I heard an exciting keynote speaker by NYU Law Professor Beth Noveck who is doing some important practical work on egovernment and the patent office that will probably become a model for progressive governance. Noveck seems to be searching for a new liberal foundation for governance that moves beyond the traditional liberal orthodoxy of expert-driven policy making. Individuals should be involved in government, not equally, but based on their own passion and interest and a decentralized model where officials break up work into small discrete chunks that citizens can work on. She emphasizes passion and fun as key motivators in making a progressive state work; I'll try to get the text of her speech, I think her ideas are important.
Thanks very much to Symposium editors Sandy Costa, Olga Konferowicz, and especially Katrina Goyco for helping organize this event. I'd also like to give a shout-out to Julia Dunlop, Michelle Helmin, Gabe Rosenberg, Leslie Levin and Paul Schiff Berman.
I am speaking today not as a lawyer, but as an activist who does most of my politics on the internet. I run a blog called OpenLeft and engage in a variety of political activities. I push for legislative changes in Congress, I advocate for candidates and channel money to them, and I consult for ideologically aligned groups. I have also worked for candidates, though I don't take money from them when I am not on a campaign. What I want to talk about is why the internet presents such a profound challenge to the campaign finance regulatory regime, and suggest a slightly new framework to organize our thinking about how to deal with it. Now, I'm not a lawyer, so I'm sure you will find a thousand holes in my thinking, but I hope you will find it useful nonetheless.
The campaign finance reform movement was built in the early 1970s in parallel with the rise of the modern mass media campaign, because of a general post-Watergate sense that 'money' in politics was deeply corrupting to democracy. It is corrupting because money can buy speech over television, on radio, and through direct mail. Money buys access to the public square, and because of that, speech essentially becomes impossible for ordinary citizens. But it is also corrupting because when one entity speaks through television, direct mail, or radio, it is much harder to hear someone else. There are a limited number of radio stations, and each radio station has an editorial gatekeeper. There are a limited number of television stations, and each TV station has an editorial gatekeeper. And while direct mail doesn't have editorial gatekeepers, it is expensive and competitive with other unsolicited junk mail. Moreover, these media have no social context and are entirely one way, with no pushback from the audience.
In other words, push media precludes the speech, and ultimately, the participation of the public. It crowds out other speech. And that is why campaign finance regulations made sense in a TV dominant world, because a diversity of views in the public square, in the creation of culture, is essential to democracy. In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, and in 1974 Congress created the FEC. Since that time, organized money has through a combination of microtargeting of direct mail, special interesting lobbying, and direct corporate purchasing of think tanks, dramatically reduced the range of views available to policy-makers so severely that a minimum wage increase, despite overwhelming majority support from Republican voters, took 10 years to be adopted and had to be paired with a $100B+ war funding bill. In other words, we now have a system that is just not responsive to the public.
The internet is not just an exception to the assumptions of the system, it is a fundamental challenge to them. And we know this because internet culture is creating words that, while illustrative of something very concrete on the internet, have wider applicability we didn't notice before. Flame war, troll, bandwidth, open source, or even social networking. Or even spam. Wikipedia defines spam in a peculiar way: "Spamming is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to indiscriminately send unsolicited bulk messages." Spam is just the latest version of junk mail, applied to a broader set of media. And in a sense, all TV advertising and radio advertising is spam. That's why people who have TIVO's skip over ads, because they are unsolicited. That's why satellite radio advertises itself as having less advertising. Because advertising is unsolicited and annoying. People don't want it.
When watching TV, you can't automate skip commercials, but on the internet, you can. And that's why youtube, email, blogs, Facebook, and listservs are organized around user friendly norms, because if they aren't, they die. Through these media, as of right now there are no editorial gatekeepers and communicating is essentially free (though the cable and telecom companies want to change this). Anyone can set up a website or send an email. And there are actually spam filters that work really well, so Moveon makes sure to send you stuff you want and that is credible to you or else they lose out on mindshare. Facebook maps to your actually social network instead of a marketing executive's analysis of your demographic. And so on and so forth. It isn't spam. And so, because it's not spam, and because there are no editorial gatekeepers and anyone can set up a web site, internet politics is extremely responsive to the public. Unlike television, which operates at the lowest common denominator of culture and offers a relatively limited segment of programming bounded by certain commercial and political norms, the internet offers an effectively infinite array of cultural options for consumption and participation. That is baked into its architecture.
And so it is time to rethink the campaign finance reform movement, which is at this point is a regulatory hold-over for a different age. I do not agree that there should be no regulations on corporate money and I am not an absolutist on campaign finance regulation. I have seen money corrupt politics. But I think we need to start recognizing that it is only the 'spammy' media channels and not the 'social' media channels that need the regulation, and that the systemic attacks on corruption can happen through legal tools, technological tools, and infrastructure. In my opinion, we should work to push as much of the political and cultural playing field into the social media and away from the spammy stuff.
For instance, it does not make sense to ask someone to file as a political committee once they spend $1000 on a political activity if they are an activist working for a candidate they believe in and set up a website on their behalf or if they are spending a lot on gas to go around the state. But spending $10,000 on radio ads certainly should require some sort of disclosure and filing. What is the difference? The spamminess of the activity.
When you divide the world up into 'social media' and 'spammy media', the moral questions become clearer. Does it make sense that General Electric, a massive defense contractor, industrial conglomerate, and financial services company, owns NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, etc? Surely it is dangerous to have such an entity with such obvious political concerns 'call' states in close elections, as NBC called Florida in 2000. Why does this feel so icky? It's became of the spamminess. The asymmetry of power in a this system is so grotesque. So let's get back to the roots of campaign finance reform, which is about creating a healthy public sphere where citizens can debate a variety of options. Restoring the social context of politics, and reducing the spam quotient of modern mass political marketing, is how we should begin to think about a new regulatory regime.
We might even considering looking at concepts developed by the computer scientists who work on spam filtering and potentially use those as models for new regulatory possibilities and incentives. There's some really interesting collaborative experiments out there to get rid of spam, such as the 'spam' button on your gmail or webmail. Beyond this, there is infrastructure work that could be done. Expanding broadband access, for instance, helps empower the public with more social media. Breaking up media conglomerates, eliminating cable franchises or changing postal rates on direct mail are other tools to consider. Above all, in the areas that are working to expand public participation and a healthy social context, we must prevent the emergence of new editorial or legal gatekeepers.
I want to close with a quote from Wes Boyd, founder of Moveon: "Traditionally, political campaigns have been run by existing organizations with long histories, high overhead and inertia. MoveOn literally sprang from nowhere, with no affiliations or external funding. This is only possible in a world where you can communicate with 100 million people for $89.95."
Over the past ten years, we have seen an amazing amount of political innovation to bring people back into politics, and it is working. It is driving up turnout and allowing citizens to reengage at every level of politics. Let's figure out how to embrace it.