Creating Technology for Social Change

Will Technology Disrupt Democratic Institutions to the Extent it has Disrupted Political Campaigns?

Nicco MeleThis is a writeup of today’s Center for Civic Media lunch event. If you’re in the Cambridge area, come join us!

Nicco Mele is one of the leading thinkers on the use of technology in politics. He wrote the book on disruptive small donor politics as Howard Dean’s webmaster, and then went on to found EchoDitto, a web firm building online communities. He’s also been a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics and is currently a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

He introduces himself as both a technologist and someone obsessed with politics. Technology’s impact on politics is an increasingly well understood story, but to illustrate how much has changed, Nicco conjures our hazy memories of 1984, and the Democratic candidate for president Walter Mondale. Mondale’s remembered primarily for the disinterest and discernible lack of enthusiasm he inspired. If he was such a dead fish, why’d he get to run for president?

Mondale pinIt was his turn. He was a senator from Minnesota and had been vice president under Carter. He’d shaken the hand of every Democrat in the country, been to Dvery democratic dinner, and satisfied everyone within the party establishment. The problem was, he was running against a movie star — literally — a figure people fell in love with, sometimes regardless of what it was he was saying. So maybe Mondale wasn’t the right candidate, but he’d spent his life running for president, and this was his time to run.

Mondale wins Iowa, but then loses New Hampshire to a young, charismatic, high-energy Democrat named Gary Hart. After Hart crushes Mondale in New Hampshire, as an engaged liberal Democrat in Cambridge, what do you do the next day? You’d like to write Hart a check, because you see him as a the guy who might be able to beat Ronald Reagan. But where do you send the check?

It turns out, thousands of checks showed up addressed to “Senator Gary Hart, Washington DC.” They made it to Hart’s Senate office, where the staffers had to forward the checks to Colorado, where a campaign staffer opened it up, endorsed and deposited the checks. It can take up to six weeks to clear an out-of-state check. By the time the influx of Hart’s money showed up, he’d lost to Mondale. And Mondale went on to one of the biggest presidential election losses in American history.

Fast forward to 2008 and now it’s Hillary Clinton’s turn. She’d worked on every presidential campaign since she was 16 years old, and shaken the hands of every important Democrat in the country. But Obama crushed Hillary in Iowa, and money flowed into his campaign overnight. This is the story of the establishment candidate losing to the insurgent candidate, which Nicco attributes to new, faster pathways for fundraising.

At the national level, this trend has continued and begun to affect Senate and House races. It’s not just Barack Obama. It’s Rand Paul, and the eight Republican Senators in 2010, incumbents all, who lost to insurgent challengers in their own primaries.

Nicco’s interested in the role that connective technology (not just the internet) plays in disrupting the establishment and our social and political institutions. But, as we’ll find out, Nicco’s also seriously concerned that this rewiring of our institutions could leave out fundamental American values.

Who to Hire to Run for President
Pretend you’re a campaign manager looking forward to 2016. Who’s your first hire?

A fundraiser. Money is the mother’s milk of politics.

Your second hire us your media consultant. Their job is to persuade people to vote for you, or to persuade people not to vote at all. That’s where negative advertising frequently originates. There are a whole bunch of people who’ll never vote for you, so their job is to convince them to stay away from politics as a whole.

Then you get your pollster, who fine tunes what you say to attract or dissuade people.

Then you get the press person, to shape the media conversation.

Finally, you hire your field person for Get Out The Vote on the actual day of election. Let’s bus in some senior citizens!

And also, a campaign manager to organize all of these people.

How has technology changed these jobs?
Online fundraising hasn’t changed since MoveOn pioneered it:

  1. build big email list
  2. email them lots
  3. raise money

Dean was the first major presidential candidate to do this successfully. Ron Paul raised the most online at end of the Republican primary in 2008, and Obama did it biggest, and is at it again this year.

Major donors show up to expensive lunches and breakfasts, and you used to get your small donors via direct mail, which is very expensive and takes years to ramp up. The internet allows candidates without access to a major donor network to build a small donor network to remain competitive long enough to show they’re viable and bring in the big donors. This shift has shaken Presidential and Senate and House races, but hasn’t done much to state elections yet. 

But once you do all of this fundraising, the lion’s share of the money still goes to television and radio commercials. Nicco argues that the internet’s not a persuasive medium for changing the minds of people who don’t agree with you. It’s a better medium for firing up existing and likely supporters. We may see the day where some long-shot candidate uses the web to persuade people in a meaningful way, but Nicco believes we have yet to see what these tactics look like.

One interesting area, with regards to persuasion, is YouTube. Obama’s race speech was one of the top political videos on YouTube, and despite being quite long, was frequently watched in its entirety. The next most popular video was the Will.I.Am Yes We Can video, which had millions upon millions of views. But basically the number one video was the Obama Girl video, the impact of which might be hard to measure.

Many of these videos came from outside the campaign, and contributed to the environmental factors of social media.

What other campaign jobs has technology changed?
Polling’s still done the same old way as technology marches on (and may have actually gotten worse, in my opinion, as fewer young people have landlines and polls reach fewer and fewer people under age 35). The important thing to look for in polling is the trend line, the momentum.

In the Press office, blogging changed media coverage. You could shape it with your blog and build an alternative narrative. In this cycle, Twitter’s been influential in the primaries. Twitter wasn’t mainstream in 2008. Nicco says that most people found out about Osama bin Laden’s death on Facebook or Twitter.

In the field, GOTV turnout tactics are being augmented by new connective technologies.

And lastly, we need to look outside of the US, because the disruptive effect of connective technology on politics is not limited to the United States by any stretch of the imagination. Nicco sees Wikileaks as an early catalyst for launching a whole range of disruptive technologies to follow all over the world, including to some extent the Arab Spring.

Technology vs. Establishment
Computer Lib coverNicco harkens back to the technoculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and finds that using technology to disrupt the political establishment is no accident. Technoculture was informed by Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines, a radical book arguing that computers are not institutional, but individual, and inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. Early computer scientists came of age at a moment when campuses, and indeed much of the nation, are in an uproar of social and political turmoil. Brand wrote about the role of counterculture and the antiwar movement’s influence in the development of computers and networked technology.

Nicco pivots from celebrating the impact technology has had on staid political institutions to consider the less exciting ramifications: “As much as I’ve been encouraging the demise of our poilitical establishment, I get nervous about candidates like Christine O’Donnell.” He’s been re-reading the Federalist Papers and looking at how our founders embedded the values of classical liberalism: due process, rule of law, freedom of the press, and so on, into our institutions. If we’re going to destroy some institutions because they’re failed us, we need to think proactively about how to preserve these values in the new world. Nicco asks us to think long and hard about the world we want to live in and what values we must preserve, no matter the technology we use.

Another cause for concern, as well as excitement, is the speed with which technology is advancing. The first McCain campaign ran before the iPod was invented. Facebook was brand new when Howard Dean dropped out of the presidential race. Online video was a pipe dream – literally we needed more pipes.

Nicco’s worried that, as much as he’s worked to hasten the demise of our dominant two-party political system, these parties did once served a filtering role, vetting and preparing candidates and training them as they moved up through the ranks. Contrasting his introduction, he says there was a benefit to the dues-paying side of establishment politics.

Nicco is also dismayed that politics is now seen as a career path rather than as a question of public service. The path to becoming a successful lobbyist is clear, and if you’re into dollar signs, it’s a compelling trajectory. There’s always the danger of a nostalgia for the past that never was, but the role of the political parties played a civic role in society. Today, no one in the room knows where the Democratic offices of Cambridge are located.

The de-regulatory environment of the 1990s allowed many of our networked technologies to be born in a classically liberal environment. Adam Hasler notes that there’s a strong belief in technology circles that technology is deterministic, and will automatically bring about a better world, but technology can be used just as effectively by groups we disagree with.

Our constitutional institutions were designed as buffers between leaders and the heat of popular opinion, and Nicco believes we need this function in a democratic society. We vote on Tuesdays because Monday was market day, and we have 435 representatives because that’s how many people fit in the room. In the age of the Internet, some of these decisions seem ridiculous. But the Federalist Papers also feature some clever compromises between tensions, such as leaders’ needs to make decisions and their need to respond to direct constituent will. Nicco argues that even if technology allows greater transparency, it needs to have limits to allow certain decisions to be made opaquely.

Another guest points out that institutions of power are doing just fine, if you look at examples like Wall Street and the Pentagon. Nicco responds that the powerful institutions are shaken, but they’re by no means finished. And yet, under no prior political rationale should Barack Obama be president. It just does not make sense in any establishment point of view that he should have been able to beat Hillary. Even if he’s since been co-opted by the institutional cesspool of Washington, DC, there’s evidence of a fissure, a harbinger of things to come. Another example is BitCoin. Sure, it failed, but Nicco’s interested in it as a harbinger of things to come, of a world that could see a popular currency outside of traditional institutional control. In some sense, things look as good as ever for the powers that be. “The arc of technology is long,” Nicco says, “but it bends towards disruption.”

Ethan asks if the arc towards disruption applies to electoral politics, but not governance itself. Nicco points to the changes to as nothing short of revolutionary. has gone from a static page about the history of the White House to an entire media platform, independent of the press, with its own journalists, content, and a wide variety of distribution networks. Government officials are holding office hours in Google Hangouts, and the federal government is more accessible to Americans than it has ever been before, due to

What happens to a nation where is a primary source of information? It makes the government more accessible, but also opens the door to propaganda. [And, as I brought up, is this accessibility going to change how business is done, or is it a way to channel citizen emotion rather than have it erupt in a less productive venue? And what does it mean for the Fourth Estate when the President is publishing his own news, often with exclusive information and access that the rest of the media might not have (or maybe has, and chooses not to cover)?]

Nicco credits the Obama Administration for sticking to the commitment to participation, with online chats, taking on the inevitable questions about marijuana legalization, and now petitions, where a threshold of signatures guarantees the administration will look at and respond to a concern.

Local Government
The federal government is gigantic and behemoth, and participation is hard to comprehend. But what happens when you get down to the local level? There’s a lot of information at the municipal level. Nicco’s met with a wide range of mayors from across the US, and finds that across the board they are vigilant about responding social media. Local government in some ways customer service, but the larger concern seems to be getting ahead of misinformation before it mushrooms into something much larger. Your opposition can use the web against you. This is a significant break from traditional political communications, where you don’t respond to a rumor until it reaches a certain scale, because you don’t want to feed the story.

Nicco shares Clay Shirky’s concern that a major consequence of the decline of newspapers will be less attention paid to state and municipal governance. Alternatives have emerged, but so far these look like exceptions rather than the rule.

During this conversation, Nicco predicted that for every dollar spent online this election cycle, either in online advertising or in building and running a digital team, one million dollars will be spent on television or radio. We’ll have to follow up on this.