Being Thankful

There are many things to be thankful for this week, as we celebrate the Obama victory.  It means so many good things about America and offers — truly — such hope for the future of our troubled world.   After a few days of reflection, there are three things, perhaps idiosynchratically, that I find myself particularly thankful for: 

One is that the Obama campaign won after doing such a terrific job of combining old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning with the best of the online tools and strategy.  There are of course many reasons for the landslide; this is but one of them.  Many people, like Joe Rospars and his crew, deserve credit for this approach.  Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, joined the Obama campaign very early on as coordinator of online organizing.  The team from Blue State Digital, veterans of the Dean campaign, was there from the start of the primary, too.  But the digital teams for the campaign didn’t do their work in isolation; everything was brilliantly coordinated with real-space campaigning.  It’s the combination of classical-and-jazz campaigning that I have been waiting to see a campaign pull off at large scale.  This one sure did.  And how.  The Obama campaign did that, and much more.  It is surely a new blueprint for a successful political campaign.  (PRI/KCRW’s “To the Point” did a segment on this concept yesterday.  Chris Hughes made this point, too, on his MyBO blog the same day.  Micah Sifry was overhead on NPR yesterday talking about the future of this community.   CQ, among many others, wrote about some of the differences in the campaigns on these topics, early on.  And so forth.)

Second — and not unrelated — the uptick in new voters and young voters continued in 2008.  We’ve had great numbers in 2004 and 2006 in these categories compared to previous cycles.  The trend clearly continued this year, no doubt to the benefit of the Obama campaign and other Democrats newly elected to office.  The presumption that today’s youth represent an apathetic “generation” is, time and again, being disproven, as they find ways new and old to demonstrate their commitment to civic activism.  David Gergen is calling it a “new order” and pointed to the 18-to-29-year-old vote on CNN.  The New York Times referred to a “deep generational divide” that cut sharply in favor of Obama this time around.  (Urs Gasser and I took up this issue, and related matters, in the Activism chapter of Born Digital.  It will be fun to update that chapter now.)

Third, the campaign deployed so many good election lawyers that Obama voters were not disenfranchised in the way that Kerry and Gore voters plainly were in 2004 and 2000.  It was incredibly well-organized this year.  My brother, Quentin Palfrey, took a leave from his job as chief of the health care division at the Massachusetts AG’s office to run voter protection in Ohio.  His team — of literally thousands of lawyers — ensured that there was no repeat of the 2004 horror-show that cost John Kerry votes, if not much more than that.  (Like many other lawyers, I trekked up to NH to do voter protection in previous cycles; this time, there were more than enough lawyers to go around, such that many were sitting around at polling places, redundantly.)  The emphasis on voter protection in this cycle, at such a high level of sophistication, and in so many states, was a great thing to watch.  And locally, organizations to keep this trend growing (in Massachusetts, for instance, consider MassVOTE), only seem to be gaining strength.

Each of these trends took an extraordinary amount of work by an extraordinary number of people.  The successes of these collective actions offers much reason for hope. 

We all share the responsibility of turning this hope into tangible improvements in all of our lives.  One way we can do that is to encourage our elected officials, from President-elect Obama to our local representatives, to govern just as they campaigned — with the Internet as a means of providing transparency.  I think this next four years will be great for organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, Lessig’s Change Congress, the Omidyar Network (with its new investment area in transparency and governance), Personal Democracy Forum, and others, which will — as institutions and communities — help lead us in these ways.  No doubt the terrific Obama technology policy means that there will be administration support for such efforts at transparency. 

These changes need to continue to be driven from the bottom up, with widespread participation, just as the campaign was.  I’m confident that many youth, brought into civic life during this cycle, will stick around and make great things happen — and that many of us, no longer so youthful, will pull our weight, too.  Today, and tomorrow, it’s up to each of us to find ways to maintain the momentum that’s been built up in these and other areas so important to the future of democracy in America.  And in the meantime, I’m feeling awfully thankful to Chris, Quentin, and all those who tossed aside their day jobs for a while to make this happen full-time — yes, community organizing — to make sure that all that volunteer time and money went to great use.

Sunlight Foundation event on MLK, Jr., Day at HLS

The Sunlight Foundation has kindly chosen the Berkman Center at HLS as the venue for an all-day session today, “Political Information in an Internet Era.” We’re grateful to a dedicated group of civic activists who join us today on their holiday.

The frame for the event, as Zephyr Teachout and her team put it, is this: “All of us, in different ways, are trying to use the internet to improve citizen’s access to, and use of, important political information. Since so much political information is tied to local politics and local media, we are focused on the people working at the state level to educate and engage citizens in public affairs – using everything from new tools to new techniques to new voices on simple blogs.

“Our goal is to help those who are on the ground, using the web to improve political information on the local level. We also hope to foster connections that last beyond this meeting.”

Ellen Miller, Micah Sifry and Mike Klein came to Berkman last year at the time of the kick-off of the Sunlight Foundation. We were blown away then and we are blown away now by what they are up to. They’ve been congratulated many times on the extraordinary and fast progress they’ve made over the past several months, but it’s worth echoing here again.

One of the primary questions that the Sunlight Foundation’s work raises, and the subject of this meeting, is one that is core also to the work of the Berkman Center. Are people using Internet in a way that improves politics? Put another way, are people using Internet in a manner that strengthens democracies? The answer lies in the distributed group of people, some right here in this room today, and in other rooms like it around the world. The answer is that it’s “you.” Time Magazine got it right.

But there’s a ton of work still to be done.  For those on the contemplative end of the scale, there are also a lot of puzzles to be worked out. Three things on my mind by way of issues that one might consider in the context of this big topic:

– At the pre-meeting dinner last night, it was plain that the prevailing views on politics in America among people in the room ran a pretty short gamut, from skepticism and cynicism. As one shines more light on more injustices — on more corruption, to use a word in Z’s agenda — is there a way to calibrate the impact of this sunlight? Is there a realistic fear that more sunlight may lead not to more civic engagement, but rather lead to pushing more people from skepticism to cynicism? The answer, of course, is not less sunlight. But the question seems to me a genuine puzzle.

– The Sunlight Foundation’s project, and the projects of many of the participants in the room today, are focused on the United States. No doubt the United States, and our disparate local and state parts, need the help and the focus. All the same: how do we act locally when we know the issues we are tackling and the network we are using are global? How do we inform ourselves, share our work, learn from others, connect to others — in such a way that we are truly acting within a global framework?

– One of the cool things — perhaps even approaching a “truth” — about Internet & politics is the extent to which it’s both essentially about the individual (in Benkler’s terms, “autonomy”, for those who have read the extraordinary Wealth of Networks) and about collective action. There’s a beauty to that tension, and also a challenge, to each of us, whether as individuals and as members of a collective. What is our greatest point of leverage, as individuals — limited in our political activism only by our own imagination and the 24 hours in a day? Again, I think so many people running so many extraordinary projects related to Internet & politics are answering that question by how you spend each and every day — and the rest of us can learn a thing or two from that.