Ramblings & ephemera

How technologies have changed politics, & how Obama uses tech

From Marc Ambinder’s “HisSpace” (The Atlantic: June 2008):

Improvements to the printing press helped Andrew Jackson form and organize the Democratic Party, and he courted newspaper editors and publishers, some of whom became members of his Cabinet, with a zeal then unknown among political leaders. But the postal service, which was coming into its own as he reached for the presidency, was perhaps even more important to his election and public image. Jackson’s exploits in the War of 1812 became well known thanks in large measure to the distribution network that the postal service had created, and his 1828 campaign—among the first to distribute biographical pamphlets by mail—reinforced his heroic image. As president, he turned the office of postmaster into a patronage position, expanded the postal network further—the historian Richard John has pointed out that by the middle of Jackson’s first term, there were 2,000 more postal workers in America than soldiers in the Army—and used it to keep his populist base rallied behind him.

Abraham Lincoln became a national celebrity, according to the historian Allen Guelzo’s new book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, when transcripts of those debates were reprinted nationwide in newspapers, which were just then reaching critical mass in distribution beyond the few Eastern cities where they had previously flourished. Newspapers enabled Lincoln, an odd-looking man with a reed-thin voice, to become a viable national candidate …

Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio to make his case for a dramatic redefinition of government itself, quickly mastering the informal tone best suited to the medium. In his fireside chats, Roosevelt reached directly into American living rooms at pivotal moments of his presidency. His talks—which by turns soothed, educated, and pressed for change—held the New Deal together.

And of course John F. Kennedy famously rode into the White House thanks in part to the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, in which his keen sense of the medium’s visual impact, plus a little makeup, enabled him to fashion the look of a winner (especially when compared with a pale and haggard Richard Nixon). Kennedy used TV primarily to create and maintain his public image, not as a governing tool, but he understood its strengths and limitations before his peers did …

[Obama’s] speeches play well on YouTube, which allows for more than the five-second sound bites that have characterized the television era. And he recognizes the importance of transparency and consistency at a time when access to everything a politician has ever said is at the fingertips of every voter. But as Joshua Green notes in the preceding pages, Obama has truly set himself apart by his campaign’s use of the Internet to organize support. No other candidate in this or any other election has ever built a support network like Obama’s. The campaign’s 8,000 Web-based affinity groups, 750,000 active volunteers, and 1,276,000 donors have provided him with an enormous financial and organizational advantage in the Democratic primary.

What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.

There is some precedent for Obama’s vision. The British government has already used the Web to try to increase interaction with its citizenry, to limited effect. In November 2006, it established a Web site for citizens seeking redress from their government, http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/. More than 29,000 petitions have since been submitted, and about 9.5 percent of Britons have signed at least one of them. The petitions range from the class-conscious (“Order a independent report to identify reasons that the living conditions of working class people are poor in relation to higher classes”) to the parochial (“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to re-open sunderland ice rink”).

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