The G-Word

Chris Steins's picture

Are politicians becoming obsolete in the age of the Internet? Are they simply the 'middle-men' that will be replaced by votes cast directly by citizens? This was the issue before a veritable rock-star cast of poliltical insiders from California and around the country. So what is the G-Word?





The G-Word is Governance. There. I've said it. And, based on recent voter turn-out statistics 91.8% of you have stopped reading. Why? Because, let's face it, for most of us it's a boring topic.

John Adams, with a notebookThis was one of the ambitious topics of a lively, if sometimes academic debate, "Rethinking Governance in the Age of MySpace" for the first annual David Abel Colloquium held at USC in Los Angeles. A panel of experienced political insiders debated whether social networking and technology changes the very nature of how political decisions are made.

Civic connector and moderator David Abel proposed a hypothetical scenario: A small group of civic-minded individuals have gathered in a downtown restaurant. Although they have diverse political backgrounds and views, they are passionately interested in solving the federal government's lack of ability to respond to citizen's concerns. This group decides that they want to create a federal initiative to achieve "direct democracy", where citizens vote on initiatives and laws directly, not through elected representatives.

Whoa. Heady stuff here.

Would you sign on to the campaign? Abel asked the panelists.

Would the campaign generate a widescale following?

Could it happen?

Sure it could, says, Joe Trippi, president of Trippi & Associates, and the former National Campaign Manager for Howard Dean's famously-technology-based presidential campaign in 2004. A small effort like this could use the Internet to grow virally to represent a large number of people -- a tipping point. He, and many of the panelists, felt that a wildly-popular grassroots political movement that relied fundamentally on Internet-based social networking and forced political change was going to emerge sooner or later.

Dana Boyd, an animated Graduate Student Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication, argued that Generation Y is not engaged in public life because they don't feel that any of this governance stuff relates to them. But, should a hot issue capture their attention, GenYers can mobilize virtually overnight, as they did when Facebook released a set of unpopular features.

On the other hand, direct democracy can dangerously imperil minority groups, argued John A. Pérez, Political Director for the United Food and Commercial Workers. If we're going the direct democracy route, we need to make sure we have a process and discussion about it, says Dan Mazmanian, Director of the USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise.

David Janssen, Chief Administrative Officer for Los Angeles County, argued that the Constitution was designed to ensure that the federal government is not responsive. He estimates that within the next decade we will not need elected officials; citizens will be able to directly vote on every county, state and federal initiative. He worries that when this happens decision-making could be much worse than today, as people vote on complex issues about which "they don't have a clue."

(Unrelated note: The website, Should you vote in the next election, attempts to rate how engaged you are with politics. I'm not sure why recognizing Paris Hilton or Christina Aguilera would make me more qualified to vote in the next election, but it's still fun.)

"The disengagement of the citizen is as much a danger to democracy as direct participation" says Sunne McPeak, President of the California Emerging Technology Fund, and the US must improve the efficiency of federal decision-making to match the pace of change globally or risk falling behind in global competitiveness.

Joe Trippi offered a dramatic concluding scenario: What if the president of the European Union held a press conference tomorrow targeted toward the US, and called on the people of the US to sign the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the US government (which has declined to sign the agreement).

And what if 50 million US citizens signed this non-legally binding document online? Could this simple action of direct democracy unleash rapid and dramatic change in the US political system?

So let's bring this home.

Would you rather that the Planning Commission and City Council review and vote on plans, zoning and land use projects, or would you rather local neighborhood residents vote directly?

[Note: May 10, 2008 -- An 18-minute version of the Colloquium, "Rethinking Governance in the Age of," held on March 8, 2007 is now available on the web.]

Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.



Robert Goodspeed's picture

Direct Democracy and Transparency

While Web 2.0 technologies are clearly having a large impact on our society and political life more generally, these technologies have had a much smaller impact on local level governance, where most planning decisions are made.

Compared with millions of blogs discussing national politics and policy, there are depressing few dedicated to hyperlocal news and planning issues. For many local governments, only few public documents make it online, or if they do they are poorly organized or archived.

It is no wonder young people are so disconnected, if it is just as hard as ever to find out what is going on. It seems a revolution of the transparency of local level government is necessary before we see any broader citizen empowerment in planning, much less the type of revolution envisioned by modern day techno-utopians like Joe Trippi.

Josh Stephens's picture

Influence vs. Decision-Making

A fine summary of a fine event.

Aside from the overpowering theme of the generation gap on the internet and especially social networking sites, the strongest idea I came away with was the distinction between influence and decision-making.

Direct democracy is risky at best when it dictates actual decisions. As one panelist mentioned, it's a slippery slope -- once you introduce it, you can't retract it. And there is the age-old threat of the tyranny of the majority. Any decision-making system that would allow 51 percent of the population to enslave the other 49 percent subverts liberal democracy. And if you say that you need a mediator to ward off tyranny, then it's not real direct democracy, and we're right back where we started. (Incidentally, I think this is true regardless of technology; the internet makes direct democracy easier and quicker, but the dangers are ancient.)

Having said that, the notion of taking massive opinion polls--and exerting influence--holds real value. Floating above the administration of government is the nebulous world of ideology, values, and principles, which government is obligated to discern and take into account. No average citizen ever wants to write a law or ordinance, and most would not have the expertise. But everyone is entitled to express their principles, and therein lies the value of direct influence. The internet can gague public sentiment that can inform the policymakers and allow them to mix their expertise with popular will.

The influence is twofold: it can not only guide political action, but it can also offer a benchmark by which to determine the efficacy and character of elected officials. if they deviate from popula will, they must offer a great reason or risk losing in the next election. That is to say, politicians and citizens alike cannot think that a quadrennial poll consitutes the extent of democratic participation.

Our government includes far too little concern for popular will because we are so concerned about elections and winning that we don't notice whether politicians are actually staying true to their mandates. But if we know how the majority feels in the abstract, then we can charge the government with doing the hard work of connecting the popular heart to the administrative mind.

Finally, last night's event proved that Francis Fukuyama was wrong: Even if democracy is civilization's inevitable destination, history has not ended. Even as Marx, Musollini, Aristotle, Moore, and Mao, and all of history's kings and queens take their place on dusty shelves, democracy will continue to evolve, implode, and renew itself. Whether technology is the catalyst, I do not know.

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