05/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Forget Campaign Finance, Let's Have Free Elections

The Supreme Court has ruled that money is a form of speech, and corporations are people, and therefore it is virtually impossible to restrict the amount of money any person or business spends on political campaigns. However, all is not lost, and the future might hold out the possibility for truly free and open elections. Due to advances in new media, we now have the ability to hold a transformative type of political campaign that would be without political parties, political donations, and political commercials. This change is possible because we can circulate on the Web concrete policies, positions, and information without losing ourselves in a sea of fake news and superficial character assassinations. In fact, during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the leading candidates all had Web sites full of information, and although most people did not read these sites to see where the candidates stood on important issues, the information was out there. The challenge then for contemporary politics is how to get people to use the Web as a vital source for political knowledge.

Beyond TV

New media technologies offer the possibility for a real democratic change in our political systems, and the key to this transformation is the fact that people are relying increasingly on the Internet to gain information, and fewer people are watching television as their primary source for news and entertainment. The reason this shift from television to new media is so vital is that the expensive use of television commercials for state and national political campaigns is the biggest reasons politicians feel they must raise millions of dollars to run for office, and because these politicians need so much money, they become beholden to the powerful interests supporting their campaigns. In short, our current system of campaign finance is really legal bribery, and the rise of new media allows us to shape a world where campaigns are virtually free. Ultimately, the model of digital democracy articulated here helps to solve many of our major political problems, while it functions to restore the public's faith in the U.S. electoral system. To flesh out how a new model of digital democracy could transform this system from below, I will first present the major problems facing our current system, then I will discuss why other alternatives are counterproductive, and finally I will offer a model of new media digital democracy that moves beyond previous models of political organization.

Our Essential Political Problem

To illustrate the impasse of the current U.S. political system, we can examine the issue of healthcare. As many have argued, the central reason why the U.S. healthcare system is so ineffective and costly is that it is run by a mixture of for-profit insurance companies, competitive pharmaceutical concerns, governmental programs, private health providers, and other commercial interests. These diverse groups drive up the costs of all aspects of the healthcare system, and they also provide barriers for people seeking insurance and medial care. As most European and many Asian countries have shown, a regulated system radically reduces costs and provides better services for more people. So why do American state and national politicians block the move to a new system? The central reason is that politicians get so much financial support from the corporate interests that control the U.S. healthcare system that the politicians do not want to bite the hand that feeds them.

If politicians could actually base their votes and legislation on what they actually thought was best for their constituents, a real change in healthcare would be obvious. After all, a central reason why the United States can no longer compete globally in many industries, like the automobile business, is that the cost of providing healthcare to American workers drives up the prices for the products so high that an unfair advantage is given to the foreign businesses who have regulated healthcare systems and do not have to add the cost of healthcare to the price of their products. If politicians didn't have to worry about offending the highly profitable insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the United States could make more of its products competitive in the global economy.

This blocking of important legislation by powerful lobbyists and campaign contributors can also be seen in the United States's f ailure to protect consumers against unhealthy products and the inability of the government to regulate mortgages, stocks, financial industries, airlines, and a whole host of other industries that need government oversight. Likewise, the inability to fight global warming and to lower the dependence on oil can also be traced to the way campaigns are financed in the United States. To be precise, under the U.S. system of legal bribery, the government goes to the highest bidder, and everyone else suffers.

Public Financing of Campaigns is Not the Answer

It is also important to stress that the American campaign system requires national and state candidates to rely on political parties in order to help finance and run their expensive campaigns, and one of the results of this system is that politicians become beholden to their political parties. Since politicians have to receive support from national parties, there is a strong tendency for public officials to vote solely along party lines and not on the merits of specific issues. From this perspective, the two-party system turns public officials into non-thinking party loyalists. While some progressive groups have argued that the way to fix this system is to have the public finance campaigns, this solution is not only counterproductive, but it is also probably unconstitutional. What many people do not know is that in the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo ruling, it was declared unconstitutional to regulate how much an individual spends on his or her own campaign. In fact, the court ruled that money is a form of speech, and so to regulate the money spent on a campaign would be the same as regulating what someone could say during campaigning. This ruling means that we can never stop a wealthy individual from trying to buy an election and that almost all forms of campaign finance regulation are illegal. Moreover, besides the question of legality, most efforts of campaign finance ask taxpayers to foot the bill for expensive campaigns, and therefore these reforms do nothing to stop the cost of running for office, and in effect, they just shift the burden onto the general public. What these reforms fail to consider is the reason why elections are so expensive, and they do not offer an alternative model of campaigning.

A Digital Revolution

Right now, people who are eligible can run for office and conduct an effective campaign without leaving their room or spending any money. Furthermore, the Internet gives us the ability to hold highly informative campaigns without the need for relying on personal wealth or special interests. By using the option of write-in candidates, it is possible for someone to run for a political office outside of our party system, and by simply organizing an online campaign, a candidate can avoid the entire political system as it is currently structured. Moreover, I will show below why this new digital democracy system is not only better, but why it is highly likely to be our new system.

As mentioned above, most national and state campaigns have to raise so much money because they think they need to buy television time to air their commercials, and in turn, this need for high levels of campaign funds requires politicians to seek out support from powerful special interests. However, studies have shown that a decreasing number of people are now watching television, and the ones who do watch are often using technologies like Tivo to eliminate the commercials. Furthermore, commercials often provide a very superficial and manipulative message, and citizens are becoming wary of this type of information. In fact, people are turning increasingly to the Web to get their political news, and this new source of media can provide much more detailed information. In short, the power of providing campaign information and campaign videos on the Web cannot be underestimated, and not only does this information now become virtually free and widely available, but it can reach a level of previously unachievable specificity and interactivity. Also, the information on the Internet can be presented in multiple media through podcasts, videos, games, blogs, social networking sites, and Web-based essays, and since people can now create their own content on the Web, individual citizens can become more involved in the campaign process.

This democratizing of the American political system through new media is required because a growing number of people no longer believe in the two-party system, and many citizens are tired of superficial debates and media coverage; people want to be able to feel that they are part of the process, and they do not want to meet their future leaders through thirty-second commercials or sound bites. In short, citizens desire free, open, and informative elections, and a new media campaign would not just be about important issues, but it would also center attention on how issues are presented and distributed. Ultimately, politicians need to see how the information revolution requires a revolution in political institutions, and while in the future, it is possible that this digital revolution will result in the development of a digital voting system that will allow all Americans to vote on all major issues from the comfort of their homes or their public libraries, for now, the focus should be on showing the power of the Web to reshape our campaign system.

The Spoiler Effect

Of course, some people may complain that if online independent campaigns actually take off, they will take votes away from other candidates. The response to this question is that although there are clear differences between the two major political parties, the campaign system itself prevents real change and progress, and there is no reason why we need to constantly choose between the lesser of two evils. Since almost all of the major candidates are beholden to special interests, they will be unable to make any needed changes in our healthcare system and political finance system. In fact, these candidates are all on record supporting policies that will only cause more problems. Even Obama's seemingly progressive agenda is in reality a reinforcement of the status quo, and the main reason why he was seen as a strong alternative during the campaign was that most people did not look into his actual policies and alliances. If people had analyzed his policies on his Web site, they would have found out that he supported a large increase in military spending, a costly and ineffective solution to the healthcare problem, a conservative endorsement of using public money for religious initiatives, and many more status quo policies. Furthermore, an examination of his donors posted on various Web sites showed that his biggest campaign supporters were the financial industries, universities, and technology corporations.

It should have then come as no surprise to people that Obama supported the 2008 bailout of the American banks, which was clearly a governmental handout to the biggest campaign donors for both parties. It should have also not been a shock that Obama picked many conservative and moderate people for his new administration, and yet, many people were surprised because their understanding of his politics was almost completely based on emotion and devoid of knowledge. People wanted hope and change, and they got some hope and some change, but the central system remained the same.

Direct Digital Democracy

The form of new media politics that I am calling for here represents a revitalization of the participatory U.S. democracy and is centered on the idea that top-down, bureaucratic political organizations are becoming a thing of the past. People now want to be involved in the system, and they do not want to be subjected to a purely one-way conversation where politicians talk at citizens. As so many recent social movements have shown, people need a sense that they can change our social and political systems, and online participatory forums and campaigns offer a method for bringing together people with diverse interests and backgrounds. In this type of bottom-up social organization, technology offers a space for the building of coalitions and the representation of diverse interests.

By participating in a growing network of concerned citizens, people begin to see that policies and programs are what matter, and they begin to resent the superficial politics of personality and predetermined ideology. Furthermore, what is being advocated here is not a revolutionary or utopian movement; rather, as a pragmatic model of social movements, participatory digital democracy does not need to rely on a totalizing view of history or a reductive Marxist or conservative ideology. Instead, through personal and collection activism, people learn that they can make and change history, and there are no hidden forces controlling our destiny. However, it is still important to stress that people can only transform the present by relying on accurate knowledge of the complex systems that shape our social worlds. In fact, what new media sites like Wikipedia show us is that there is a power in numbers and that ordinary people can work together to come to a consensus that builds knowledge and understanding together.

The Limits of the Obama Revolution

While some aspects of this new type of digital democracy are already being tried, a close look at the 2008 presidential campaign reveals the limitations of the current use of new media in politics. For instance, Obama did a good job at using the Web to raise money from millions of small donors, but he still relied on the Democratic Party and large corporate donations to fund his campaign. Moreover, although he invigorated many people by organizing a large grassroots effort, he also relied on the traditional campaign strategy of spending an excessive amount of money on short, superficial television advertisements. Also, it is true that he developed a very comprehensive Web presence and that most of his concrete policy choices were available for the general public to view and discuss, yet he rarely mentioned his site and its content during his campaign speeches, and he was therefore open to the criticism that he did not present any details or specifics. In other words, because he did not drive people to his site, many citizens relied on the mainstream media to interpret his campaign, and the dominant message presented by the media was that he was all about hope and rhetoric with very little substance. The real truth of the matter is the media and the voters ignored his substance and concentrated on the most superficial and simple aspects of his discourse.

Obama's campaign did point to the future of a new political coalition by bringing together intellectuals and a diverse group of social activists, and like other online communities, many of these groups supporting Obama were not part of an established system or organization. This type of coalition building across race and gender lines provides a glimpse into the possible future of a less divisive political environment; however, due to the fact that Obama's campaign was centered on commercials about Obama, and he remained tied to the party system and corporate financing of his campaign, most of his broader appeal was undermined. Also, his reliance on using new media for old politics resulted in watered-down policy initiatives that only slightly modified the status quo. For example, his stance on healthcare would do virtually nothing to bring down costs and rein in the highly profitable medical-pharmaceutical complex. In fact, by not pushing for cost containment, he was only advocating to force companies and the government to pay for the uninsured.

Obama's failed healthcare policy was matched by Hillary Clinton's equally weak plan, and the failure of both of these Democratic candidates to deliver on what they saw as a major issue shows how deeply the Democratic Party is tied to the status quo. In fact, if you look at all of their major policies plans detailed on their Web sites, Obama and Clinton were fairly conservative and offered only limited hope. For instance, both candidates wanted to raise defense spending, and neither had an aggressive plan to tie trade agreements to environmental and human rights standards. Also, both candidates tended to echo the conservative demonization of government and taxation, and both candidates also wrapped themselves in a conservative rhetoric of family, religion, and patriotism.

Change can only occur therefore by changing the campaign system and the obsession candidates have in pleasing their corporate and party masters. It is also vital to stress that since so much of our problems are now global, we need a political system that is open to international influence and exchange, and the global nature of the Web can help to render our politics more transparent and open to the world around us. For example, by allowing people from around the world to participate in online discussion groups about particular campaigns, American politicians and citizens can be pushed to take on a more global perspective. In turn, this type of new media globalism could undermine some of the more nationalistic and aggressive policies of American politicians.

The Politics of Digital Information

What I have argued for here is a politics of digital information that would replace the politics of the emotions that I have located in Obama's campaign. This transition means that new media politics needs to concentrate on knowledge, social networks, democratic participation and not on images, personalities, emotions, and identities. Like Wikipedia, we need an open system where ideas are exchanged and consensus is constantly being built and revised. In this type of decentralized organization, the barriers to entry are low, and individual contributions are positioned to shape a shared political future.

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