass required to get politicians to take it seriously.

I’d rather focus on the bigger picture, however. While I don’t doubt that people are passionate about leveraging the Internet to make an impact politically, I think the notion that technology alone will solve America’s problems is incredibly naive and such efforts misplaced.

Wired’s article on Lessig’s initiative reads “Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig Bets ‘Wikipedia’ Approach Will Transform Congress” but “software and an open reporting system” will not fix the system.

My Wired headline would read, “Blogger Drama 2.0 Bets ‘Personal Responsibility’ Will Transform America.”

With all the talk about how the Internet is democratizing the political process and enabling grassroots activism on a level never before seen, most citizens fail to recognize that efforts like Change-congress.org are not the strongest catalysts for the “change” they seek.

The strongest catalyst for change is personal responsibility.

Change-congress.org and other initiatives like it try to effect change in an indirect fashion. They are based on the assumption that government creates most of America’s problems and can solve most of America’s problems. I would argue, however, that the opposite is true: the citizenry creates most of America’s problems and can solve most of America’s problems. And it can do so directly.

How can you effect change directly? Everytime you open your wallet, you are voting. Two basic examples:

Energy costs and free trade are but two hot-button topics that Americans increasingly expect their government to deal with despite the fact that citizens arguably have the power to effect the most change. That is, if they simply took personal responsibility and saw their purchasing decisions as votes that they don’t need to wait years to cast.

The problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to put your money where your mouth is. Asking politicians to change for us is easier than changing ourselves. It’s far more convenient for the masses to ask government to solve problems. After all, Americans love driving and they love their big cars. And they love all the great deals they find at Wal-Mart. Suggesting they give those things up to fix their country is like suggesting a strung-out junkie give up his crack pipe.

So what do we do? We continue to pretend that social networks and collaborative software will help us get inept politicians to clean up the mess we’ve created. They can’t and won’t, no matter how hard we try. Until Americans recognize that they can take politicians out of the equation by taking personal responsibility, Politics 2.0 will have about as much impact on politics as rehab had on Britney Spears.

Perhaps concerned citizens like Larry Lessig would be wiser to leverage the Internet in more effective ways. Instead of creating a service that enables Americans to baby-sit politicians, why not create a service that enables Americans to baby-sit themselves? Allow individuals to enter in their purchases and provide an analysis of how each of those decisions impacts a policy position that citizens would probably otherwise ask politicians to deal with. Show Americans that their consumption patterns often foment the problems they blame government for and remind them that their actions speak louder than words.

Of course, I doubt somebody will do this and I doubt Americans would pay attention anyway.

After all, it’s been a long time since John F. Kennedy implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That breed of personal responsibility is so America 1.0.

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6 Responses to ““Wikipedia Approach” to Save Congress?”

  1. Me on March 21st, 2008 1:23 am

    Dear Mr. Drama,

    I was excited when I refreshed my Reader and saw you updated, I was wondering what you were thinking. (I’ve got 20 in there and yours is one of my favorites). Anyway, I usually agree with you 100%, now I’ve got to say 99%. Mostly because it was political, and I skimmed over the blah, blah, blah…

    I enjoy your tech stuff more.



  2. Michael Camilleri on March 21st, 2008 5:02 am

    Why are the two mutually exclusive? Why can’t we have personal responsibility and an effort to clean up Congress? It seems to me this is a positive effort to get people involved in holding their public representatives to account. That is, to take personal responsibility for the representatives they elect and to do something about it when their representative fails to honour their trust.

    You’re right that people need to be proactive but that doesn’t mean they have to be islands. An initiative like this that aims to strengthen individual contributions through the provision of information doesn’t sound like someone suggesting government is the solution to all our problems. Quite the reverse.

  3. antje wilsch on March 21st, 2008 11:59 am

    never thought I’d see politicans and personal responsiblity in the same sentence….

  4. Drama 2.0 on March 21st, 2008 6:31 pm

    Michael: they don’t have to be mutually exclusive but right now there is no personal responsibility and my argument is that without it, efforts to clean up Congress will inevitably fail. A nation of citizens who consciously vote with their wallets can solve so many of America’s problems without Congress.

  5. Cyndy Aleo-Carreira on March 22nd, 2008 9:14 am

    But Web 2.0 is going to CHANGE THE FUTURE, don’t you know that?

    I think Lessig could have done more by actually running for Congress. A wiki! And I saw them bandying about SEMANTIC! METADATA! In fact, I was able to fill my buzzword bingo card just reading Andy Carvin’s take on it: http://www.andycarvin.com/archives/2008/03/lessig_launches_change_congress_using_se.html

    What Lessig seems to have forgotten is that 99.99% of the people IN government have no idea how to even check their email. The majority of the information that Lessig is collecting is already out there and publicly available for those who actually care. I guess it requires a widget and a wiki to get another 100 people interested in politics?

  6. When Politics Invades the Tech Blogosphere : The Drama 2.0 Show on September 4th, 2008 10:30 am

    […] Internet and social media as another medium through which their bullshit can be broadcast and how misguided efforts to change politics through technology aren’t going to work. I’ve also discussed economic issues, which are […]

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Drama 2.0 spikes the Web 2.0 kool aid by providing critical analyses of Web 2.0, its people, its startups and its impact on the world of media. Other topics are explored when Drama 2.0 has been drinking too much 1975 Dom Perignon. Read more about the Internet's version of Keyser Söze here.