Another First Internet Campaign

Whether he has withdrawn or not (and it’s unclear what the answer is), Howard Dean is out of the race. Now his supporters are rallying around the idea of continuing the “movement” his campaign started. The unprecedented success of this pioneering campaign has got to be harnessed, they say.

But what, if anything, is behind the curtain of the “first true Internet-based campaign” mystique? Less than might be hoped. We have been here before. We have heard about the brave new political world being ushered in by technology, especially where the Internet is involved.

After Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota state house, there was a spate of “first Internet-based campaign” pronouncements. They were all in response to the fact that the campaign used e-mail to get people to rallies. Ordinary Hockey dads who had never been politically active were coordinated through e-mail lists to great effect. Later, the McCain campaign raised a lot of money over the Internet and so it became in its turn the “first Internet-based campaign,” ironically heralding a new era in political money.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Project Vote Smart appeared to be on the vanguard of forging a new Internet-enabled relationship between citizens and politicians. It posted a searchable database of answers to candidate questionnaires. But then, the next election cycle, those same answers were used in politics-as-usual attack ads and the project suddenly found it hard to convince candidates to fill out their forms. It is now a rare candidate who takes them up on their offer of posting their positions (not even the Dean campaign did).

Now, even in its demise, the Dean campaign is seen as validating the democratically transformative effects of the Internet. In this case, the hype is based on the fact that the campaign had a “weblog” (which in reality was a way for the campaign to continually update what it said about itself); and employed a field-based approach to organizing in which local cells of support had a fair degree of what seemed like autonomy. People across the country are avid and self-referential about how “first” they are, or were. A recent technology conference featuring ousted Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi became the functional equivalent of Comdex, and weblogs are abuzz with parsings of what Trippi said and didn’t — and what needs to happen for the Internet to continue to take over politics.

But, the real reason the Dean campaign is the first “real” Internet campaign has nothing to do with the uses made of the Internet for political purposes. No, the Dean campaign was able to create the simulation of widespread support by clever use of Internet-based (i.e., “narrowcast”) marketing tools. People thought they had a “relationship” with the Dean campaign the same way my bank wants me to think I have a “relationship” to it.

The Dean campaign was the first to simulate a real campaign, just as Pets.com simulated a real business and the AOL-TimeWarner merger simulated real strategy. The Dean campaign looked exactly like a successful campaign — only it wasn’t.

This found perhaps its most perfect expression when the campaign found itself to be very successful and sent out an email suggesting that it was wrestling with a tough decision about whether to forego public financing. The “interactive” nature of this missive was touted by many at the time as yet another example of the Internettiness of the campaign. The campaign used the sense of intimacy brought about by the Internet to make people feel as if they had been asked an important question. “Hey!” thought people at home. “The campaign cares what I think!”

But it was hollow. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Dean was going to go where the money was.

Ultimately, what the Dean campaign showed us (reminded us) is what real grassroots political organizers have long known: political “transactions” are fundamentally different from commercial transactions. It is easier to get my money than my civic time. What the Dean campaign forgot, or more precisely what the hype about the Dean campaign forgot, was that the appearance of a network and message of hope is far different from the real thing.

And it’s the real thing in which people place their trust.

The Democracy Shop

The field has winnowed and the retail politics of January has given way to the wholesale politics of the rest of the year. Turnout has been up, especially among younger people. Since Iowa, opinion pages have been awash with cautious optimism that civic engagement is on the rise.

But forgive me if I don’t unwrap my party hat just yet. The reports of the death of youth disengagement are, as were the stories of Samuel Clemens’s demise, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, in a recent survey by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth are twelve percent less likely to trust government than they were two years ago, and only thirty-five percent say most people can be trusted. The divide between the people and political leaders — indeed, between people and each other — remains as deep as ever.

Meanwhile, the stalwart “civic engagement” industry — the many nonprofit groups and other organizations that mount voter registration drive after voter registration drive and create massive get-out-the-vote campaigns — lumbers on with seemingly less and less effect.

The problem is the very means that are used to promote participation in the first place. Young people are asked to “raise their voice” and “be heard” through voting. They are told that whether or not they vote “matters,” that their vote “counts” (all disingenuous propositions). They are exhorted to “send a message on election day” to political leaders.

This is the rise of the marketing-based approach to public life. But citizenship cannot be sold. It is telling that this very rhetoric appears in an advertisement for Coca-Cola that was making the rounds in movie theaters recently. In a mythic place called “Football Town,” one fan proudly proclaims, “I know I can make a difference!”

Such messages work if participation is a decision akin to making a purchase — an economic decision. But citizens are neither customers nor fans. Here in the longest-running experiment in self-governance on the planet, citizens are those who have voluntarily adopted the obligations of self-rule.

However, the model that is too-often used to think and talk about civic participation relies on self-interest and not on other-interest. It denies that there is any real moral consequence to staying home on PTA night, to keeping quiet when fellow citizens bash those “politicians,” and taking a Mulligan on election day.

Needed is an honest approach. Citizens ought not to participate simply because they may get something out of it, or because their “voice” might be “heard.” Americans need to be reminded of their civic duty, not pandered to with proposals of election-day holidays and EZ absentee ballot forms.

But, I am pessimistic that this will come to pass any time soon. Such a movement would not be popular. It would require sacrifice — not the dramatic sacrifice of the rescuer or soldier, but the ordinary, noble sacrifice of the citizen. It would require attendance at community meetings rather than relaxing at home after a hard day’s work or study. It would require actively learning about current events rather than keeping up with Entertainment Tonight. It would require giving up weekends in favor of volunteering on a political campaign. It would require writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper rather than complaining at the dinner table. It would require voting on election day, rather than complaining about being stuck in traffic.

The civic machinery of youth participation is gunning its engine, as it does every four years, but it will continue to remain stuck on the ice for as long as it misrepresents the point of citizenship.

When it comes time to buy, I fear the newest potential customers of democracy will continue to patronize other, more exciting shops, while they wait in vain for an honest invitation to join public life.

Of Negativity

Certain signs of the season have arisen. For those who watch politics, they are as regular as clockwork and trumpet the start of a glorious time of political passion and intrapartisan fistfights.

Iowa is behind us. There has been an upset. The election-year state of the union address has been articulated. Candidates have dropped out and thrown support to the seeming frontrunner. Some campaigns have something called “momentum.” In New Hampshire, the obligatory “we reporters are cold, but the candidates are still campaigning” stories have all been filed.

And, hand wringing has begun. Political observers say that the campaigns are beginning to “go negative.” Governor Dean blames his loss in Iowa on such attacks, calling himself a “pin cushion,” the result of his erstwhile frontrunner status. Now he vows to fight all the harder. Senator Edwards apparently did so well because of his basically positive, compassionate style. And, General Wesley Clark’s campaign has gotten New York Times scrutiny for his use of opposition research on opponents.

It is only a matter of time before one candidate takes the step of proposing a “pledge” to forswear all “negative ads.” Having myself spent many election cycles promoting such pledges, I view this likelihood with mixed feelings. On the one hand, anything that draws attention to unfair campaigning as an issue must be counted a good thing. Modern campaigns have metastasized into creatures that only serve to remind people why they hate politics. On the other hand, there is a pernicious misunderstanding about so-called negative ads. The result is a sense that politics must always be a negative sport, filled with vitriol and personal attacks.

The problem lies with the definition of “negative.” Most political insiders use the word to mean “anything critical of an opponent.” But most people at home, in their living rooms, take the word to mean “unfair.” That opens the door to all manner of foolishness. Here’s an example: One candidate says that his opponent takes campaign contributions from Big Oil. That candidate calls such an attack “going negative.” Because it actually is negative in the sense that it’s “critical,” news items run about the negative attack. People at home are left with the idea that the overall campaign has devolved into personal and unfair attacks, while in fact the question of campaign contributions is a fair issue to discuss.

A far better way to characterize the kind of campaigning that drives a stake into the heart of civic life, is instead to talk about “unfair attacks.” These are the irresponsible, dishonest statements and actions that voters loathe. But what does this mean? What is OK, and what isn’t?

In the most recent Civic Values Survey (a bipartisan poll on political attitudes conducted for the Institute for Global Ethics), when asked about what sorts of criticisms are fair or unfair, Americans say it is fair to criticize an opponent for:

* An opponent’s voting record (68% say this is fair)

* Criticizing a candidate for talking one way and voting another (71%)

* An opponent’s business practices (53%)

* Criticizing an opponent for accepting contributions from special interest groups (57%)

* Criticizing an opponent for not paying taxes on time (61%)

And they say it is unfair to criticize an opponent for:

* Criticizing the actions of an opponent’s family (89% say this is unfair)

* Past troubles such as alcoholism or marijuana use (69%)

* Marital infidelity (57%)

* Past personal financial problems (81%)

* Financing your campaign yourself (76%)

Those who say any statement critical of the opposition is to be avoided are wrong — Americans do not want nice politics, nor do they deserve the insipid debate that it would engender. They want and deserve hard-hitting arguments between real candidates about issues that matter. And, they are very clear about what issues matter and which ones don’t. The poll referred to above is from 2002, but it was taken at two-year intervals frequently up to that time — and the findings remained stable.

Candidates, take heed and take heart: you can criticize your opponents.

And journalists, take note: While the gloves may well have come off and criticism between campaigns has begun, it is by no means the beginning of the end. The candidates are in general talking — arguing — about things that matter.

Just as Americans want.

Of Money and Politics in Ohio

The highest court in the land late last year dealt a win to campaign finance reform, holding up most every major provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This was news worth popping champagne corks over. But, it will not clean up politics in all of the ways its proponents have claimed. The reason? It only cleans up money. Election campaigns are still as free as ever to be nasty, brutish, poll-driven affairs in which competing political juggernauts scramble to strike deeper fear into the political center about the disastrous character of the opponents.

The BCRA has taken significant steps to clean up the stench of legalized bribery that permeates campaigns today. Supporters say it will open the door to healing the chasm that now exists between citizens and government, across which each side views the other with suspicion and loathing. But, that view is based on a narrow notion of who citizens are and why they are so mistrustful. Money’s part of it, but by no means the only part.

Ohio has long been a home for a groundbreaking effort to encourage political candidates to take a higher road in their campaigns. Spearheaded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Global Ethics and led in-state by Ohio Citizen Action and a bipartisan advisory council, since 1998 the Project on Campaign Conduct has worked directly with Congressional candidates to negotiate mutual codes of conduct and get them to agree to abide by them. Toledo was also at the forefront of this effort — ever since the Lucas County Clean Campaign Committee formed while the mayoral race between Ray Kest and Jack Ford was at its peak of nastiness. What the Project learned over three election cycles of work is that, while money plays a major part in the problem, citizens are far more turned off by the way campaigns are conducted, not how they are funded.

Repeated polling throughout the state and across the nation confirms this. In the most recent national Civic Values Survey, a bipartisan poll designed to probe the public’s attitudes toward how campaigns are waged, by far the greatest concern that citizens had was about candidates’ honesty and integrity. Twenty six percent said this was their chief concern, with nineteen percent most concerned about money issues. Another eight percent were concerned about backstabbing, negative election campaigns.

That’s across the nation. In Ohio, there is similar concern, and it’s growing. Over a two year period (from 1998 to 2000), the percentage of Ohioans who said that negative, attack-oriented campaigns are damaging democracy went from thirty seven percent to fifty percent.

What is needed is the same sort of diligence among America’s civic leaders that finally pushed BCRA onto the public agenda and into law. America’s civic leaders need to stand up and demand a better quality of campaign. They need to begin to encourage citizens to ask: “How is my candidate running?” in addition to “What are my candidate’s stands on issues?” Citizens are ready for this true civic leadership, but remain convinced that their own small voices cannot make a difference in the face of the way campaigns are conducted today. Seventy one percent of Americans say that elected officials have “a different set of values from me.” Civic leaders can light the way for ordinary American citizens to truly take back politics.

Codes of conduct are a place to start. But there are other things that can be done, too. Civic groups holding candidate forums can ask different questions, ones that focus on honesty, respect for opponents and citizens, and fairness. Organizations that endorse candidates can withhold endorsements when candidates go too strongly negative.

It is not a politics of politeness that people crave. People understand that there must be argument in politics, because the issues are so important. But there is argument, and there is name calling. It is name calling that has so turned off Americans and Ohioans, not political argument.

When all is said and done, I am certain BCRA will have been a significant step forward. But it will not erase all of the problems with politics today, and it will not produce a suddenly-engaged electorate. America’s civic leaders — the ones who set the conditions for BCRA’s passage through phone-calls, organizing, and tireless work — have a new task before them. Let us hope they bring the same energy to this one for, if they do, we will all benefit and we may yet develop a democracy in which we can take deserved pride.

Of Charity and Term Limits

America’s political leaders recently considered closing some regulatory loopholes and forcing private foundations to distribute more of their money. Survey after survey shows that Americans view public charities with increasing skepticism. The independent sector — foundations and charities — feels besieged. Yet, by many accounts volunteering and individual giving are up; the sector is growing. What’s going on here?

There’s a lesson to be learned from politics in the 1990’s. Term limits — a bad idea whose time had come — were sweeping the nation. A major culprit was institutional smugness. In politics in the 1990’s, majorities of voters in nineteen states became fed up at what they perceived as arrogant power and reached for the nearest club that would give it its comeuppance. They picked term limits.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors ought to take the lesson of the last decade of the last century to heart. People nowadays mistrust large independent sector institutions because they seem unaccountable and somehow self-perpetuating. But those in the independent sector world do not seem to understand why. Rather than admit the real problem, they have mounted “branding campaigns,” or taken to offering political arguments about the myriad drawbacks of this proposal or that counterproposal. The sector has mounted influence campaigns and issued talking points. It has circled the wagons.

Seldom does one hear a voice calling for a real self-examination, one that would ask questions like: “Are we funding in the right way, in a way that is true to the ideals of philanthropy? Are we truly looking to find the areas where the need is greatest? Are we seeking to help civic America, or are we primarily concerned with how things affect our own particular institutions? Do we approach our public as we would fellow citizens, or just as clients of our paternal largesse?”

It is the answers to these questions that will provide a roadmap back to a trusting partnership with American public life. Eye-catching logos, clever management strategies, and mission statements won’t do it.

There is an anti-philanthropy backlash now creeping across the nation. Foundations feel it, non-profits feel it, colleges and universities feel it. It is not born of questions about results or effectiveness. Nor is it borne of tough economic times — indeed, charitable giving by individuals is by some measures on the rise. No, the backlash is growing because people do not trust the institutions involved.

Voluntary, non-governmental efforts on behalf of the public good are what made and continue to make America great. Charity — in the best sense of the term — is a fundamental American value. That must not be let to whither.

Voters may hate Congress, but they seem to love their individual House member enough to re-elect her or him with typically easy margins. At the same time in the late 90’s that a citizen might have been voting to term-limit any and all political leadership, he or she was probably also voting to give their individual representative another two years.

And, like the individual members of Congress whom citizens seem inexplicably to love, Americans are ready, willing and able to volunteer and to donate funds to charitable causes even as they mistrust the institutional structures that enable it. People want to do their part locally. Look no further than your local — unbranded — homeless shelter. Chances are you will find neighbors volunteering there, and you may choose to join in too. Or maybe you are one of the many Americans who already have.

Meanwhile, the political arguments continue. While the most recent battle may be won, the independent sector is in danger of losing the war.

Five Civic Dangers

The other weekend I was at a meeting hosted by the National Civic League where we discussed the state of civic America. The question on the table was an open-ended: What are you seeing in America today? What civic trends are there?

There were many community-building types at the meeting, and they had a lot to say. There are many examples of progress — cities and regions coming together to solve common problems, individuals taking concrete steps for change, new programs creating new ways of interacting. There are also many brick walls — underfunding by philanthropic organizations, dearth of media coverage on issues that matter, policies implemented at the state and federal level that make community building excruciatingly difficult.

All this is true. But, while there is a lot of activity, as well as many barriers to progress, the question on the table really seemed to invite a deeper discussion. What are we seeing across efforts? What commonalities are there?

One commonality is that citizens seem to fall into the same traps as they try to move forward. There are five of these “civic dangers:”

Old reflexes. Often, when a group of citizens or network of civic groups comes together, they have done a great job of identifying the problems they want to work on — but they look to tried-and-true solutions that are neither tried nor true any longer. They see the need for new legislation, or a lobbying effort for different funding, or for a different kind of candidate to become elected. Reflexes like this diminish the role of citizens themselves. They are in fact anti-civic in nature insofar as they treat the solution to the problem as “over there,” in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own. It’s not every problem that has a uniquely civic solution, but the frequency with which I see groups lapse into traditional issue-politics thinking is troubling.

Doing too much. Other times, when groups begin to identify and work on public problems, they are enthused about the possibilities. They begin to want to solve the whole problem themselves, rather than focus on a piece that they can manage. This can kill momentum. A group of citizens I know in Toledo were single-handedly successful in changing the nature of a mayor’s race — but they are disappointed and dispirited because there are a host of other political ills in the city that they haven’t made a dent in. They’ve succeeded, but they think they’ve failed.

Leadership. In communities across America, people agree leadership is important. For over a decade, the word has been the touchstone for change: change always requires leaders. This has driven an increase in “leadership training” offerings. It seems every new initiative must have a leadership training component, and the outfits lining up to provide the training are myriad. But there’s leadership and then there’s leadership. It is a rare leadership training program that truly cultivates the civic sensibilities needed to stick with community change over the long haul. Many such programs are really only designed to replace an “old-boy” network with a “new-boy” network: the way things get done is still dependent on informal interactions of elites. The Harwood Institute, the Kettering Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are doing groundbreaking work in truly civic leadership and hopefully it will spread.

e-Fatuation. I have seen this one many times. Often as a group begins to gather momentum, they take notice of new technologies and begin to wonder how they can be used to further their efforts. They read about political campaigns that are said to use the Internet in new ways and see themselves benefiting from such an approach. But the tech-savvy and the neophyte alike seem to get blinded by the gadgetry. I call this e-fatuation. They see a website as an end in itself; they see bulletin board systems as a substitute for face-to-face interactions; they see increasing listerv subscribers as an indicator of effectiveness. As this happens, groups can easily lose sight of the humanity in which the technology is to be in service of. Or, they can lose sight of what they want to accomplish and the tail wags the dog. The result, as so many initiatives have shown, is a lot of online activity — and precious little change.

Finally, the meeting highlighted another troubling trend in American civic life: the professionalization of change agents. There are more and more consultants and organizations who specialize in bringing “technical assistance” to bear on public problems. On the one hand, this is a good thing: there is depth on the civic change bench. On the other hand, it’s very, very bad. It can rob citizens of the very participation they crave by setting the consultants up as “change experts,” letting everyone else off the hook. The hallmark of truly civic efforts is that citizens see themselves as holding the keys to the solution. To the extent that it is consultants — all well-meaning — who hold those keys, the citizens become mere clients and change gets driven by the hired and not the implicated.

These civic dangers are not civic destiny. They are simply things to watch out for as we try to make progress in common. Thankfully, these dangers carry with them the seeds of their own solution. Here is how I have seen groups of citizens avoid these civic traps:

Play politics as unusual. This relates not only to how you go about it but also to what you go after. Examples of this approach can be seen in many places — unusual coalitions coming together to push for change.

Take small steps. In Toledo, a group of citizen reformers think they’ve failed because all politics has not changed, they actually succeeded. Why? Their effort focused tightly on one political race in one place — and that did indeed change.

Uncover leadership, don’t train it. The Kellogg Foundation has an approach to leadership development that starts at the community level — and stays there. Rather than “identifying” (and so separating out) leaders, this approach develops leadership traits across the community, recognizing that on some issues, in some places certain people will emerge as leaders and others will follow. There is existing leadership already in communities, people who are already looked to as sources of information and as moral exemplars. Those people need to be nurtured, not anointed.

Stay human. Which barbershop should you go to? The messy one, of course: that’s the one where the barber hasn’t had time to sweep up because the haircuts are so good the customers are stacked two deep. Which community change efforts are really moving forward? The ones it’s hard to find unless you’re part of the community. Sure, you need a website so people can find you — but stop there. Don’t try to compete with AOL and create an “online community” if you don’t need one.

Go organic. The stable of “community change experts” is large; they all sell competing processes. One may use an “electronic town meeting” in order to get as many people into one room as possible; another may have a series of “community conversations” building on one another over time. The reality is that which route you go matters far less than who is involved and why. So, shop carefully for your expert. Do they like people and want to help them move forward? Or, are they policy wonks preaching “good government?” Both are needed — but most communities need someone on their side, as opposed to someone using them to achieve an ideological end.

These are by no means the only pitfalls that might be encountered, nor the complete list of must-dos. They are only among the most common. As social entrepreneurship and citizen engagement becomes more widespread, the danger that group after group will hit a brick wall grows.

But, with some planning, those brick walls can be avoided and efforts to work for progress can thrive.