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Internet and the US Elections

Gary Younge

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The dominant role of money in US politics is widely acknowledged but all too rarely interrogated. The corruption scandals that made the news last year flouted the letter of the law but did not violate its spirit. Money buys access; access begets influence. It is as close to a textbook definition of corruption as you can get - but it's still legal. "We have created a culture in which there's no distinction between what is illegal and what is unethical," says the former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The Bush administration did not invent this culture but it has exacerbated it. Registered lobbyists have doubled in George Bush's tenure and they now spend around $25m per politician each year to leverage their agendas. But even as money has cemented its place on the American political landscape, so the internet has enabled a countervailing tendency that could yet allow the green shoots of genuine democratic engagement to break through. The technology by itself does nothing. But when a message or candidate grabs the popular imagination it is the most effective way to fill the vacuum and challenge established hierarchies.

We have no idea yet what role the internet will play in next year's presidential election. First, it is too early in the process. Second, the pace at which the medium is developing means that the campaigning tool of choice probably has not been invented yet. Back in 2003 it took Howard Dean six months to compile an email list of 139,000. But that was before networking sites such as MySpace. In less than two months Barack Obama has gathered more than 310,000 supporters on Facebook.com.

What is certain is that the internet will play a vital, possibly decisive, role; and in all likelihood that role will come into conflict with the established kingmakers. Neither trend is new. But the power of money and the modem are both driven by different and, arguably, contradictory forces. At some stage something will have to give.

Almost two years before polling day we have already seen the pitfalls and the potential. John Edwards let two hired bloggers go after a coordinated Christian conservative attack against them. One had described President Bush's supporters as his "wingnut Christofascist base". Tame stuff, given the adversarial tone of the blogosphere; a disaster, given the all-American nature of an American presidential campaign.

A few weeks earlier Obama attended a 3,000-strong rally at George Mason University organised by Students for Barack Obama, a group set up by Meredith Segal on Facebook. It now has more than 62,000 members and chapters at more than 80 colleges, a field operations director, an internet director, a finance director and a blog team director. Segal met Obama for the first time at the rally.

While these tensions may play out as a battle between left and right, or doves and hawks, they will in essence represent a far more fundamental shift in the relationship of the professional political class with the politically engaged public - a struggle between the popular and the oligarchic, between the bespoke message of the paid consultant and the chaos of freewheeling public opinion. Sadly, it won't change the centrality of money in American politics - the internet is a crucial fundraising tool. But by enabling thousands of small donors to contribute, it has already proved its potential to provide an alternative funding base.

In the past, US political parties have done little more than raise money and get out the vote. They are not forums for debate and persuasion. Beyond polling day they have no organic relationship with the people who vote for them or the communities where their support is based (a trend fast installing itself in the UK). They call for your money and they call for your vote. You write a cheque and pull a lever. No wonder Anna Nicole Smith draws more interest.

The upcoming election is only the second time the web has had a chance to challenge this. Three years ago the internet was instrumental in the Democratic primaries. It explained Howard Dean's stunning ascent from obscurity to insurgency at a time when anti-war views were popular and marginalised. It also explains his equally stunning descent. The web helped make his campaign viable. But with insufficient organisation and an inadequate candidate, it could not make it winnable.

We should have no illusions about who has the upper hand in this battle between big money and burgeoning activism. At a meeting in New York to support Hillary Clinton last week, organised through Meetup.com, the host told us that since Hillary had the votes of New Yorkers sewn up, all she really needed the town for was money.

Over the next 45 minutes there was no political discussion - about Hillary's healthcare, the war or trade. Just how could the assembled pry money from the little people without giving them access to the candidate. Might they host a house party and charge friends $25 to watch Clinton do a webcast? Not an alternative source of funding but an additional one for the candidate who spent $27,000 on valet parking and $13,000 on flowers in November. "She does house parties in Park Avenue," said the host without a blush. "But she's not going to come to our house."

It suits the mythology of meritocracy that remains so central to American identity to have young children walking around in T-shirts saying "Future president of America". But the truth is if your kid really does stand a chance at the top office, he'll already be wearing more expensive attire. America's class system is now more rigid than most in Europe, and that sclerosis is given full expression at the highest levels of politics. Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Martin Luther King all carry the names and job titles of their fathers. Each year the richest quarter per cent make 80% of all political donations. The last time there was not a Clinton or a Bush on the presidential ticket was 1976. This is not democracy, it is dynasty.


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