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Social Media, Politics, and Election 2.0

February 19, 2009

How’s that for a title?  So, let me preface this post by saying that I’m a Ron Paul supporter.  What appeals to me about Dr. Paul is his philosophical consistency, something I find lacking in pretty much every other candidate, not just this election, but pretty much every election since I’ve been voting.  But that’s not really what this post is about.  It’s really about what his campaign and unknown supporters have been doing and what it means for freedom, democracy, and third parties.<!—-><!—->

In case you are unaware, Ron Paul is a Republican candidate who is a Goldwater, libertarian-oriented conservative.  He’s inspired a pretty fevered following, and their presence is felt everywhere on the web – YouTube, Delicious, Digg, Technorati, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter.  The interesting thing is that nearly all of this activity is happening in a decentralized way.  The money bomb campaigns around Guy Fawkes Day and the Boston Tea Party were organized by Dr. Paul’s followers, not by the campaign.  The Ron Paul blimp idea came from outside the campaign and is now run through a company set-up and run by supporters.  See here and here for more on this.  Now, he has a social networking site — where supporters can connect, coordinate, and well, network.<!—-><!—->

What’s interesting about all of this is the way in which the Ron Paul campaign seems to embody a lot of web 2.0 principles:<!—-><!—->

  • individual ownership and user-generated content — Ron Paul supporters can make their own signs, logos, pursue their own fund raising strategies, post videos, write blogs…<!—-><!—->
  • using the web as platform — it’s not just a place to put content, it’s a way to connect, to share a message, to raise money…<!—-><!—->
  • “the endless Beta” — in this case, the Beta in question is not software, but the campaign; Ron Paul’s campaign is in constant flux, from grassroots’ money raising to campaign slogans to campaign signs and logos – it’s all evolving and changing in response to what is working.  And like Beta software, it seems to also be getting better with time, the campaign is the only one whose donations have consistently increased each quarter.<!—-><!—->
  • “lightweight programming” – unlike other campaigns that heavily control the message and presentation through elaborate organizations (the press talks about campaign “machines”), Ron Paul’s campaign is largely controlled by its supporters – just as we see Web 2.0 in elements of marketing, innovation, and customer support among businesses.<!—-><!—->

In fact, if you step back a little, what you see is campaign crowdsourcing – including distribution of message, fundraising, logos, and even marketing in general.  The one element, maybe the only element that supporters don’t control is the message – the philosophy and beliefs of the campaign.  This approach is pretty much the reverse of most politicians: Kerry — “I was for the war before I was against it”; Romney — inconsistent stance on abortion (seemingly dependent on who was voting that election); McCain on illegal immigration – “I think the fence is least effective. But I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it”; Wall Street Journal on Clinton and Iraq ““What’s troubling about Mrs. Clinton’s record on Iraq is that it tends to follow, rather than lead, public opinion . . .”<!—-><!—->

I realize that it probably doesn’t come as much of a shock that most politicians are a bit like flags in the wind with the wind being public opinion.  Instead of holding fast to their beliefs and principles, they hold fast to the “messaging” of their beliefs and principles.  They need “spin rooms” and PR people and all sort of apparatus to “manage the message.”  Ron Paul does the opposite.  Because he is so philosophically consistent, he doesn’t need to manage the message – the same statements he made to Bill Moyer in 2002 hold true today; the same positions he’s taken on government for his political career hold true today.  So he doesn’t need to manage the message.  His authenticity enables a kind of distributed, almost unmanaged campaign that US politics hasn’t really seen before.<!—-><!—->

I think there could be some long-term impacts of this candidacy.  For one, he is raising awareness about the Constitution which is, in my opinion, a great thing and something more candidates should do.  They are, after all, sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.  Seems reasonable that they might mention it now and again.  Second, his message of liberty and freedom actually resonates with the individuality of the Millenial generation and even a lot of Gen Xers who don’t identify with either party.  Today voters has something of a Hobson’s Choice: if I like personal freedom more than financial freedom, I vote Democrat; if I like financial freedom more than personal freedom, I vote Republican.  But what if I just like freedom in general?  Ron Paul’s message resonates with this group of the electorate which doesn’t fit neatly into either party.  What’s interesting is that this belief – libertarianism – is actually growing, particularly among Gen X and Millenials.  The Cato institute has done some significant work in identifying libertarian views and has found that a sizeable portion of the current electorate – 15-20%  – are libertarians, even if they don’t know it themselves.<!—-><!—->

<!—-><!—->One of the findings of the Cato institute is that libertarians are largely unaccounted for in the process  because of the two-party system.  Libertarians are also pre-disposed to less organization.  They tend to be more independent than all other groups.  Democrats are inherently structured around groups – African-American organizations, teacher unions, homosexual groups, Pro-Choice etc…  Republicans are similarly tied to organizations – NRA, churches and church groups of various sizes, business groups, Anti-Abortion etc…  Libertarians, however, tend not to join groups at all or group across party lines, like a pro-choice member of the Chamber of Commerce.   Given the tendency against groups and collective decisions, libertarians have not historically organized into any sort of political force.  But this could be changing.<!—-><!—->

With the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, it’s possible to be both an individual and a member of a self-organized group.  Unlike the NAACP, a teacher’s union, or the NRA, a web 2.0 social network is self-organizing.  Work is coordinated, but not controlled and dictated.  Messages come from within, authentically, not after days of careful deliberation.  Ideas are freely shared, and everyone has a voice, not just the spokesperson or a union boss.  This kind of self-organizing, individually-oriented group seems tailor-made for libertarians which might explain the web appeal of Ron Paul as well as the gap between web popularity and real world popularity.  It just might be that web users are inherently more libertarian in their views than the average non-web users.  It may also be that with so little exposure through the media that Ron Paul can’t reach anyone outside the web.<!—-><!—->

Regardless of causes, what does seem to be true is that previously unorganized and unstructured libertarians seem to be finding a way to come together through Web 2.0 technologies.  If Cato data is correct and 15-20% of the electorate holds libertarian views, and if this group can get organized and remain organized at the same national level as Democrats and Republicans, then I think we’re looking at the birth a legitimate and substantive third party.  There is clearly some dissatisfaction with the current political choices.  The success of both Ross Perot (Reform Party) and Ralph Nader (Green Party) in recent years indicates that there is a deep well-spring of frustration with the current duopoly within the US system.  Similar periods of voter malaise and frustration in the country’s past have led to third parties like the Populists under Williams Jennings Bryan or the Progressives under Teddy Roosevelt. <!—-><!—->

Generally, third parties form when the main parties either merge too close in their core beliefs or when fundamental schisms happen (Southern vs. Northern Democrats for instance prior to the Civil War).  In some cases, the third party leeches enough support from disaffected members of the main parties to effectively subsume a main party – the original Whig party was created this way and then later merged with the Free-Soilers to become the modern Republican Party.  Today, there is a clear split in the Republican Party among social conservatives, big government conservatives, business conservatives, and even neocons.  On the Democrat side, there is less split, but also less clear differences with Republicans – regarding war, the role of government, federal vs. state power…  Looking back historically, many of the same conditions that led to the formation of third parties exist today, as does the required mechanism of organization and coordination.  Whether it happens of course, is an open question, but if it does, I think the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies will certainly need to be considered one of the underpinnings that enabled such an transformation.<!—-><!—->

<!—-><!—->To conclude, while I am very excited about Web 2.0 technologies in business, whether for marketing or workplace oriented solutions, there is a compelling argument that these technologies are having profound impacts on the current round of presidential politics.  Further, it may be that these technologies are giving voice and power to a segment of the electorate that has previously been poorly represented both by the major political parties and the establishment media.  By empowering the individual, Web 2.0 technologies foster more freedom, more participation in the political process, and more openness in government.  When results were tabulated for the NH primary, for instance, various mashups of county results showed Ron Paul with zero votes for Sutton county.  People who voted for him there protested, and it was later discovered that he actually should have been awarded 31 votes.  Does this mean the whole primary was flawed?  Not necessarily.  What it does show though is the role that web technologies and in particular, Web 2.0 technologies can play in providing transparency and oversight in the political process.  Through such transparency and through the empowerment of the individual through blogs, videos, social networks and the like, I think we are seeing the way in which Web 2.0 helps advance the cause of individual liberty and freedom, a trend that bodes well for the long-term health of the republic, and the cause of democracy.<!—-><!—->

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