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Dean's Penguin, or Technology and the Nature of Political Interaction

(note: This is a long post, and somewhat heavy. But it does contain the nicest things I've ever said about Howard Dean.)

A lot of good comments have been provoked by Everett Ehrlich's remarkable Washington Post Outlook article on the transformation of politics by technology. My reaction was that the essay is brilliant, and helped clarify my own thinking about the question (you can be the judge of that below), but that like other attempts to understand the Dean campaign and technology, it both overstates and understates the magnitude of the transformation.

The overstatement is in the usual fetishizing of technology itself: it's not blogs and meet-ups that made Dean's success so far; it's that it's a campaign for which those are appropriate technologies and the campaign was unafraid to use them, and even embrace the loss of centralized control they imply. All of the Democratic campaigns think they're using technology, and they all have blogs and they all do online fundraising. To some degree, it's like the illusion that cost people so much money in the aftermath of the dot-com boom: just because some enterprise uses the internet doesn't make it a technology company or mean that it's transforming the way business is done. (e.g., pets.com was still a low-margin retailer selling 25-pound bags of animal feed.)

But the sense in which Ehrlich doesn't quite go far enough is that he puts the new politics into traditional categories: Dean, he asserts, is really a third-party candidate looking to capture "the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value." In the near-future, he argues, third parties, or "virtual parties," will be easier and cheaper to create on the fly, leading to an eventual third-party president.

For this, Ehrlich reaches back to the economist Ronald Coase, whose 1937 essay, The Nature of the Firm, showed how transaction costs shape the size and character of business firms. Firms take the place of one-to-one economic transactions, Coase found, when the transaction costs of doing business one-to-one in an open marketplace, especially finding the right price signals, is too high and the command structure of a firm can better organize people and resources. (I am by no means well-versed in Coase's ideas or the institutional branch of microeconomics he pioneered, so this is oversimplified at best.) The new technologies used by the Dean campaign, Ehrlich argues, represent the reduction of political transaction costs to almost zero, and thus the possibility of a firm/campaign that is small, nimble, and has no need for the organizational structure, finances, or media operations of the Democratic Party.

Ehrlich's invocation of Coase reminded me of an incredibly interesting (and, I believe, influential) article I read earlier in the year: Yale Law professor Yochai Benkler's “Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm.” (The penguin, of course, being the symbol of Linux.)

Here's two paragraphs from Benkler's abstract, with some key points highlighted:

For decades our understanding of economic production has been that individuals order their productive activities in one of two ways: either as employees in firms, following the directions of managers, or as individuals in markets, following price signals. This dichotomy was first identified in the early work of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, and was developed most explicitly in the work of neo-institutional economist Oliver Williamson. In the past three or four years, public attention has focused on a fifteen-year-old social-economic phenomenon in the software development world. This phenomenon, called free software or open source software, involves thousands or even tens of thousands of programmers contributing to large and small scale projects, where the central organizing principle is that the software remains free of most constraints on copying and use common to proprietary materials. No one "owns" the software in the traditional sense of being able to command how it is used or developed, or to control its disposition. The result is the emergence of a vibrant, innovative and productive collaboration, whose participants are not organized in firms and do not choose their projects in response to price signals.

In this paper I explain that while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode "commons-based peer-production," to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

and one more paragraph from the body of the article:

Commons-based peer production, the emerging third model of production I describe here, relies on decentralized information gathering and exchange to reduce the uncertainty of participants, and has particular advantages as an information process for identifying human creativity available to work on information and cultural resources in the pursuit of projects, and as an allocation process for allocating that creative effort. It depends on very large aggregations of individuals independently scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments. These individuals then self-identify for tasks and perform them for complex motivational reasons that I discuss at some length.

The language is dense, but “commons-based peer production,” "a group of individuals successfully collaborating on a large-scale project following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals," and people "scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments" seems at least as good a description of "people-powered Howard" as it is of the open-source software projects and collaborative networks such as slashdot that Benkler describes. And it is also better describes the Dean campaign than Ehrlich's analogy of a third party. Benkler doesn't see lower transaction costs as merely enabling smaller, nimbler firms, but as "a third mode of production." The difference between Benkler's interpretation of Coase, and Ehrlich's, seems to be that Ehrlich draws from Coase the insight that the size of a firm is determined by transaction costs, whereas Benkler explores the idea that the very existence of companies as we know them is based on a particular set of circumstances and costs, and that as those change, a very different way of structuring production could emerge.

I think Benkler's analysis, although it does not make the leap from the economic to the political explicitly, is closer to what's happening than Ehrlich's. In other words, I don't think that either the Dean campaign or the right-wing evangelicals are going to become third parties, in anything like the sense we currently understand political parties. Nor does it help to call them "virtual parties." Rather, I think they are more transient, focused efforts that will either (1) entirely change the ways in which individuals interact with the political system or (2) react to a change that has already occurred, before the most recent technology, that resulted in the near-disappearance of political parties and other membership-based vehicles as organizations of mass engagement.

Another example that has helped me think about this change:

A few months ago, I witnessed a discussion – actually a bitter argument – between a person in his 30s who runs an Internet-based political project best characterized as a MoveOn.org-wannabe, and someone older who throughout the 1970s had run and vastly expanded one of the great mass-membership issue advocacy organizations that once made up the liberal infrastructure. The MoveOn-wannabe reeled off some six-digit number of people who had used their system to sign petitions or organize protests, and called these people “members” of the organization. To which the older advocacy group-leader demanded to know what those people had done besides click a petition. How much money had they given? Had they formally "joined" the group as members? Were they asked to take any other action that involved sacrifice of time or money? When the answer to each question was no, he pointed out that it was offensive to people who had over time and with great effort built real organizations around loyal memberships to characterize mouse clicks (that is, low-cost transactions) as members. (This was a private discussion, so I feel obligated to keep the participants' identities' veiled.)

At the time, and even now, I was most sympathetic to the point of view of the older organization. First, the MoveOn.org-wannabe was kind of a punk, spinning lots of cyber-baloney and overstating his case. And second, I have enormous respect for the achievement of the older organization and the effort of building a mass movement around loyalty to an idea. But then it struck me that it's an achievement that hasn't been replicated in decades. I can't think of a new mass-membership organization that has emerged since Handgun Control, Inc. in the 1980s (now known as The Brady Campaign. Common Cause, the Sierra Club, NARAL, the ACLU, Public Citizen, not to mention Moral Majority, are all products of the 1970s or earlier. In the case of every liberal group at least, the membership is astonishingly old, often averaging well over 65. It is unrealistic to ask or expect a newer organization to achieve the kind of membership and loyalty that no group has achieved in years.

In other words, it's not that technology has changed things, but the very nature of membership, loyalty and participation has already changed, and perhaps technology provides a way to catch up with the more detached, transactional forms of engagement that are all we have left. Along with political parties and mass-membership organizations, labor unions face the same challenge: on one level, the labor movement is more vital than ever before, and there have been some organizing breakthroughs, but membership remains stagnant at about nine percent of the private-sector workforce. That's the problem that Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman set out to solve in their proposal for Open-Source Unionism , under which membership would take a variety of looser forms short of full majority-vote certification in a workplace.

I see the "commons-based peer production" model of politics really as a solution to this set of preexisting problems, the decay of long-term, membership-based institutions, whether political parties, mass interest groups, or labor unions. It isn't a perfect solution, though. I see three significant drawbacks to moving toward the new model:

First, low barriers to entry mean low barriers to exit. Neither the Dean campaign nor MoveOn.org sign people up in any lasting way, as a political party does, which is why I'm so certain that they will not become parties. As easily as people sign on, they drift away. Keeping the structure going requires constant care and feeding, and an always fresh flow of issues, activities, and challenges. As every blogger knows, drop it for a minute, or make a false move into a topic that doesn't interest people, and it all slips away. There are notable exceptions and surprises, such as MoveOn.org, which has built itself up through a long string of successful issue engagements, starting with the Clinton impeachment and really taking off with the Iraq war. But this is transactional politics: enough succesful transactions eventually lead up to trust and loyalty (I now know people who will take any action that MoveOn.org recommends to them) but it doesn't start with loyalty.

Second, and related to the first, it's hard to imagine developing the long-term deep vision or framework, comparable to New Deal liberalism, under a system of such transactional politics. Dean is a good example here as well. Dean's not attracting people to a comprehensive worldview, or a distinct outlook, such as Lieberman or Gephardt offer. Nor is he, as he is often characterized, just an anti-war candidate who will be weakened if the war is less controversial. Rather, he is a transactional candidate, much like MoveOn.org. Opposition to the war is his point of engagement with his supporters today, tomorrow it could be something else entirely. That's a strength, not a weakness, for Dean, but I think it's a long-term weakness for liberalism, which needs a clearer vision of core principles.

Third -- and this applies to Ehrlich's analysis as well as mine -- American politics is winner-take-all. In the economy, "commons-based peer production" can find a niche that is sustainable if not immediately profitable. I use the open-source Mozilla web browser, and thanks to its incredibly dedicated community, it is considered a success. But Mozilla has probably less than 5% of the browser market, compared to Microsoft, the George W. Bush of software. In politics, an intense, dedicated following that gets you 20% of the country would be huge. But it would also be a landslide defeat. There is a risk that the enthusiasm of a minority creates the illusion of success, while in American politics only real majorities claim any power at all. (This is a general statement, not a claim about Dean's electability specifically.)

Finally, one of the most interesting comment on the Ehrlich article is from Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network, on the NDN's new blog. NDN occupies a surprising position: they are originally an offshoot of the Democratic Leadership Council, and not naturally inclined to the Dean wing of the party. But unlike the DLC, they thoroughly appreciate the capacity of Dean's methods to re-engage people, and put a high priority on that. Rosenberg sees in the new politics a challenge to "classic FDR liberalism." He doesn't say enough about it in this post, but maybe he will in the future. Is he suggesting that the new forms of engagement not only change party politics, but change the purpose and structure of government itself? What would that look like? I suspect that's the next step in the transformation of American politics, and I'll admit, it makes the mere possibility of a Dean administration quite intriguing.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 16, 2003 | Permalink


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Posted by: Joel Rutstein | Dec 18, 2003 2:30:18 PM

I second the sense that technological aspect of Dean's campaign is easily fetishized. And I also think S. Rosenberg's New Democratic Network Blog comments actually raise a warning flag in this regard. As suggested by the Decembrist, what makes technology relevant, or effective, is how its used in the context of an existing balance of ideological forces and on the ground alignments, or, in a related sense, how it is used by emerging ideological forces and alignments to push politics in a certain direction. Rosenberg's comments suggest a narrow, and indeed classically "machine" oriented view: the emphasis seems to be on the methods of gaining power rather than on the actual content of the politics that gets you there and shapes the way you govern. As the still very worthwhile Max Weber essay "Politics as A Vocation" put it, modern professional politics was not so much about ideas, but gaining and keeping the sinecures that come with electoral might (Weber took the Democratic party of Jacksonian America as exemplary). A pessimistic analysis, no doubt; but as Rosenberg seems to see it, what Dean represents is merely a method of getting power and keeping it for New Dems. I suppose its not out of the question: Like Clinton’s campaign, might the grassroots feel of an internet based mobilization provide a sense of “putting people first” so as to get someone (Dean?) elected, only to have them turn Eisenhower Republican once in office?
The thing is, Dean's campaign in an important way is a movement in need of candidate, and Dean's stridency on the War, on the hard rightism of the Bush administration generally, fit the bill. The ideas circulating around amongst the Deanies may be well to the left Dean's own; indeed, this seems to me where a lot of the energy comes from, with the internet helping it out but not determining its ultimate force and destiny. As Dean cycles towards the center--his foreign policy speech, given new urgency by Saddam's capture, suggests that has begun--it will be interesting to see what happens to this energy. Dean may be a bubble, and this may burst it. Still, the endorsement of Afscme and especially Seiu, still pretty brick and mortar outfits (to stick with the business metaphors), and then of Jesse Jackson Jr. and to a lesser degree, that of "I'm coming back home" Al Gore, suggest that some saw, at the very least, opportunity in the figure of Dean to push progressive-populist ideas and politics (beyond Iraq) to the top of the agenda. Win or lose, the longer run impact of the Dean campaign on national party politics and internal democratic politics depends on its cultivation of a lasting coalition between two groups now coalescing around Dean: the middle and upper middle class, probably mostly white, check writing internet based element and the phone banking, more working class, of color, dues paying service and public sector union members. Such cross class power blocs are the stuff of effective politics. But as an example to follow, the Dean experience with the internet thus far could easily fortify another kind of coalition; or for that matter, inspire the short circuiting the one that is now nascent in the Dean campaign. So its not the technology that's political, but who is using it to say and do what for whom. Mcluhanesque notions about the media—here the internet—being the message are the after thoughts of a politics already underway.

Posted by: R Wells | Dec 18, 2003 6:08:34 PM

I think you've identified the real innovation here, namely the decentralization of the campaign. Everything else just a tool to bring it about. That decentralization confounds modern campaigns AND modern media, having more in common with genuine grassroots and pop culture movements.

Posted by: ccobb | Dec 24, 2003 3:25:05 AM

I would add that aside from their dwindling numbers, there is another major problem with conventional "mass-membership issue advocacy organizations." Theda Skocpol writes about it in her book "Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life."

Do the members of these organizations do anything other than give money and maybe write an occasional letter to their Senator or representative? Do they actually meet with other members voluntarily and discuss politics and plans of action?

Not really. They never really "built real organizations around loyal memberships." They leave the actual runnings of the organization to the professional staff while their "memberships" are nothing more than cash cows that they spam with mail and phone calls asking for more money.

Dean's decentralized meetups (now continued as Democracy for America) are a bit different in this regard. The meetups have people physically coming together, running their own meetings, discussing politics, deciding what they can do collectively, etc. This is a revival of real civic social interactions, whose decline Robert Putnam writes about.

Conventional mass-membership organizations should use this meetup technology to encourage their members to actually meet with each other and participate more fully in the running of the organizations. Of course, the staffs and boards of most of these organizations will not encourage this because it decentralizes control.

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