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Uneven Distribution


In the past week, two different writers, from two different political perspectives – The National Journal’s Michael Barone and The New Republic’s Franklin Foer – have traced the outlines of 21st Century politics, writing good, clear essays that lay out some of the ground ahead. But for the tech-savvy among us – that’s you and me – both pieces fall a bit short.
They give short-shrift to the rise of immediate electronic communication and its long-term impact on politics. They offer an East Coat view of the world that looks not at the changes that are occurring but at the symptoms of those changes and their effect that institutions, for many of us outside Washington, have less and less relevance every day.
Barone, a moderately conservative Republican, is living proof that political biases don’t make bad political reporting. His bi-annual “Almanac of American Politics”is a useful and smart combination of the Koran, Bible, Talmud and political “Hints from Heloise” that every beat reporter whose ever hung a Senate Press Gallery dogtag around her neck relies on for basic information and pointers. To say it’s invaluable is an understatement.
So the introduction to this year’s Almanac which ran in last week’s National Journal, is worth everyone’s time. Barone talks about the death of the Democratic party as a national institution but he smartly traces the history of that demise citing the use of well-managed networks in politics. Management of these networks – where the Republicans currently triumph, that’s how they won – is how politics will be played in this century, says Barone. He’s kind of right.

Being a Republican, Barone understands the rise of private company-run networks; he cites FedEx (which is as much an information management company as it is a delivery network) and Wal-Mart (a company built on free international trade and cheap long-distance communication) as examples along with Microsoft, the East Coast’s favorite “high” tech company. But he doesn’t really understand free-form computerized networks which arise organically, if you will, from lots of people being connected by the Internet. If he did, he’d cite Google, not Microsoft; Apple, not Wal-Mart and e-mail not FedEx.
Like my Personal Democracy Forum colleague Micah Sifry who pointed me to Barone’s piece I think Barone thinks that markets, which are created and managed, are the same as the connections that can spring up between folks living on and with the network that is, more truly every day, the World Wide Web. Markets are organized. Folks on the web organize themselves. Now, unlike Micah, I don’t foresee a new world of political activism rising up from empowering technologies on the web. I see the same old politics moving on to the Internet in ways we are just learning to manage. (At its root that’s what the discussion about “blogging” is all about.) These are the early days; times when idealism and cynicism mix with banal insights and flashes of truly brilliant thinking to forge a new medium.
Against this background, Foer’s very good piece on Liberal Federalism becomes much more interesting. Like Barone, Foer sets aside the importance of everyone’s ability to talk – immediately, quickly and directly – across state, national and international boundaries to everyone else. Foer doesn’t say so but this new kind of communication makes possible a more organized Federalism – that’s states’ rights, folks – because a new kind of instant communication and coordination is possible. He’s urging Liberal politicians to focus on state politics as a way to redress their grievances with Washington. But it’s technology that will make Foer’s Liberal Federalism truly powerful.
In some respects, Foer is hitting a sweet spot for me, pointing out that a return to state activism is a return to the Democratic Party’s Progressive roots and he gives a handy description of Progressivisms’ first intellectual, Herbert Croly’s thinking:

…[M]odernity, the birth of the corporation, the closing of the frontier and technological advances had reshaped America and rendered Jefferson’s governing vision obsolete [for Croly]. What America needed was centralization and efficiency, not antiquated state governments. The inefficiency of state governments, he said, was ”one of the most fundamental of American political problems.”
Croly generally gets lumped together with the early-20th-century progressives, but his book often savaged these supposed comrades as outdated and stupidly old-fashioned. Croly accepted concentrations of power — corporations, as well as a strong central government — as immutable facts of modern life. Many of his fellow reformers, he charged, were clinging to an outmoded Jeffersonian affection for competition and equality. They wanted to dismantle the trusts and return to a marketplace dominated by small business. What’s more, Croly claimed, these reformers continued to harbor an irrational attachment to state governments; instead of building a modern centralized nation, they focused on renovating the old state machinery. Progressives in the West, for instance, created the referendum, allowing citizens to vote specific laws up or down. Croly, an unabashed elitist, preferred handing power to experts.

Sounds familiar, no?
Now, perhaps you see why I keep insisting that this group of business-minded, tech-savvy political newcomers are Progressive. It’s because they want to order their world, the way Croly wanted to order his. Progressive libertarians – basking in the free market that makes Wal-Mart possible, creating the technology that makes FedEx so reliable, feeling free to invest in Google while selling their large holdings of Microsoft (after the dividend payments, of course) – see the world as a much crueler place than Croly envisioned, however. They have a truly international view. Hence their Libertarian streak. They believe in the power of the smart, fast, small, quick-thinking individual to triumph. And they want a government and they want philanthropies that reflect that view. Which means, that Foer’s ideas about Liberal Federalist will only go so far. With this crowd, there is no party loyalty. Take a look at California politics where Progressive Libertarians are claiming ground every day.
Progressive Libertarians are the reason that “none of the above” is the fastest-growing category in newly registered voters. These folks take what they find from what they think works best. That’s why here in California they embrace and support Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. His proposals to change how the state creates legislative districts – endorsed just last week by Democrat Leon Panetta – is a winner with this group. So is his determination to weaken the labor union’s hold on state employees. Progressive Libertarians like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for different reasons: Gay Marriage is the best known. But Newsom got into office after he initiated a series of changes – dramatic cuts in cash payments – to the city’s homeless program. That’s what got him elected.
Seen from this perspective – from this coast – Foer and Barone are headed in the right direct. They see a political future that is distributed. But – to make complete hash of William Gibson’s phrase — the ways in which that distribution is occuring and what it will finally mean eludes them.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:39 PM | Permalink

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