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The New Media and open government: A Case study
Posted by: McQ on Monday, June 11, 2007

Yesterday during our podcast, Dale and I spoke a bit about the power of the new media and its effect on politics. Our conclusion? Politics, as we've known them have changed forever.

What we saw with the immigration bill was perhaps the last gasp of old-style political brokering where an elite group of elected representatives meet in secret and push their agenda, swap, trade and compromise with the eye of passing legislation which, while not what they want personally has enough in it for them to be acceptable. As it used to work, once the compromise was reached, leadership would quietly twist the appropriate arms, bring the bill to the floor and just as quietly (relatively speaking) pass it with little or no debate.

The public then got to live with the legislation and its unintended consequences, while they told us what a favor they did for us. See the 1986 Immigration bill for an example.

Well no more. Bruce Kesler provides some interesting numbers which sort of point you to the change which is occurring:
Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than 1995—all of the increase from Internet-based communications.[1] Congress received 200,388,993 communications in 2004: the House received 10,400,000 communications by post and 99,053,399 via the Internet; the Senate received 7,935,594 by post and 83,000,000 via the Internet. During this decade, the staffing levels of Members’ personal offices have not changed.
More significant than the 4x amount of correspondence increase in the last decade is the difference between internet (182,053,399) messages and post (18,335, 599). It is 10 to 1. (It would be interesting to see the breakdown of internet communications by year within that decade.)

So there's no question that there is a huge change in the way the public is communicating with Congress. Just as obvious is the increase in its willingness to do so.
 
The impetus for this has to come from somewhere and it certainly wouldn't be a stretch to conclude that somewhere, at least in part, is blogs. As I mentioned yesterday,the political blogosphere is the land of the activists. That includes their readers, since the numbers above far overshadow that of the number of political bloggers.

Rassumussen, speaking of the immigration bill debacle, asked when there was a time it was more obvious that Congress and the administration were so out of touch with the electorate. Perhaps never, but it is only because of the nature of this new paradigm that it is so obvious this time. What the Senate tried to do this time was the accepted way of doing business in DC in the past. And, just as accepted was the fact that the electorate would simply have to live with whatever they decided.

Through the new media, however, open government is more of an operative phrase than, perhaps, our legislators care for. With inexpensive means for self-publishing, the people have found a voice. With the immigration bill, we saw the blogosophere react swiftly to the attempt by the Senate to ram this legislation through without debate. NZ Bear got a hold of the bill and broke it out in easily read segments. Other bloggers then took the pieces and further dissected them. The problems and complaints were then aggregated and presented. The presentation turned viral and it spread far and wide. I heard talk-radio referencing blogs in their criticism of the bill.

When it all started to go south and the big gun Congressional and administration defenders came out and began to make claims about their opponents and their arguments, they were, for one of the first times in memory, taken on and defeated. Instead of being the only one on the podium (i.e. important enough or visible enough to get MSM coverage), legislative defenders were forced to share the podium with the folks in the pajamas. Claims were hit with counter-claims. Dubious facts and arguments were questioned and, in some cases, refuted. Well researched and written counter-attacks were mounted and given visibility by the new media. People had access to a level of information about a subject they'd never had before. And the results were telling as the tide of popular support turned decidedly against the bill.

There isn't a single solitary legislator (or legislature) anywhere that can match the synergy and speed of internet based bloggers. Or as Dale says, "1,000 geeks with connected computers looking into something in which they're interested".

OK, deep breath. Exhale.

Now, this isn't to say it was just bloggers who helped mortally wound this bill, it is to say they were a part of it and, I believe a significant part. The term "New Media" encompasses more than just blogging. Before the critics start with their 'triumphalism' claims, I'm not making a claim as to whether it was or wasn't a good thing that happened. I'm simply observing and reporting on what I see as a communications paradigm change and its first clear result.

To be fair, some claim the Harriet Miers nomination may have the first, but here I'm really talking about legislation and open government. Others might argue that the Iraq supplemental fits the claim, but that was mostly a rightosphere effort. In the case of the immigration bill, both sides of the blogosphere were seen wading in.

So is it the shot heard round the legislative world? Or just a brief flash before legislators figure a way to go dark again? Frankly I don't think it is possible to drag legislation back into the cloak room. I don't think anyone will stand for it. And that means a victory for more open government. Whether that is good thing or a bad thing depends on how this newfound relationship shakes out. It could, after all, paralyze our elected reps into complete frozen inaction (which, at least in my neck of the ideological woods, isn't bad at all).

But I really don't see the bitter legislative fruit, the product of smoke-filled backroom deals, in our future ever again if we keep the pressure on Congress. And at this point, I see that as a distinct net positive gain.
 
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Do not underestimate the adaptability of power-hungry politicians, who are totally confident in their own omniscience. They will look for ways to hide from the new media. And sometimes, they will find them.

They’ve been fighting this kind of problem for a while. The Tennessee legislature is a good case in point. It is widely understood that talk radio with some online assistance scuppered their income tax proposal several years ago (2002, if I recall correctly). The pattern was exactly the same as the immigration bill. The political elites decided what they wanted (in this case they wanted more money because it was getting hard to parcel favors out to special interest groups). They were going to just sneak it through will very little discussion. And then sit back and let the people wail for a while, but in the end they would have what they wanted.

The outcome was the same as with the immigration bill, except that the confrontation was in-person. Activists came closer to open violence at a political body than anything I can remember in my lifetime.

The only reason talk radio got going in time in that instance was because a legislator, Marsha Blackburn (now a US Representative) blew the whistle. So one ingredient in new media vs political elites is allies on the inside. Without Tom Coburn and Jim Demint, I think the immigration bill would have passed.

During the next election, several long-time legislators lost specifically because of the income tax issue. That brings up the next essential ingredient.

We won’t really know the effects of the fight against the immigration bill until we see if anybody loses office over it. If they don’t, then they’ll go right on trying to cram their opinion down our throats, because they really believe they know better than we do.

I don’t think the new media is yet ready to have that kind of influence on an nationwide election. We’ll see, come fall 2008.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
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