Great for the Tea Party, bad for the people: How the 1 percent conquered Internet activism

Web democracy fail: Easy to join the conversation but impossible to be heard, and big money speaks loudest of all

Published August 3, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Howard Dean lets loose the "Dean Scream" while addressing supporters in West Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 19, 2004.       (AP/Paul Sancya)
Howard Dean lets loose the "Dean Scream" while addressing supporters in West Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 19, 2004. (AP/Paul Sancya)

Ten years ago, many political activists had high hopes for the Internet. Political strategist Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for president, imagined “huge, involved communities around political issues and candidates … these people would be an army, ready to mobilize at the first sign that the government was doing that top-down, trust-us-we-know-what’s-best-for-you crap that people were so sick of ... The American people are going to learn how to organize themselves and then watch out.”

From the world of academia, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler argued that the Internet had enabled the rise of a new “networked public sphere” that was more open to diverse voices and less driven by big money, and that this new media system would nurture a politics that was more small-d democratic.  Over the years, Benkler has pointed to a series of Net-driven successes, including the 2004 blogger-led boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting, the Diebold voting machine scandal, the many revelations published by WikiLeaks, and the grass-roots defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) as proof of this power shift.

But it hasn’t happened. Ten years since the Internet first emerged as a mass platform for political engagement, power and wealth are incontrovertibly more concentrated than they were a decade ago.

Here’s why. Trippi and Benkler’s optimism (which I once shared) was built on a model of Internet-based power with one fatal weakness: In each case, a dispersed network came together to say no to a more concentrated and powerful institution’s yes. That is, successful collective action happens on the Internet when an external stimulus propels sufficient numbers of independent actors to coalesce in opposition — not because those independent actors first bring themselves together in concert. The Internet is good at no; it’s not good at yes.

Benkler is right that the new Internet-powered media environment is preferable to the old mass media system. But only up to a point. The networked public sphere does not exist in a vacuum. Its dynamics are also shaped by the tools that we use to traverse it. And joining the public conversation is only one component of exercising power. Indeed, while the barrier to entry to public media has been lowered by the Internet, the proliferation of digital tools and behaviors has not made participation in decision-making or group coordination substantially easier. With so many more of us creating and sharing content, it may actually be getting harder to come to consensus about common goals.

Worse yet, the primary tool we use — email — has its own inner logic that makes it useful only for certain kinds of coordination, ones that tend to concentrate power in the hands of “Big Data” collectors (like presidential campaigns) and “Big Email” managers (like the folks running e-activist lists at MoveOn or FreedomWorks). The wonder of email is that it costs (almost) nothing to make more of it. For one-on-one conversations, it works beautifully. But as soon as the list of recipients increases to more than one person, the opportunities for misunderstanding multiply. All unmoderated email lists inevitably have “flame wars” where, lacking the normal visual cues that might temper emotional responses and dampen disagreement, some people attack each other viciously. Even moderated lists often turn ugly. As a result, the best use of email is to be the owner of a big list where you are writing directly to many atomized individuals who can’t respond or talk to each other, but where some fraction will click on a request you make, such as to sign a petition or make a donation. We need better tools if we want to get to yes.

Recall what actually happened in each of Benkler’s cases: The Sinclair boycott was a response to the giant media company’s outrageous plan to air an anti-Kerry documentary on its news stations just weeks before the 2004 election. The Diebold activists thought they had proof that the company helped steal the 2000 election for Bush, and when its lawyers tried to quash the publication of its internal documents, those activists found many allies willing to risk punishment in exchange for a chance to thumb their nose at a powerful enemy. WikiLeaks benefits from excessive government and corporate secrecy: If such institutions were more open by default, WikiLeaks would get far less attention. In late 2011, when the U.S. government and its officials went after WikiLeaks and got third parties like Amazon, Visa, PayPal and Mastercard to stop providing WikiLeaks with hosting and commercial services, even people who were unsure whether they supported Julian Assange rallied to protect his freedom from organized suppression. Likewise, the scrappy activists who stopped SOPA and PIPA benefited from the fact that the Hollywood interests who drafted those bills were so greedy that they overplayed their own hand.

Occasionally thwarting powerful overlords is not the same thing as transforming the system that confers so many advantages on them into one that is more democratic and effective at representing the interests of all. So far, Joe Trippi’s “American people” haven’t learned how to self-organize, at least not in ways that have radically changed either government or corporate America. That’s not to say these things can never happen, just that 10 years into the Networked Age they haven’t yet done so, and we need to ask why.

Generally speaking, it’s only on the fringes of the political system that we’ve seen new voices gain new power in America. On the right, libertarian outsider Ron Paul was the first to demonstrate, with his 2008 campaign for president in the Republican primaries, how an Internet-enabled candidate could carve out an independent and viable presence all the way through the national party convention without the support of party leaders or elites. Then in 2010, the Tea Party translated its anti-Obama passion into numerous successful campaigns against moderate Republicans in both the House and Senate. The revolt on the Republican right that led to the government shutdown of October 2013 was also powered by a combination of big money and networked grass-roots activism and media.

On the left, the open Internet and connection technologies have given antiwar and pro-civil liberties dissidents like writer Glenn Greenwald a reach that, if we had a multiparty political system, would surely be rewarded with a healthy segment of the popular vote. Some minority voices and causes, particularly those centered on “identity politics,” have more salience than in the past. And Occupy Wall Street, which was organized almost entirely outside the contours of “normal” American politics by anarchists inspired by the protest movements of Europe and the Arab Spring, was able to briefly upend the political debate and focus attention on inequality in America, a topic that the two major parties uniformly ignore.

But the central contours of American politics really haven’t changed all that much in the 10 years since the rise of “people-powered” campaigns, or groups like MoveOn, online fundraising hubs like ActBlue, blogs and social media. The political operating system of big money campaigns, gerrymandered districts, discriminatory ballot access rules that favor the major parties, undisclosed lobbying and winner-take-all elections hasn’t been altered in the slightest.

Consider these facts:

* In 2004, the average cost of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives was $1.26 million (in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars), according to the Campaign Finance Institute. In 2012 it rose to $1.6 million. On the Senate side, the average winning campaign cost $8.7 million in 2004; in 2012 that average rose to $10.4 million.

* If the Internet was democratizing electoral politics, then small donors would be stepping up and playing a bigger role in helping candidates clear these tougher thresholds. But on the whole they aren’t. In the 2004 cycle, just 8 percent of the money given to House candidates came from donors giving less than $200. In 2012, that percentage inched up to just 10 percent. Big donors (those who give more than $1,000) and PACs still mattered far more to House candidates, delivering a whopping 71 percent of all the money raised in 2012 (which was, in fact, more than in 2004). On the Senate side, the percentage of money going to candidates from donors giving less than $200 didn’t change at all: it was 17 percent in 2004 and 17 percent in 2012.

* Political challengers, theoretically the beneficiaries of any surge in participation by small donors, in fact have seen little overall benefit. In the 2004 cycle, House challengers raised 18 percent of their total funds from small donors. In 2012, that percentage dropped to 14 percent. The total amount given by small donors certainly increased, from $16 million to $25 million. But this was dwarfed by an even bigger increase in the role of larger donors. And on the Senate side, while small donations made up a larger percentage of the money flowing to challengers, again there was no real change in the magnitude between 2004, at the dawn of big online fundraising, and in 2012. Senate challengers raised 27 percent of their cash in small donations in 2004, and 26 percent in 2012.

* It’s true that the Internet has enabled the rise of a handful of new organizations that bundle contributions to political candidates, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, and many of these donations are from small donors. In 2012, ActBlue, the biggest online aggregator of Democratic donations, bundled $30 million to House candidates and $18 million to Senate candidates, and slightly more than half of those amounts came from small donors. It’s also true that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was able to match Wall Street (which supported her opponent Scott Brown) dollar for dollar with a huge national base of small donors. And self-activating groups of liberal activists working through large community blogs, most importantly, have sometimes rallied themselves to recruit and raise early money for new candidates, not only in congressional races but sometimes even state legislative fights. But while promising, these are still exceptions to the rule.

* And while technology may be contributing to a modest increase in the number of people making small donations to support candidates or influence the political process, so far this hasn’t resulted in a marked change in the class makeup of the political donor pool. According to the 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Survey, analyzed by political scientists Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady, “those who make small donations are relatively unlikely to be drawn from the lower rungs of the income ladder ... online contributors who donate small amounts are not markedly less affluent than their offline counterparts.” They add, “If anything they are actually somewhat better off financially. Thus it seems that the Internet may be bringing in more small donors, but it is not bringing in a less affluent set of small donors."

* Reelection rates for congressional incumbents have also barely changed. Yes, in 2010 and 2012 somewhat more incumbents than usual lost their seats in House races — but, respectively, 85 percent and 90 percent were reelected in those cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Reelection rates for senators tend to fluctuate more, since there are fewer races and more competition, but in 2012, 91 percent of sitting senators up for election were returned to office. The advantages of incumbency (gerrymandered districts, franking privileges, pork, greater media attention) are still quite real.

* Even more shocking, the lowered barrier to entry has not enticed more people to run for state office. In 2012, nearly 40 percent of all state legislative candidates ran for office unopposed by a candidate of the other major party, according to the invaluable Ballot Access News.

And for all the talk of “change you can believe in,” and the number of times the media reported that Barack Obama had organized a mass movement using the latest digital technology, and that he would enter office with an army of millions helping him bring real change to Washington, D.C., very little changed. Compared to his predecessors, it is true that a much larger base of small donors financed his campaign. But the people who backed him weren’t themselves empowered to do more by that campaign. “No part of the system was shaken up,” notes David Graeber, one of the early organizers of the Occupy movement, in his recent book, "The Democracy Project":

There were no bank nationalizations, no breakups of ‘too big to fail’ institutions, no major changes in finance laws, no change in the structure of the auto industry, or of any other industry, no change in labor laws, drug laws, surveillance laws, monetary policy, education policy, transportation policy, energy policy, military policy, or—most crucially of all, despite campaign pledges—the role of money in the political system. In exchange for massive infusions of money from the country’s Treasury to rescue them from ruin, industries from finance to manufacturing to health care were required to make only marginal changes to their practices.

The Internet, and all its attendant forms of connection technology and social media, now permeates the lives of nearly all Americans. In the last 15 years, being digitally connected has become a nearly universal condition. In 1995, just one in seven American adults was online, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Now more than four out of five are, and among 18- to 29-year-olds the figure is 97 percent. Seventy-three percent of adult Internet users are on social networking sites, whereas just nine years ago that number was 8 percent.

Tens of millions of us are online political activists engaged each day in sifting the news, sharing our concerns and attempting to shift the debate. We are the civic participants formally known just as voters. All of this new activity is exhilarating — and also frustrating.

As more voices clamor for our attention, the result isn't just more noise in the public arena and more emails flooding congressional in-boxes. Mass participation by today's online activists through the dominant forms used to channel attention — email, blogs and social media — is also contributing to the fragmentation of our attention, governmental gridlock and more polarized politics. And it may be turning off a crucial portion of the electorate: people who don't have the time or inclination to join in daily political debate, as well as those who don't think the issues are all simply a matter of "us" versus "them."

The result is a body politic that has grown more and more distorted. It has a gigantic mouth, and two huge hands, one left and one right, that spend most of their time shaking their fists at each other. Its heart is still beating strong, and often it races in response to emotional events. But its ears and eyes are deafened and blinded by all the noise and flash; its stomach only rarely gets to digest anything; and its leg muscles are atrophying from lack of use. We can save the body politic, but to do so we have to remember that the purpose of democracy isn’t just for each of us to have our say, but to blend those “says” into common agreements. Instead of letting our digital tools drive us in ways that further exacerbate our differences and divide our attention, we have to insist on tools and practices that help bring us together as equals to solve problems. In short, we need a real digital public square, not one hosted by Facebook, shaped by Google and snooped on by the National Security Agency. If we don’t build one, then any notion of democracy as “rule by the people” will no longer be meaningful. We will be a nation of Big Data, by Big Email, for the powers that be.

Excerpt adapted from The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet). Micah L. Sifry is co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media. @mlsif

By Micah Sifry

Micah L. Sifry's book "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America" is available in paperback. He is also the co-editor of "The Iraq War Reader."

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