The simplest steps to greater democracy

Jock Gill writes at Greater Democracy about the silence of the conventional party system. Delegates, once selected, have little or no dialogue with voters; the Jock proof provides is the list provided to delegates to the Democratic convention that has no email addresses or any way to make contact with them via the Internet.

The problem exists in plain old analog communications. For example, I have had no follow-up communication from the Democratic party about who was selected to attend the state and national conventions, even though I took the time to attend caucuses. This is because there is a disconnect in American politics between the volunteer and the activist citizen, and the volunteers have ruled the political marketplace for generations.

Volunteers get their satisfaction from having helped a cause they care about, but do not generally have voice. I received a mailing from the Democracy for America team in my state today asking what days of the week that I want to do volunteer work for candidates. It was taken for granted that my time is available.

Activists, on the other hand, want something for their energy. They’re decidedly more marketplace-of-ideas oriented and if their agenda isn’t addressed will find somewhere else to put their effort and support.

The parties do address the activists behind the scenes. If the parties were to open the channels of communication, they would find volunteers continue to do their work without demands–many people are perfectly happy to support someone or a cause they believe in without any sense they have been denied a return on their effort. What would change is that coalitions of activists would make more demands on the parties as their networks of influence grew and changed. It’s a headache that party people, who are pretty happy with the way things worked when they achieved power, don’t want or cannot invite willingly.

So, we shouldn’t expect the parties to change until we change them. Activism has to work its way into the party structure with the intention of opening the whole system, not taking power and closing the door. That requires a significant change in human nature, if you ask me.

But the process put in place to make the change can save us from our lesser selves. Susan Mernit wrote last week about the kinds of evolution she would like to see in political coverage this year. Her insight, that adding populist tools to monolithic media will change those old media. Putting blogs, community tools, social networks, individualized syndication and other tools in place and keeping them there does keep the channels for future voters open.

Electoral politics has been revolutionized and opened to wider input before, by the populist movement, the changes to the balloting process and the introduction of public initiatives during the Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights and student voter registration movements of the 1960s. But the tendency has been for those revolutions to give way to retrograde movements that shut the channels that brought new generations to power. Some of the new openness remains, but it is never quite as bright as the moment before the activists win.

This year, removing President Bush from power will be perceived a success, but it is only a part of a wider movement to democratize communication. Jock Gill’s point that a key democratic battle will be seen in the governance of wireless communications is deeply correct: Wiring society with rules and systems that make maximum dialogue is the heart of democratic change. If we stop with winning the White House and fall back on the idea that with a click-to-donate campaign candidates can win big elections, most of the democratic evolutionary force will be lost.

More communication, not just blogs and email, is necessary. The parties need to recognize that engagement with active voters is a two-way street not just a call to action for volunteers. Making activists is hard, because the motives driving people vary so much, but treating everyone like an activist could keep them far more engage and unleash substantially more political energy. That movement becomes self-renewing as activists are born and could reinvigorate the parties as it changes them and can be built on simple tools.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.