Friday, January 21, 2005

The Blog Identity - Blogs and Government

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1986 was a bad year for tyrants. In one case of note, protests and uprisings in a number of Warsaw Pact countries were giving the KGB fits. In one anecdotal story, a KGB general stationed in Kiev was outraged to hear that a work stoppage had been coordinated with dissidents in Poland. “Are you telling me,” the general is supposed to have bellowed, “that the Sword and Shield of the Soviet Union cannot stop a handful of men with a couple of fax machines?” The reply given to the general at that time is not recorded, but the demise of the Soviet Union is today an historical fact.

Fast forward to January 20, 2005. President George W. Bush sent a shout-out to people around the globe; “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
The President did not stop there, saying “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

But the President spoke to bloggers, almost specifically, when he said “when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. “

Why would I believe this? Because bloggers have already made that kind of difference, and George W. Bush is able and willing to use the tools made available to him. During the campaign, the President found himself compared to Hitler on a few websites, challenged to respond to baseless allegations on others, but also defended and championed on thousands of blogs, leading to the sudden and decisive victory over a news network’s false attacks on him, and his opponent’s inability to deny or deflect the truth of his own past dishonor. Blogs did not decide the election of 2004, but they were present in the debate and discovery of every salient point. The future of blogs will certainly make them indispensable to a potent campaign, and undeniable as a political force.

By the summer of 2004, the shift in recognition for blogs was already underway, as both the Democratic Party and Republican Party credentialed bloggers as valid journalists for their national conventions. The debates were “live-blogged” at dozens of locations, and every major speech and event was analyzed, and text of speeches and positions were widely dispersed. The League of Women Voters never provided such complete disclosure. But the clear force of blogs is still emerging.

In the state of Washington, Republican Dino Rossi appeared to win the election, but his 261-vote margin led to an automatic recount, which resulted in another Rossi win, this time by only 42 votes. Democrat Christine Gregoire demanded another recount, but Rossi was certified the winner by Secretary of State Sam Reed on November 30. On that basis, Gregoire conceded the election, but the Washington State Democratic Party pressed for hand recounts anyway, which were allowed under Washington State law. The initial recounts still supported Rossi, until a number of strange events happened, all generally centered on Democrat-stronghold King County. The King County recount not only found a few more votes for Gregoire, but claimed votes which had already been disallowed (accomplished by simply mixing the disallowed ballots in with the valid ballots), claimed additional ballots “found” in the State of Alaska, and “found” hundreds more ballots lying in an unconfirmed and unprotected location. Finally, after King County had confirmed as valid a thousand more ballots than it had voters, enough votes were found to give Christine Gregoire the lead, and for all appearances an election had been successfully stolen.

These tactics are nothing new, but the attention brought to them nationally may well be a factor in future elections, and in the laws governing election administration. The bloggers are still sorting through the available options, the consequences and opportunities of different actions, and analyzing the claims and information presented by the people involved in the issue. Blogs are therefore not only reporters of political events, but are judges and actors in their own right; some serve as activists, some as referees, and some as chroniclers. This pertains not only to national and state events, but also to county and city politics, where most of the taxes and ordinances are created and enforced. It won’t be long, before blogs covering the more immediate politics will become more prevalent. There are some out there now, as a matter of fact. A quick peek through Technorati revealed these recent blogs which addressed city and regional issues (I’ve muttered a bit about the City of Houston myself, here at Stolen Thunder):

Sean Doherty (New York City)

Rainbowfish (Atlanta)

Albany NY (Albany)

Cadee (Fort Wayne)

Newpropop (Eastern Kentucky)

Live Journal(Chicago)

Cape Cod Works (Cape Cod)

This is just the early wave, folks. Imagine a world where, instead of having to depend on the “Channel 2 News Team” to actually tell you what’s going on, you can sort out what your City Council did about Property Tax, or what your County plans to do with Flood Control, or what little surprises your State Legislature has in store for you, all by a few visits to the 3 or 4 blogs covering it. It’s already started, and it will continue.

As I mentioned in a previous article, blogs work through the interaction between the writers, readers, comments, and suggestions. An e-mail once in a while to suggest an idea, or say ‘thanks’ for a piece of news you realize you would never have gotten from the talking head on network TV, can spur a blogger on to work hard and long on their site. And as blogger networking takes hold, the political force of bloggers will simply grow in magnitude and scale. Right now, most politicians think bloggers only care about what’s going on in Washington, D.C. We will change that, if we want to, and folks, we should all want that very much. Imagine a day, when instead of taking the interviews he feels like, with nothing but softball questions from some Katie-Couric-thinkalike, a politician realizes that his only chance in an election depends on straight talk to bloggers; whether the official is Republican, Democrat, or some other party, the need for him to be honest and non-evasive is good for everyone.

Blogs can also be invaluable for calling government attention to needs and concerns. Frankly, Gray Davis might still be Governor of California, had he given some reason to believe that he was interested in the concerns of citizens in that state. But also, there are sincere and dedicated people elected to office, who would be willing to work on issues of merit and substance, and blogs can be a critical asset for them, especially when blogs can sift out the chaff of silly ideas, to find the few that can really help solve some of the more pressing problems. If two heads are better than one, allowing for public debate at length on the major concerns of our time is surely a good thing.

Finally, it may be a ways away, but one of the banes of politics these days, is the difficulty in finding a decent candidate. Exasperation at being forced to choose between two unacceptable candidates is a very common emotion, and has been for more than a generation. The problem is, the process weeds out contenders and selects candidates to represent the party with almost no involvement by ordinary people until the Primaries, by which time we already know the front-runner, and the spin machine is well into its third cycle. What if we could find the best available candidates, and make their potential know to their own party by public acclimation from the beginning? That is another potential for blogs, and I suspect the first test for candidates in the future, will be their ability to win over voters early on. This won’t replace the existing system, but maybe by 2008 we can start finding candidates with better credentials than just playing the system for a couple decades, as is often the case now.

Going back to the President’s Inaugural Address yesterday, I recall this quote:

“By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.”

OK fellow bloggers, let’s get to work.

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