Last Wednesday, before
going to a Steely Dan concert that was a grand musical trip through my college
years and young adulthood, my best friend took me on a tour of the mineral
baths in Warm Springs, Georgia that Franklin Roosevelt visited to try first to recover
from and then to live with his polio, and of the nearby “Little White House”
that he retreated to as often as he could, both before and while he was
president (and where he died).
Spending time with both one of my historical heroes and one of my contemporary ones was great fun. It was also really fascinating, and there is a small but interesting museum on the grounds of the “Little White House” that contained numerous articles relating to FDR’s personal and political life, including a mockup of a small living room from a poor sharecropper’s cottage with an old radio playing a recording of one of FDR’s fireside chats.
It was a surprisingly powerful exhibit, conveying really well what it must have meant to millions of desperately poor Americans (many of whom were largely illiterate) to hear the reassurances and plans of their president in his own voice in their own living rooms, and I was reminded of it yesterday, while reading this brilliant article by Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic, which deals with the revolutionary nature of Barack Obama’s campaign for president and the transformational potential of an Obama administration (if he wins).
The whole thing is well worth reading, but the thesis of the piece is that every time there is a new medium through which to communicate with voters, it takes a few years before any politician figures out how to really make use of that medium’s strengths, and when one does, it precipitates major changes in American politics. He cites the example of FDR’s use of radio among other such changes, and says that Obama’s use of the Internet is not only a close but also a completely self-conscious parallel of that transformation.
I’ve written before about Obama’s use of the internet, and I think Ambinder is absolutely right about the potential for change in our politics, as is Micah Sifry in this piece on the Personal Democracy Forum’s techPresident site. Sifry’s piece takes particular note of the same phenomenon I have, that Obama’s organizational independence means big changes for the traditional centers of power in Democratic politics and new ways for candidates to go directly to the American people for support of both political aspirations and legislative muscle once in office.
Ambinder’s article uses JFK as the poster boy for the use of television’s transformative effect, and while that’s certainly the standard formulation, I think Ronald Reagan may be a better choice for the guy who really transformed politics through the use of TV. JFK looked great on TV, and the contrast in their debate appearances in 1960 certainly made Nixon look like a shifty-eyed crook (ironically, Nixon served as VP in an administration that was acutely aware of the impact of making a good impression on TV, and hired the first TV consultant to serve its political and policy aims), but it took St. Ronnie to show us real mastery of the medium to manipulate public opinion directly, and detour around the journalists handling the cameras.
Obama too is finding his way around the gatekeepers of modern media and modern Democratic politics, in this case by using the web as Reagan used TV. For good or ill, the web has destabilized every institution it has touched, and there’s no reason not to expect it to continue to do the same with politics. Since our current politics has led us into an epic mess that can be blamed in no small part on the uses of the current communications technology, almost any change is likely to be an improvement.
The trick, as Ambinder alludes to, is in figuring out how to make use of the new resources the web places at a politician’s disposal. This challenge changes after a politician is elected to office, and there has been a good deal of discussion in the blogosphere lately about the significance of Obama’s using up much of the oxygen in the room on the web, and about what will happen to the online organization he has built, both if he wins and if he doesn’t. Sifry’s article in particular discusses the failures of past candidates who have developed movements independent of the parties’ structures. The grass roots organizations of Jesse Jackson in ’88 and Ross Perot in ’92 and ’96 all dissolved immediately after the election, because their founders couldn’t let go of the strict control of the movement. Howard Dean had considerably better success after the election in 2004 - his “Democracy For America” is still going strong and has served as a seed for other recent movements - in part because Dean was willing to let it move on without him after he took over the DNC.
Since the power of the web is inherently so widely distributed, it’s unlikely that efforts to control it in the traditional sense will be successful – web communities, as several politicians (including Obama) have discovered, are simply too unruly to be molded into disciplined troops serving a hierarchical structure and a single leader.
A political organization flexible enough, though, to strike a balance between controlling the agenda of such a large group and drawing on its almost limitless diversity and energy could bring a real revolution in how we govern ourselves, and Obama seems to have a good bead on the beginnings of a strategy to do that (in that sense, his experience as a community organizer is serving him extremely well). It remains to be seen if the techniques that are effective in smaller community organizations are scalable to the vast numbers involved in national political parties, but Obama’s campaign has reached pretty large size already, and it seems to be working fine so far.
Politics as a competition between marching bands may be being overthrown by the web, and replaced by politics as improvisational jazz. And that’s probably just fine. I like a good marching band as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t hold a candle to good jazz. It takes a delicate and steady touch, though, to keep a big jazz band all headed in the same direction, and if you don’t you get a discordant mess. My gut tells me that it’s better to let the web community breathe more, and not suffocate it with an attempt at control, but keeping all those musicians playing complementary music will be an ongoing challenge.