As Josh mentioned in posts here and at Future Majority, the new MyPolicy feature at barackobama.com is the latest development in the “new wave of participatory politics.” It allows anyone with an internet connection to tell their story and voice their opinion about (for now) health care policy. By applying community organizing principles to larger political discourse, the Obama campaign is extending an opportunity to the American people, and in turn, throwing a lifeline to our broken democratic system. He is making an offer: if you tell me what you want, I’ll do my best to make it happen. Essentially, it’s the offer of democracy. When gadgety new methods like this are rolled out, it’s tempting to glamorize their significance or prattle on about paradigm shifts and treat the medium as the message. But in reality, tools are only as good as what you make of them. Without active, engaged participants, the offer is retracted and the tool becomes a passing fad. Without us, the new infrastructure is nothing. So the question is – have you contributed?
A while ago, I forwarded an announcement for a sustainability panel discussion event onto an environmental listserv. Immediately, a girl scoffed at the panel because an executive from Wal-Mart was going to be on it. Why should we go, she asked, if someone like that will be presenting? I thought about this for awhile and came to the conclusion that the panel discussion was exactly the kind of open forum environmentalists should want to go to. If Wal-Mart is making an effort to engage the public on sustainability issues – be that effort genuine or not – we should take the opportunity to understand their arguments, speak our minds, and challenge them to change their ways. At the very least, we should show up. If we don’t, Wal-Mart can turn around and say “See? We tried. Apparently the environmentalists don’t care.”
We have even more of an obligation to take advantage of opportunities presented by people we support, such as Obama’s MyPolicy. We’ve been pushing for recognition of the youth voice, and this is good, but it’s only half of the equation. What’s the use of having a voice if you don’t say anything?
Interactive online features such as campaign blogs, MyPolicy, Twitter, and My.Barackobama.com are part of a broader trend towards transparency and interactivity in politics. Parallel trends can also be seen in the worlds of business, technology and culture. In the March issue of Wired, Clive Thompson discusses what the business world has dubbed “radical transparency:” CEOs and executives airing company laundry for all to see on blogs and online forums. Some businesses credit a good deal of their success to the trust gained by being honest with their customers. But these benefits come with a flip side: “You can’t go halfway naked,” Thompson writes. It’s all or nothing. Executives who promise they’ll be open have to stay open. The minute they become evasive about troubling news, transparency’s implied social compact crumbles.”
A similar social compact is also implicit in offers of participatory political platforms, or user-generated democracy. Now that Obama said he wants the voters’ health care ideas, he’s obligated to incorporate them at some level. His supporters and the pro-technology media will be watching to make sure he follows through on his end of the bargain.
But before that, we have to make sure we fulfill ours. The only thing worse than not asking for voters’ input in the first place is to ask and not get replies. Like the Wal-Mart executive, the campaign would walk away saying “They said they wanted a voice, but nobody said anything.” If we really care about what we say we do, we are similarly obligated to speak up when the opportunity is presented.
Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be articulate and organized in what we contribute, to MyPolicy or any open discussion. For people to value the youth voice, we should prove that we have something worthwhile to bring to the table. This sort of access isn’t good for its own sake; it’s only as good as we make it. So after you submit your story, tell your friends to do so as well. Challenge each other to speak up and start conversations with those in power. Let’s not just participate; let’s create an expectation of participation. If the world is run by people who show up, just think of what we could accomplish if we were all in charge.