Hey you twenty-something independent who voted for Obama but is now too bummed to show up. Who worked on the campaign and then felt dropped like a hot rock. I hear you. Lots of us do. But Tuesday is vital. This time you will be voting for control of the first branch of government -- Congress. Congress is all of us -- the peoples' house. Today it is the battleground between the past and the future. The terrain is open. You will be the soldiers, the field commanders and the generals of this inevitable revolution. The stakes are huge: How will we go forward as a nation in the world? How will technology improve our democracy? More immediately, how will we respond to the frustrations embodied by the Tea Party movement?
Our national challenge is cut out for millennials: you play well with others, are tech savvy and you want to change the world. On November 2, you must show the rest of us that teams perform better than solo acts, that a common good does exist and that you expect Congress to provide for it. Tuesday's mid-term deserves your participation just as much as the presidential election in 2008.
The problems with Congress today are not just ideological, they are institutional. It has failed to adapt to the modern era. Many Tea Partiers have legitimate complaints about these obstacles. But their cannibalistic solutions will make things worse. Tea party corporate benefactors might be invisible now -- coasting along on colonial coat-tails, but they will be the ones rearranging the House and Senate office furniture come January. There's nothing new here.
The revolution we need can't be bought. It must be built. Power is re-distributing outward from DC. This loss of central control makes everyone in the old system uncomfortable, but it is a boon for public entrepreneurs everywhere. Congress is an antique. It has not been reformed for decades. Incoming information is mostly sorted according to ad-hoc or backward looking categories. (In my field of national security, Congress still looks through a 1947 lens, global security isn't even on the radar) Time to start asking which functions of governing can be taken out of DC. Oversight? Information support? Global situational awareness? How will we organize ourselves for influence? Who can provide the best collective knowledge? How can we do a better job consistently supporting champions of change? Crowdsourcing public interest representation has just begun.
Improving Congress is a systems-thinker's dream -- 535 moving pieces, all waiting to be assisted, connected, leveraged. The local organizer's job is to help an elected leader find that place where political self interest and common goods no longer clash. This task is significant -- it will require vigilance in the form of visibility, surge capacity and venues for public discourse. We must think outside of elections. Voters are also citizens with policy expertise, important voices who can broaden the institutional blinders, ease the noise and dissonance surrounding decisions, create room to take risks on behalf of long-term goals.
There is no Congress App
The communications revolution is just now hitting Congress. At the same time, technology enabled participation is transforming societies across the world. From Cairo to Chicago, the DNA of self-governance is changing. Social media and the communications explosion are hugely important, but they alone will not fix institutional failures. New relationships need to be created and maintained. In politics, relationships will leverage technology, not the other way around. Congress is where the opposing camps of Malcom Gladwell and Biz Stone come together, where meaningful and sustained social change requires strong relationships inside and outside of the antique hierarchical structure. In Congress, power is constantly redistributing due to unforseen circumstances (someone dies, a bill is introduced, an earthquake happens, someone makes a speech, violence breaks out). Constituents who can provide credible adaptive knowledge will gain increasing influence. Its time to remember the lessons of iteration from calculus. Technology makes it possible.
Conventional political activism says we must make it costly to ignore the greater good... (Children, nature, peace). True, but why don't we also make it easier to act on their behalf?
I think we all know that the noise will not subside. Cognitive dissonance in our political lives will continue. The Tea Party has jumped on the human tendency to simplify, to create a stark choice between individual and collective identity. Their slogans are comforting but false.
The history of the world shows that communities of cooperators succeed. Even now, Tea Party candidates seem willing to rationalize inequalities that they'd find impossible to impose. Why? because they depend on the rest of us.
We have come to the point in our democracy where those that are extreme, consistent and well financed threaten to swamp our progress. This is not a time for ambivalence. Vote for the progressive candidate. Then take your hopes and make the change happen.