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The New Axis in Politics, or, What Obama Meant When He Said 'Change')

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A strange thing happened to me last week. I was having a breakfast meeting with a man I'd never met before, and two minutes into the conversation he declared that Obama was doing a terrible job as president, lousing everything up. Outwardly I remained composed, but inwardly I was anxious: I'm a fan of Obama, and for this stranger to have said this must mean we have seriously different views of politics. And we still had 58 minutes left to talk.

And then... we proceeded to spend the next hour talking passionately about government and agreeing on virtually everything that was discussed.

How is this possible? How could two people with sharply different political bents agree for an hour on anything?

It was able to happen because we are right now at the very beginning of a huge shift in the politics in the U.S. The political landscape is being recast. Or more precisely, a new axis is being added to it, one that may eventually change the game entirely.

Since the advent of the U.S. government the political field has existed along one axis. Left to right, liberal to conservative -- all political action, expression and viewpoint fell somewhere along that single line.

Suddenly though there's a new idea about governance taking root, one that is not inherently liberal or centrist or conservative, and in fact appeals to all camps equally. This is the new axis that has appeared in the political field, and it is the idea of open government.

Open government -- the notion that all government data should be open and accessible to everyone, and, taken a step further, that that data should be writable by anyone -- meaning I can not only get data from government but I can input data to government -- is a game-changing notion that defies old ideas of liberal vs conservative. In simple form, open government creates transparency in government, getting rid of information asymmetries and leveling playing fields between ordinary citizens, government agencies and wealthy interest groups. Everyone has equal access to data, everyone can play in the game. In a more mature form, open gov creates more efficiency in government, as its processes change to accommodate this new flow of open information. In advanced stage, open gov could result in a form of participation and direct democracy never before possible in societies of scale.

This is what we talked about for an hour, and what we both -- he a conservative centrist and me a liberal -- saw eye to eye on and were very excited about.

It's a way to move politics forward in a new direction, a direction that isn't left or right. In fact, it's a way to move politics forward in a new dimension: the new, vertical axis of politics.

It's also, I'm pretty sure, what Obama meant (whether he fully knew it or not) when he campaigned on the idea of change: not so much a change away from the conservatism of Bush toward a renewal of previously-tested liberal approaches, but a change that moves us entirely past the right/left stalemate that we've seen in the U.S. for most of my life. Not a victory of left against right, but a move forward that is a win-win for everyone.

Since his election, Obama has of course had to do the political thing and play the left-vs-right game, because after all he's president and that's the game that is played 24/7 in Washington. But while playing along that old axis of politics, he also made the brilliant move of appointing Vivek Kundra to the post of Federal CIO, and giving him the mandate to open up government data, sowing the seeds of open government in the process. And with that one act, the genie is out of the bottle, and the transformation is underway. The new axis to the political landscape is forming. Even if Obama does nothing else of substance during his presidency, the axis will continue to grow and take root, transforming the idea of politics and governance in the country, eventually entirely.

Left and right are not about to become obsolete of course. That axis will always continue to exist. But maybe it can take a backseat to a new idea, as it did in my conversation last week. Maybe we can agree on working towards a government that is more transparent, more efficient, more directly democratic. And maybe the farther along that new axis you travel, the less polarizing the old axis of left and right becomes.

Whatever the case, we're on the cusp of a new age in politics, though no one fully realizes it yet. And once it picks up speed, getting there should be an amazing ride.