Saturday, November 15, 2008

Civic Intelligence and the Election

Although his face-to-face communication skills appear to be in good working order, Barack Obama is likely to become known as America's first "digital president." From a civic intelligence perspective I think the most important question to ask is "What will happen to the substantial electronic networks that were created in support of his campaign?" That would help us ascertain whether there are major long-term changes in democracy as it’s practiced as opposed to changes in how election campaigns are conducted. According to Howard Fineman (Newsweek, October 25, 2008), the president-elect has "3.1 million contributors, 5 million volunteers, 2.2 million supporters on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page and perhaps a million more names on Obama's own campaign Web site." Will these networks (and numerous others) be the fount of new energy and ideas as expressed by Robert Putnam when he stated that, "Networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration?" Alternatively, will they act robotically solely to do Obama's bidding (see below) or will they merely wither away due to inattention, lack of interest, or withdrawal of resources.

Rush Limbaugh, the icon of U.S. talk radio, the foundation of communicative power on the right, in his dismissive retort to Obama's acceptance speech the day after the election, assured his listeners that the robotic possibility was an inevitability. Rather than having any voice (or mind) of their own, the people involved in the networks, would serve exclusively as shock troops obediently pursuing Obama's agenda and disciplining non-cooperative legislators — democratic ones included.

I'd guess that MoveOn and other groups will retain their independence, sometimes in sync and sometimes in defiance to Obama. It's clear that his campaign and his supporters used the Internet and other ICT more effectively than any political campaign in the US, if not the world. His rhetoric of an engaged citizenry, for example, asking Americans "to join in the work of remaking this nation" in his election night acceptance speech, suggests that he will not try to shut these networks down or coerce them to support his actions. But we shall see…

There remains the very important question of what citizens (people of all countries) can do to make sure that the networks are engaged and progressive and inclusive. This, to me, is exactly where rhetoric and reality may or may not come together. It's my belief that if people don't choose to actively shape these networks, then the hope for the abiding civic intelligence that we need for the future will fade.

Although the Internet helped raise standards and increased citizen engagement in many ways in this campaign ("truth squads", access to polling information, issue networks, voting irregularity hotlines, do-it-yourself videos, citizen journalism, etc. etc.), it's worth mentioning that the Internet helped usher in a type of back-alley whispering campaign, a furtive "people power" that was often xenophobic, racist, paranoid, and violent. Ken Silverstein writing in Harpers ("Useful Amateurs — How the smearing of Barack Obama got crowd-sourced," Nov 2008) made the point when he stated that "In the sheer numbers of scurrilous charges leveled and of individuals involved in advancing these charges, it seems safe to describe the current smear campaign against Barack Obama as being unparalleled in scope." While the U.S. has always had its fringe elements, the recent campaign seemed to encourage the degradation of civic intelligence in some corners of the American electorate, and the Internet, certain parts of it at least, helped facilitate that.


Meanwhile, Obama's technology policy as reflected on his web site ( certainly reflects an appreciation for the power of the Internet that other politicians haven't recognized or capitalized on. The policy statement has six main points (below) — most of them I assume would be necessary for an increase in civic intelligence.

* Ensure an open Internet.
* Create a transparent and connected democracy.
* Encourage a modern communications infrastructure.
* Prepare all of our children for a 21st century economy.
* Improve America's competitiveness.
* Employ science and technology to solve our nation's most pressing problems.


And here just a few days after the election is a civic site that's promoting public tech policy:

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