Why the Senate needs a Lion now more than ever

For sixteen years Edward Kennedy was my Senator. Then I left Massachusetts, and now Ted has left all of us. We will all miss the “Lion of the Senate,” as will the Senate itself. I’m not just talking partisan politics here: Kennedy was vital to Congress because he hearkened back to an era when the legislature was co-equal with the President. It’s telling that Barney Frank has called him “the most powerful man never to have been President.” At our nation’s founding, the qualifier would have been unnecessary.

The layout of DC, where I now live, is also telling. The quadrants – NW, NE, SE, and SW – are split at the Capitol, considered the seat of power at the time of the District’s establishment. Yet the capital’s diamond-shaped boundaries center not there but on the White House — what most Americans would today consider the locus of U.S. power. No tourist, domestic or foreign, would fail to know the name of the President (the myriad T-shirts bearing his likeness ensure it), but without Kennedy, I suspect most visitors would be hard-pressed to name a single Congressman or Senator, even their own.

I’ve written before about why Congress needs a Geek Corps, and I continue to hope that the advent of a more decentralized social media will boost the relative power of our legislature vis-a-vis the Presidency, which had enjoyed peculiar primacy due in part to the dominance of broadcast media. President Obama himself seems to recognize the need to restore Congressional power with his deference to the legislature in establishing health care policy — maddening as that might seem to his backers.

Engineering a better virtual town hall

President Obama and his new media team are rightfully receiving kudos for their inaugural online town hall. Roundup at Personal Democracy Forum. But as a pilot, there’s room to improve, as the first commenter on the linked PDF post points out. Moving forward, the new media team should focus on re-tuning the technology to hit the core values and purposes of town halls and citizen participation:

1. Patch vulnerabilities. Whether or not you believe legalizing marijuana is a top-echelon issue facing the country, most of the top-rated MJ questions had little or passing relevance to the categories they dominated. The last category of question listed, “Budget,” became a honeypot for swarms of legalization advocates (the first seven of the top ten questions were on that topic), with only the addition of the word “tax” differentiating it from similar questions voted up in the “health care” and “green jobs” categories. I’m inclined to believe this was an authentic grassroots movement, but it could just as easily be engineered as a bot or mechanical turk astroturf campaign. What’s particularly pernicious about using crowd-sourced moderation is that the campaign wins either way: at a minimum, millions of Americans will be forced to read their submissions, even if only to vote them down.

2. Nuance the moderation: I voted on some 40+ questions and quickly began to realize that a straight up/down/abuse vote wasn’t capturing my opinion. For one thing, it became clear that if I wanted my interests to rise, I should vote against everything else (much like the way voters game multi-choice elections with bullet voting). It’s important for the system designers to realize that they are developing a game — a set of rules that determines winners and losers. For another, I found I had more specific things to say about each one: that a question was off-topic, or didn’t really ask a question, or was too generic, etc. In fact, I guess what I really wanted was:

3. Allow interaction: If the White House wants real civic engagement, it shouldn’t be built as spokes on a single hub (citizen -> President). The beauty of the Internet, like democracy, is that it’s many-to-many. I recognize that allowing citizens to talk to each other opens huge and difficult problems that make the deluge of posts demanding to see the President’s birth certificate seem trivial by comparison. Perhaps it’s up to civil society to pick up where Open for Questions leaves off — given enough lead time, citizen associations can build their own events off the town hall to host more robust discussions that can’t happen in the Presidential site. Still, this experiment is one of the closest things to a true public commons on the Web we’ve seen so far, and it’d be a shame if the only way to run it were a state monopoly that shunts citizen discussion off to private spaces.

4. More personality: One of the strengths of the town hall format is connecting abstract public policy to the lives of real, visible people. The format of Open for Questions (very limited space, no nuanced voting), however, privileged generic questions that went straight to the point and didn’t give a strong sense of who the person is and what their circumstances are. I felt a very strong difference in affect between Obama’s interaction with online questions (which was practically a press conference) to the video and especially live, in-person questions (which felt much warmer and more personal).

5. Or focus on the Internet’s strengths. Scratch that last suggestion. Maybe nothing will ever beat the face-to-face conversation for warmth and authenticity. Why not focus the online town hall on the very kinds of questions that town halls are terrible at: those best answered nonverbally (whether numbers, illustrations, or charts) or which require the President to draw on his advisors and not just the talking points he’s memorized. (We want the President to manage a team, not to be a one-man savant, after all). Stretch the new media team’s capabilities and see if they can create interactive charts, videos, or even games to frame or illustrate the President and his advisor’s responses.

Finally, let us acknowledge what has just happened: President Obama and his team have engaged over 93,000 people in an online town hall conversation. I hope this is just the first step towards a more robust system of citizen engagement.

Obama’s Presidential Library should be virtual

The Boston Globe’s Mark Feeney asks, “Where would an Obama Library make most sense: Hawaii? Kansas?”

The answer, obviously, is cyberspace. As our first Web-savvy President, Barack Obama should put his Presidential Library online. If his Transparency and Open Government Initiative succeeds, most of the Library will already be built by the end of his term. Then it’s a matter of working with his brilliant Web team to design, curate, and future-proof the space.

Then instead of raising money for one library, put the funds into the public library system nationwide, so all 50 states benefit. That would be a legacy all Americans can be proud of.

Obama’s non-reductive rhetoric

Whatever the accolades for the speech that Obama delivered at his inauguration, it seems it won’t generate a singular sound bite as in JFK’s “Ask not…” or FDR’s “Fear itself” (Many of the major papers picked themes, rather than pluck quotes, although a few took to “hope over fear“). Pundits have hailed Obama as a gifted orator and skilled speechwriter, but generally overlook one aspect of his speaking that distinguishes it from his peers’: its complex structure resists distillation down to a single quotable phrase.

Non-quotability is often fatal to those who survive on media exposure, and in the early days of 2007 it seemed Obama’s campaign would drown in his words. Yet thanks to a deep and wide funding base, he survived long enough to turn that liability into a core asset. The Obama campaign is credited with doing an end-run around the media, going straight to the people through email and Youtube, but the candidate’s rhetoric aided that strategy. Summarizing his speeches is like paraphrasing a poem, which drives the public to seek out the original — the full text of Obama’s inaugural speech currently sits in the NY Times’ top 10 most emailed, and of course his so-called “race speech” famously convinced millions of Americans to sit down for a 40+ minute talk about one of America’s most difficult issues. By using complex constructions that resist distillation, Obama minimizes out-of-context critics, although he cannot mute them (witness the “bitter” comment).

Obama reached the pinnacle of oratory in his New Hampshire concession, which turned narrow defeat into triumphant victory. But brilliant as it was, the speech would have languished in the circles of hard-core Obama supporters were it not for Will.i.am and Jessie Dylan’s recognition that its core, can-do optimism needed a fuller articulation than the mainstream media could provide. So they set the speech to song, and suddenly many millions more were willing to stretch their attention from a 10-second soundbite to a 4:30 journey.

It was a stroke of brilliance for Will.i.am, and maybe of luck for Obama. Never since the rise of mass media has a campaign succeeded on assuming not only the basic intelligence of voters, but also their willingness to hear out a complex argument. The technology to bypass top-down media is one cornerstone of Obama’s success as a communicator. His nonreductive rhetoric is another. And if he continues to convince Americans to dig deeper into complex issues and not settle for the pat answer, we are already on our way to the change we need to take back our country.