By William Patching
No, I am not about to wax lyrical on the remarkable phenomenon of an African-American’s ascension to the famous white house that black slaves built on Pennsylvania Avenue, or that his upbringing in Indonesia contrasts so vividly from the jingoistic insularity we have to come to expect from the ‘Leader of the Free World’.
Nor am I reveling in the delicious reality that the feeble-minded Bush’s days are numbered and his contemptible policies of antagonism and hatred will no longer be visited on the weak and less fortunate by his administration – or continued by his McPalin clone.
Yes, it is refreshing that the new White House incumbent can string a sentence together, and he genuinely seems intellectually equipped to lead the US away from a constitutionally bleak period – one that threatened the very fabric of American society. But none of these things are reasons why I contend that democracy changed on 11/4/08.
As a renowned cynic when it comes to politicians – it is my firmly held belief that pretty much anyone who aspires to political office is psychologically unsuited to the role – I have no great faith that Obama will deliver much change at all. He is constrained by the same two-party illusion of democracy that the millions of indoctrinated flag-waving, anthem-singing, gun-toting, bible-thumping US patriots hold so dear. The oligarchs, the bloated corporatists and their media machine will use the mechanisms and inertia of government to tie Obama’s hands so securely America will not be that different in four years or eight years – even if he does his best to deliver on his pre-election promise of ‘Change we can believe in’.
So, if Obama himself is not the true agent of change, then how can the date of his election mark a more fundamental shift for democracy?
The answer is simple: you are experiencing the defining element in this shift right now. It is pulsating at the speed of light on the screen in front of you and literally dancing at your fingertips. Yes, you may not realize it but you are reading this commentary via the most powerful new democratic medium ever conceived: the internet.
A technological battleground
Obama took the first tentative – but hugely successful – steps in harnessing this new medium in his campaign; he reached through the ether and used the web to involve more people in the democratic process than ever before, galvanizing a massive land army of enthusiasts proselytizing his message of change throughout the country, and he saturated the ground with devotees even in the most sclerotic Republican strongholds. This level of individual involvement is just one element in the technological shift demonstrated in this 21st century US election, one that could presage a new era of political representation.
The second strand in this seemingly mundane but fundamentally different battle for the White House was a function of a generation gap: McCain doesn’t even use email and seems fearful of technology, whereas Obama not only understood the potential power of the internet to boost involvement in his campaign, he exploited it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from individual contributors. This level of bottom-up fundraising is a first, but it won’t be the last time a political candidate electronically dips into ordinary people’s pockets.
This populist approach to campaign financing is a very democratic way of funding presidential hopefuls, and could even spell the end of the Washington gravy train. Imagine severing political candidate’s reliance on the grasping porcine lobbyists, snuffling for post-election goodies as a reward for their patronage (ie cash), and how politics could then more accurately reflect voters’ concerns.
Okay, Obama still tapped into the corporate coffers, sucking as much cash from his Wall Street and Hollywood backers as he did from the general public, but the end result was that a Democrat finally outflanked the well-oiled Republican fundraising machine, allowing him to overwhelm McCain’s propaganda campaign with a hugely successful one of his own.
Blogging for the truth?
Citizen journalists, political bloggers and online news outlets also played their part in this election – they represent the third wave moving toward a new democracy – though the political parties were much more evenly balanced when it came to getting their messages across in the virtual world. Bear in mind that many of these blogs are relatively new (The Huffington Post did not exist at time of the last presidential election) yet the spill over to the mainstream media from informed commentary and analysis on both left and right wing sites generally improved the national debate.
More importantly, the power of the internet kept a check on the usual mainstream media political steamroller, releasing control over the messages the public received. Any contentious issue immediately bubbled into cyberspace and was debated and debunked where necessary. Spurious claims were hotly researched by the candidates’ supporters and immediately refuted in cyberspace, spiraling straight back to the mainstream outlets. This time round the media oligarchs could not dictate the messages: lies could no longer be pedaled and left to fester in the public consciousness without rejoinder.
Obama, the one on the receiving end of the most vicious campaign of vile mendacity, benefited most as his fans created a massive backlash against the rabid TV talking heads on Fox News and the anodyne Washington Post pundits, taking them to task on everything from his purported Muslim beliefs to his disputed birth in Hawaii. Through the power of the internet people are gradually becoming more aware of the narrowness of debate fostered by the traditional news outlets and fighting against the propaganda: this is A Good Thing for democracy.
Looking back 2500 years to look forward…
The Democrats stole the advantage in the technological arena through Obama’s internet savvy background and his antediluvian opponent’s inability to comprehend the potential of today’s technology, but the broader implications have yet to stir the public imagination.
Few people seem to realize how the internet has created an opportunity to dramatically change the US (western) model of democracy. Not to something new… but actually to something based on an ancient form of democracy, quite possibly the original form of democracy: Athenian style from twenty five centuries ago.
Towards a better form of democracy
One person one vote as the basis of western democratic government sounds reasonable, and these days we are rather more egalitarian than the Athenians whose model ascribed one male one vote, as long a he was not a slave. But whereas Athenians voted on all issues and policies, we are coerced into choosing representatives who, like Bush, then ignore the electorate for four years, cozy up to their corporate cronies at the expense of the citizens, and take hugely unpopular decisions even when opinion polls clearly show they are out of step with voters.
This charade, pompously claiming to be the best form of democracy in the world, has been directly responsible for the disillusionment and powerlessness felt by most of the western population when it comes to politics. It is outdated and should be tossed on the scrapheap of history: the Obama campaign has cracked open the door to an effective participatory democracy that would re-energize the people and re-engage the masses in the political process.
A government by the people…
Is it possible to emulate the Athenians by creating a system that would allow a referendum on every major policy proposal? And if we were able to do so can we dispense with elected representatives?
It has been argued that a pure democratic system would be too cumbersome; to reflect the will of the people there would need to be a referendum on all major issues, with any voters who feel they have an interest in the topic taking part. It does not take much imagination to understand how internet technology could make such a system a reality, both in educating the public on the options and alternatives, as well as offering them the option to vote and affect the outcome.
Elected representatives would still have a role in government, but it would be very limited compared with today – a factor that explains establishment resistance to electoral reform and any push toward a true democracy. Ideally our politicians would be appointed by popular vote but restricted to formulating policies, putting forward their proposals and making recommendations for the electorate to vote on before implementation. Each politician would truly represent the electorate as an enabler rather than, as Bush rather grandly anointed himself, a decider.
We the people could decide. On everything.
Would the Iraq war have happened if such a system was in place?
Implementing such an electoral system would create a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Sounds like a good ideal to aspire to…
Change we should believe in
The technology is here, only the will is lacking. Sadly our political leaders are hardly likely to support changing to a system that would dis-empower them. Altruism and selflessness are no longer words you would associate with most politicians, and the dead hand of vested interest will inevitably stifle any progress toward a more representative form of democracy.
If we let it.
The beauty of the internet is that a quiet revolution is already underway and Obama has unwittingly boosted it by shining some light on the technology’s true democratic potential. We should all celebrate the fact of his elevation to the Presidency for this reason, if for no other
Will Patching is a reformed workaholic mammonist with a total lack of respect for the babblings of the mainstream media and a healthy suspicion of all politicians’ words and actions. His eclectic writings range from blogs on politics and current affairs through to short stories and thriller novels. He can usually be found exploring the South China Seas from his base in Thailand or, more easily, at www.willpatching.com.