By Hal Plotkin
The Internet has the potential to transform national
politics. Unfortunately, that probably won't happen
this year thanks to the way most presidential
candidates are using it (with the possible exception
of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley).
Rather than using the Internet to inspire, involve and
organize masses of voters, most of the presidential
candidates mistakenly see the 'Net primarily as just
one more venue to solicit campaign contributions.
Once upon a time, of course, political leadership
was all about defining problems, building teams,
articulating a vision and inspiring others, not just
raising money. It will take a savvy candidate to
recognize the Internet's potential to bring these
qualities back into the political arena.
Ironically, the Republican presidential candidates
who often say they favor decentralization, returning
power to individuals and relying on volunteerism,
aren't using the Internet to campaign that way.
Instead, pleas to send money to headquarters are
the central feature on nearly every Republican
presidential campaign website.
Take, for example, the page where former
Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander tells people
surfing his site how they can build momentum for
his campaign. They can, Alexander says, send him
a check. Now there's a stunner!
Some candidates do a slightly better job of
camouflaging their panhandling than others through
better use of technology. In almost every instance,
however, their web magic is wasted on
self-aggrandizing strutting that has no real message.
Texas Governor George W. Bush's site, for
example, features a streaming real video link that
lets visitors watch the nearly one hour long
announcement of his candidacy. Even if you watch
the whole thing, though, you don't get much of a
sense about what he would do if elected.
To be sure, Bush does a better job online than his
Dad's running mate, former Vice President Dan
Quayle. Apparently no one has yet told Quayle
about streaming video. Quayle's site features a far
less robust Quicktime format that consumes about
a half hour, at average download speeds, to convey
three sentences from a recent speech. How
self-absorbed does a candidate have to be to think
people would wait half an hour to hear three
sentences? Or that they wouldn't be disappointed
when they finally learn the sentences hardly say
Although there are some other breathtakingly
egomaniacal diversions on candidate websites
(check out, for example, conservative activist Gary
Bauer's modest little homepage), in general tin cups
are the guts of nearly every one of these sites.
It seems shortsighted to use the Internet to try to
raise money to fund an old-fashioned, top-down
political campaign without ever once stopping to
consider how the Internet itself could make that
kind of a campaign obsolete.
Companies like e-trade.com, e-bay.com and AOL
pull in so many customers that their servers
sometimes crash. A candidate who used the
Internet to convey real ideas about stuff that
matters could do the same thing. The Internet's
greatest power is its ability to bring communities of
like-minded individuals together in common
purpose. That is what one day will make the
biggest difference to a political campaign.
I'm not talking about using the Internet to sign up
campaign volunteers, something all the candidate
websites already do. The problem with those
ubiquitous online volunteer sign up sheets is they
are rooted in a pre-Internet understanding of how
groups are formed and led.
In that old style, campaign managers pass around
clipboards, and people sign up. Then, if the
campaign has enough money and administrative
prowess, the volunteers are eventually contacted
and maybe even given something to do. It's all very
hierarchical, representing a boss-subordinate,
working-at-IBM-in-the-1950's kind of world view.
The Internet, however, is about creating an entirely
different world where groups come together and,
all by themselves, create new realities.
How successful would Linux-namesake Linus
Torvolds have been if, rather than create an
opportunity for collaboration among equals, he had
merely asked people to send him money so he
could develop a new computer operating system?
Our technophilic vice president, Al Gore, wisely
tips his hat to the open source community on his
website. Gore deserves credit for making the
source code for his site available and inviting
programmers to contribute site-enhancing code
modifications. The 100 or so programmers who've
taken him up so far have already left the Veep with
a sleeker, more technically up-to-date web
presence. If you have the right Comet cursor
example, your cursor will morph into a cool little
Gore 2000 icon while you cruise the site.
What Gore is missing, though, is that open source
software, and the movement it represents, is about
much more than software.
It's about the human instinct to help one another.
Programmers are not the only people who have this
instinct, although they have been among the first
groups on the web to give it expression. There are
undoubtedly lots of other Americans who are as
likely, probably even more so, to roll-up their
sleeves in the service of some higher ideal. That is if
that higher purpose is expressed with some
measure of clarity, conviction and credibility.
You get a glimpse of what is possible at the Bill
Bradley for President website.
Bradley's site offers visitors a chance to download
a Community Involvement Kit (to find it, click the
Get Involved icon on the homepage). Whoever put
the kit together understands that people who use
the Internet, in words immortalized in "The
Treasure Of The Sierra Madre," don't need "no
Instead, Bradley's Community Involvement Kit
encourages volunteers to take his campaign into
their own hands. No registering with headquarters
to get permission first. No waiting for some
high-priced campaign consultant to give you a call.
Instead, people downloading the kit get instructions
on how to create their own local Bradley for
The only thing the Bradley campaign asks is that, if
they want to do so, people creating new local
support organizations let the national Bradley
campaign know what they are up to from time to
time so the Bradley web site can provide
information about their location and activities.
Some of the other candidates come close to
Bradley's superior use of the Internet. Gore's site,
for example, invites people to submit videos and
multimedia presentations for review. Some of those
that pass muster will eventually be uploaded to the
site. Combined with his "Town Hall" -- where Gore
answers a few e-mailed questions -- it's a
welcome, although sadly feeble, stab at making
online communication more of a two-way street.
Likewise, Steve Forbes' over-produced website
offers a multilevel marketing, pyramid incentive
scheme (figures, right?) where volunteers win points
and prizes based on how many people they recruit
online. Recruit 5000 cyber-volunteers who register
with headquarters, and you are an "e-member" of
Forbes' National Committee. A similar
performance for Gore could earn you the title of
"statewide online director."
It's a good try. But it is all so disembodied. Internet
users aren't e-people. They are people. They live in
communities. And they have much more to offer a
political campaign than just their checkbooks.
Sooner or later, some candidate is going to come
along and do for politics what Torvalds did for
software. While a lot of Americans aren't online
yet, it's a safe bet that most of those who are, vote.
They are ready, we are ready, for a presidential
candidate willing to go over the heads of the
conventional media and able to lead us in the
proven, decentralized group processes the Internet
now makes possible.
Bill Bradley's website offers a ray of hope that
online politics might be moving toward that more
personal, human-centered, less money-grubbing
direction. If he succeeds in bringing more people
into the process, Bradley could even help elevate
individuals, ideas and objectives over money.
But if we really do want to see the Internet create a
politics where people matter as much as cash, we'll
undoubtedly have to take on that job ourselves. .