The Tragedy of the Netroots

As a volunteer for the Howard Dean campaign, I guess I helped start the “Netroots” – the net-savvy people who put grassroots campaigning online, leading to Obama’s success. I’ve come to realize that, in many ways, the netroots is old wine in new bottles. It’s hard to know if it has had any greater effect, proportionately, than direct mail politics in the 1950s. A similar “revolution”, direct mail was the first way that campaigns could reach voters directly without the media filter. Both used new media to elect the same politicians, who then operate the same obsolete way.

Among those obsolescent patterns is politicians’ willful disregard of their constituents’ preferences. Every day we are urged to “tell your representative to …………….” But our pleas, if we even make them, never match a cause with a voter who matters to an Olivia Snowe or Max Baucus. These messages are as futile as yelling at the support tech that their web site sucks.

If you don’t feel impotent about effecting change, you don’t understand the real game in politics as well as Matt Taibbi does.

The iVote4U system is fundamentally different. It’s about governance, not politics. Using iVote4U, you don’t care much who your politician is. Instead, you “push” your interests to him/her and make it clear that how the politician votes in Congress will affect how you will vote in the next primary election.

The most valuable resource in politics is a voter who shows up at a primary election. Like diamonds, they’re valuable because they’re scarce. Primary voters matter so much because most elections are safely Democrat or Republican. All the nuttiness we see in Congress is about primary elections, not the general. iVote4U gives certified constituents a way to use their primary vote pledges to give political cover to politicians who act on principle, so they don’t have to pander to the zealots who show up for the primary.

Like those zealots, iVote4U primary voters are loyal to a cause but not a party, but their loyalty stems from rational curating of a politician’s actions for years, with real consequences for the incumbent or challenger in the next primary election.

Called “Super Voters,” they are 3rd-party certified constituents, pledged to vote in the next primary, who are watching the politician’s actions, and will vote accordingly.

There is no greater threat or benefit to a politician’s career.

Size 18 Shoe in your front door. Comcast conflating content & broadband.

A couple of days ago, Susan Crawford alerted us to the Congressional hearing held today in Washington, examining what she calls the “Comcast transaction”, Comcast’s bid to purchase NBC Universal.

(FWIW, calling it the “Comcast transaction” without explanation, Susan reveals how far we insiders have distanced ourselves from the real people – voters – who might have an interest in an issue and might exert real political power on an acquisition that affects our ability to use broadband and to be free to deploy the Internet on our own behalf without interference from our Internet provider’s vested interest in the content they want us to “consume”. Out here in the nocluesphere, we have no idea what the “Comcast transaction” might be.)

Susan is rightly exercised:

  1. The transaction would give Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, control of one of the five large US content providers and about 30% control of Hulu.com.  If the transaction is approved, Comcast will be behind about one out of every five viewing hours in the U.S.  We are a nation of living-room watchers, and Comcast will be there.
  2. Comcast is smart to be using control over content to guarantee dominance in broadband.  There are fewer competitors in broadband – usually two in any locality, a cable company and a telco – than there are in video.  Cable is already doing better than VZ/AT&T, and prices for high-speed Internet access are staying high and bundled.  NCTA says that cable modem service is “available” to 92% of homes.  We won’t be seeing VZ or AT&T fiber reaching more than 40% of households over the next few years.  Cable has a bright future.
  3. Comcast says that this is a vertical transaction that should not trigger competition concerns.  They point out that both the Comcast and NBCU cable networks together will add up to just 12% of national cable advertising and affiliate revenue.  (Comcast wants the NBCU cable networks (CNBC, Bravo, Oxygen), which generate 60% of NBCU’s earnings.)  They also say that online video content is so wildly competitive that this deal will have no impact.

And Susan suggests the questions that might come up on Thursday:

  • What power will Comcast have to shape the future of online video (or “Internet TV”)?  This transaction may make it less likely that people will cut the cord and disintermediate their cable provider, moving their online video-watching from their PCs to their large living room screens.  Comcast will have no incentive to make its content available online to non-subscribers.
  • Online video/Internet TV is a new market.  Right now, it’s relatively small and confined to PC-viewing.  Comcast says we shouldn’t consider potential harms to a future market.  Is that right?
  • What effect will this transaction have on the prices consumers pay for cable subscriptions and high speed Internet access?

But there is NO structural mechanism to ensure that those questions actually come up. Sure, on Thursday, under the currently trusted guidance of FCC Chair Julius Genachowski, the right questions might be heard. But would they have been heard under Dubya’s appointed tool, Genachowski’s predecessor, Kevin Martin? As citizens, can we afford to place our trust in the hope that the regulators will always have our interests in mind? How might we ensure that knowledgeable questions are asked in these crucial committee meetings? Since lobbyists can’t guarantee what questions are raised in a hearing, how might we?

“We” being, you know, actual voters. Maybe even *certified voters*, proven to be constituents of the representatives asking the questions and guiding the trajectory of the hearing. i.e., voters getting their democracy on.

Those are the kind of voters who drive politicians’ actions: the questions, comments and votes they express in committee hearings and on the floor of the Congress.

If there were a zoning hearing affecting your home, you’d damn well find out who’s on the Zoning Board and what their biases are. Likewise, if you want to affect a Congressional Committee Hearing, you need to know who’s on the committee. In this case, the committee is the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, reporting to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. So here’s the playing field of this particular subcommittee:

Rick Boucher, Virginia, Chairman

Edward J. Markey, MA Cliff Stearns, FL, Ranking Member
Bart Gordon, TN Fred Upton, MI
Bobby L. Rush, IL Nathan Deal, GA
Anna G. Eshoo, CA John Shimkus, IL
Bart Stupak, MI John B. Shadegg, AZ
Diana DeGette, CO Roy Blunt, MO
Mike Doyle, PA Steve Buyer, IN
Jay Inslee, WA George Radanovich, CA
Anthony D. Weiner, NY, Vice Chair Mary Bono Mack, CA
G. K. Butterfield, NC Greg Walden, OR
Charlie Melancon, LA Lee Terry, NE
Baron P. Hill, IN Mike Rogers, MI
Doris O. Matsui, CA Marsha Blackburn, TN
Donna M. Christensen, VI Joe Barton, TX (ex officio)
Kathy Castor, FL
Christopher S. Murphy, CT
Zachary T. Space, OH
Jerry McNerney, CA
Peter Welch, VT
John D. Dingell, MI
Henry A. Waxman, CA (ex officio)

There they are, 34 Congresspeople, concerned mostly about being re-elected in nine months, jonesing for $3,000 per day so they can buy as many ads as needed to convince voters (whoever they are!) that they are listening to their voters. I can’t find the quote, but $3,000 per day is what I remember from Larry Lessig and that’s good enough for me. On any given day next fall, these representatives will drive 45 minutes out of their way to meet a dozen or so of their (presumed) constituents in a gym or diner to demonstrate how well they listen.

Given those imperatives, how hard can it be for a few third-party-certified* constituents to get a question asked in a hearing, the asking of which costs the representative nothing and which may line him up for grassroots campaign contributions that the lobbyists can’t promise and, amazingly, might explicitly pledged votes? Those being votes that no lobbyist would even suggest they could corral for you. They’re not in the Get-Out-The-Vote business. “GOTV” is the essence of “retail politics”, and that’s what political campaigns spend lobbyist money on. But what if we voters got into the GOTV business? Hmmm.

Welcome to the new math of citizen engagement. In the bargain, voters’ questions might actually make the representative look well informed. But wouldn’t that reduce the contributions they might get from the interested corporations? How much would it matter? According to a 2006 report from Freepress.net:

Between 1991 and 2006 major cable industry interests and their trade groups spent more than $105 million on campaign contributions to federal candidates and on lobbying in Washington. The five members of Congress who currently hold key positions on the crucial House and Senate Commerce Committees alone have received more than half a million dollars in contributions from major cable interests since 1991. Contributions went both to members’ candidate committees and their leadership political action committees (PACs).

It’s a lot of money, but how much might those fifteen years of contributions sway each representative? According to the FreePress report, Comcast has contributed $2,516,528 to Federal candidate committees and leadership PACs from 1991 to 2006. That amounts to $167,769 to ALL politicians through the period. Freepress notes that, in 2006, when Fred Upton, R-MI, was chair of the House subcommittee, he had received $118,997 from Comcast since 1991. Of course, it stinks, but it amounts to $7,933 per year.

Perspective: We hate the fact that our congresscritters, on average, must raise $3,000 per day to conduct a serious campaign. But shouldn’t we acknowledge that, for their apparent champion on the subcommittee, Comcast was only willing to provide 2.6 days of fundraising? Do we really believe that Fred Upton is willing to pervert his entire agenda for that mild level of support?

And Fred’s just the most highly compensated supporter of the Comcast devil. In fact, the other 33 committee members must be far less impressed, financially, with Comcast’s agenda. And you can bet that they also have broadband that sucks, and they know it.

So what’s the point here? American households, not corporations, have most of the money and all of the votes. Given the tools becoming available, we might be equipped to use them.

Gridless

I’m off the grid on Cape Cod, not responding to task requests, but still pleased to tell the world what I want from it. That’s always seemed to me an arrogant attitude but, in truth, most people like to know what you want from them: it saves a lot of time and confusion. After all, in a Web 2.0 organization like ours, it’s not like they can’t Just Say No…

I’ve been absent from this blog for 2-1/2 months, a gap that once seemed inconceivable to this narcissistic raconteur. In that time though, our team has created 5 potential blogs for me, at the following sites:

  1. iYear.US
  2. NewGov.US
  3. NewPrez.US
  4. .govAdvisers.US
  5. PeoplePressure.US

They created 5 potential blogs there for you too, since every member at those sites gets their own blogs, which include some nifty blog features that we’ve not seen elsewhere. (“nifty”= old fart for very cool)
It started when we rolled out the Independence Year Project (iYear.US) on June 23, as a major sponsor at the Personal Democracy Forum. Independence Year is the year between the last and next Independence Days, which we kicked off at a fireworks celebration at the East 43rd St. HQ on July 4th. As usual, the display was spectacular, being so close to the Macy’s fireworks barges.

[It’s always troubled me that a nation formed to support its citizens’ pursuit of happiness celebrates its birth by mimicking combat explosions. Having experienced both sides of combat firepower, I know there’s little happiness in the pursuits of a shooter or a shootee.]

The featured guests on July 4th were our partners at Zaah Technologies, Maurice Freedman and Sandy Fliderman and their friends and family. The Independence Year platform and its stunning possibilities are a celebration of the mechanisms provided by Zaah through our partnership to build a new way to transform American governance.

I hope to add to this each day from South Yarmouth, Cape Cod. If so, I’ll try to describe the many ways that the iYear platform routes around politics to implement citizen-managed governance, at every place that such a disturbance might be beneficial.

Stagger Lee . . . with who’s out here.

Lee Iacocca is speaking at the Take Back America 2007 Conference that Michael Melillo and I are attending next week. His appearance is related to his book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

He has said it more plainly than anyone:

Had Enough?

Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, “Stay the course.”

Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!

You might think I’m getting senile, that I’ve gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don’t need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we’re fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That’s not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I’ve had enough. How about you?

I’ll go a step further. You can’t call yourself a patriot if you’re not outraged. This is a fight I’m ready and willing to have.

My friends tell me to calm down. They say, “Lee, you’re eighty-two years old. Leave the rage to the young people.” I’d love to—as soon as I can pry them away from their iPods for five seconds and get them to pay attention. I’m going to speak up because it’s my patriotic duty. I think people will listen to me. They say I have a reputation as a straight shooter. So I’ll tell you how I see it, and it’s not pretty, but at least it’s real. I’m hoping to strike a nerve in those young folks who say they don’t vote because they don’t trust politicians to represent their interests. Hey, America, wake up. These guys work for us.

I intend to hand an envelope to Mr. Iacocca telling him that the Blogosphere is behind him and that there are untapped resources that were unimaginable at the time he inked his book contract, that our world–yours and mine–moves that fast. And that in that dynamism is the chance to make a greater difference than any of us can imagine. The fact is that Lee Iacocca needs us more than we need him, and he knows it.

In that envelope, I want to present letters from as many of you as possible. Since Lee is old school (a state I resonate with), these letters should be proofread and sensible and compelling. Naturally, I’ll include a link to an index so he can peruse our thoughts online. If he has an associate with him, I’ll hand the same envelope to him/her.

So, send me a PDF of a letter you would like Lee Iacocca to glance at or, if it grabs his attention, maybe even read. Send it to britt@blaserco.com.

If you want to be taken seriously, mock up a letterhead, which people of Lee’s age and experience relate to better than plain text. The usual Executive Suite standards apply: one page, lots of white space, demonstrating that you took the time to be concise.

Present your credentials, which are probably more impressive than you think, ’cause these Rich White Guys are beginning to get it that they don’t know how to get a large group of people to do anything, unless they’re employees.

And we do.