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.”
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:
- Are you fed up with high gas prices? Do you think that government should mandate better automobile fuel efficiency standards? You don’t need it to. Purchase more fuel-efficient cars, use public transportation and cut back on unnecessary driving. If there was less demand for gas guzzling cars and for oil, Detroit would offer more fuel-efficient cars and gas prices would decrease as consumption decreased.
- Do you think that free trade agreements are disproportionately benefiting countries like China at the expense of American companies and workers? Do you want the government to renegotiate free trade agreements like NAFTA? It doesn’t need to. Don’t purchase cheap goods that are made in countries you think have unfair labor practices. Stop supporting retailers that take advantage of cheap overseas labor to offer low-priced consumer goods. If the demand for cheap overseas goods decreases and Americans demonstrate that they’re willing to pay more for homegrown products, the market will respond in kind.
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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