The current political system is broken, and every year intelligent people are asked to choose between the lesser of two evils. Due to the way we finance campaigns and how the media covers politics, there is no hope that the Democrats or the Republicans can escape from the control of millionaires. In this crazy system, politicians need to raise millions in order to pay for superficial television commercials, and not only does this make public officials beholden to the highest bidder, but the media is bought out because television stations are dependent on the revenue generated from political advertisements.
For example, one reason why reporters did not dig deeper into who was funding the Tea Party candidates in 2010 was that the networks and cable channels were getting most of the money. Think about it: rich people give money to fake populist politicians who then give the money to television stations who are the same people who are supposed to pose tough questions to the candidates. Making matters worse, you have an entire network, Fox News, dedicated to promoting its own star, Glenn Beck, who is making the people on the ground think they are fighting a holy war against the elites when they are actually volunteering unknowingly for corporate rip-off artists.
While the wealthy hide behind their false populism and faux Christianity, President Obama mouths his liberal defense of the middle class as he continues to feed billions to the wealthiest Americans through tax breaks, corporate welfare, and bailouts. In one of the biggest ironies of all time, a great enabler of corporate greed is attacked for being a socialist. What is so laughable is that if you look at the details of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the health care reform initiative, and the financial industry reform bill, you see a giant shift of public funds to private interests. Not only are bankers being fed billions of dollars and no-interest loans, but the insurance companies have been allowed to jack up their premiums as they wait for millions of new customers mandated by the federal government. Only a Democrat could have gotten away with such an extreme level of corporate welfare.
Okay, before you start screaming, let me just argue that there can be an alternative. If the crazy tea partiers were able to run candidates and win elections, surely progressives can start to form their own movement, and my argument is that we can do it without corporate sponsors and stupid television commercials.
Why Change is Possible
Since the Supreme Court has ruled that money is a form of speech, and corporations are people, 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.
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 reason 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.
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.
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.
Taking Egypt as our model, progressives should use new media to organize online and to start a second American revolution. Let the progressive party begin.