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Don't Lament a Crumbling Establishment: Praise a Reinvigorated Democracy

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Some reacting to 2010 primary results are quick to lament a crumbling establishment and to blame polarization on activists, but I see the elections as victories for asymmetrical, people-powered politics. Blaming activists for being, well, activists, is a cop-out for doing the hard work of listening, bridge building, and making tough choices. Today's issues are no less polarizing than they have ever been. Last night's victories were the same left vs. right and people vs. powerful fights we've always fought. Compare health care reform and immigration to Social Security and the Civil Rights Act and you'll see the same flaming rhetoric; what has changed is the ability of individuals to make change on these issues with only a laptop and a dream.

I would argue that the political establishment isn't crumbling -- it's being reborn with new and old faces linked not by longevity but by adaptability to modern times. This has been trending in the last few election cycles because new media technology adds fundraising and friendraising capacity to the standard primary fights and anti-Washington throw-the-bums-out rhetoric, and empowers asymmetrical networks.

As I wrote in Campaign Boot Camp:

I saw many of these networks firsthand on the campaign trail in 2006. The top-down nature of institutions is being reinvigorated by the bottom-up rough and tumble of online social and political networking. This new blend of asymmetrical politics thrives on bringing old-school politics and new media together. In communities around the county, I visited with people who had lost confidence in the large institutions--such as government (because of Katrina, Iraq, and corruption), corporations (due to Enron and other instances when executives bilked employees and investors), and churches (after the pedophilia scandals). Yet these people felt intense pride in their own community institutions and service traditions. Not only were they voting out a culture of corruption, they were ushering in a culture of service: walking precincts for candidates and walking 10k's for AIDS or breast cancer research; meeting to clean up politics and to clean up beaches, parks, and neighborhoods.

Asymmetrical politics elected President Barack Obama, who refused to "wait his turn" in 2008, and empowered thousands of other elected officials and activists who didn't wait in line or pay their dues before entering the national stage. Longtime politicos who embraced these changes have survived and even thrived. In 2010, we see even more of these networks engaged.

Asymmetrical politics will get you heard, but one network alone cannot win an election. The grassroots rallies for congressional candidates in PA-12 tell this tale: the 100-person rally with Senator Scott Brown vs. the 1,000-person rally with President Bill Clinton: sure, the tea party network drove Tim Burns' loud, anti-Washington referendum message, but that community was ultimately more attracted to Mark Critz's homegrown vs. outsourcing jobs choice message.

Rejecting asymmetrical politics has its perils. The mistake many politicians make is to think that if they just vilify both sides as extremists and paint themselves as moderates, they'll get a pass from making the tough choices we elect them to make. Both Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln prided themselves a little too gleefully on standing up to ideologues, rather than adopting a more respectful approach to activists and building bridges among them. Turnout numbers for both parties indicate a hunger for change not restricted to one political party or network. There are many networks to engage and many coalitions to build. Anyone thinking they can simply ride a wave without learning how to navigate these networks will end up crashed up on the beach alone. In Arkansas, for example, we'll see on the June 8 runoff whether Blanche Lincoln or Bill Halter learns this lesson in time to win.

Does this asymmetrical politics threaten the status quo? Absolutely. Those who depended on seniority rather than on earning their jobs every day have had a rude awakening (at least I hope everyone is awake by now). Does it mean we'll be polarized and paralyzed? Not necessarily? After all, general elections require an appeal across the spectrum. Candidate will get to 50%+1 in one of two ways: by adopting populist platforms with cross-appeal to build bridges among asymmetrical networks of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, all of whom want jobs and security, or, by demonizing their opponents via the politics of personal destruction in what a friend active in veterans issues and Pennsylvania politics calls "the battle of making the other the fringe."

My advice to incumbents is: don't lament a crumbling establishment; praise a reinvigorated democracy. Choose to embrace, not fear, asymmetrical politics; choose the courageous politics of bridge building over the vapid politics of personal destruction. In the months ahead, I'm hoping for the former and bracing myself for the latter.

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