Mother Jones: We are talking about open-source politics as the idea that social networking and participatory technologies are going to revolutionize everyday citizens’ abilities to follow, support, and influence political campaigns.
Glenn Reynolds: It’s been more evolutionary than revolutionary. There’s been a big tendency to open things up in the nomination process, ever since the McGovern reforms in the Democratic Party. The Republicans have sort of been dragged along in that, but it’s a long time from the days when the backroom deals decided who was going to be the nominee. The difference is that now, instead of going to a few hundred or a few thousand people to raise money, you can go to a few million. Candidates who can raise money in small doses from a lot of people can compete with people who can raise money in bigger doses from a small number of rich people, and that’s a big change. We saw Howard Dean with the initial indication of that, but Obama is taking it to the next level.
MJ: Do you think either party has an early lead or advantage in harnessing these technologies?
GR: I think the Democrats have the advantage. The Republicans had a better machine using the last generation of new media such as direct mail and email, but I think Republicans have been behind the curve on using the Internet for fundraising and campaigning. I think Dean was proof of concept. He made clear to everyone that was paying attention that there was a whole new game here. There’s plenty of time for Republicans to step up their game, but I’m skeptical they will do it. They’ve gotten so used to winning that they are no longer open to new ideas, and don’t have that hunger that you need to change your program. That’s a big mistake on their part. Until the Republicans have someone like Joe Trippi, someone who really understands the Internet, I don’t think they will change, unless they are forced to.
MJ: What is the most exciting new use of technology in politics?
GR: I think it’s the way things get covered that wouldn’t normally get covered. For example, John Edwards spoke in Nashville yesterday and several bloggers covered it and they posted video and they posted photos on Flickr. You can actually learn a lot more about that speech there than you can from even the coverage in the Nashville papers, much less the national papers, which pretty much ignored it. The next thing people are going to do, and campaigns can do this some, is start aggregating some of that coverage on a daily basis so that you can go to the campaign’s web site and follow this stuff. But I think we’re going to see blogs come into their own as a true reporting medium between now and the election.
MJ: On the flip side, what is the most overhyped use of Internet technology in politics?
GR: Candidates’ use of YouTube. I mean, it’s nice to put your commercials on YouTube, but it’s still a commercial. Anything the candidates do on the web is always going to be drained of life and excitement compared to what people outside the campaign do because campaigns play it safe. They can’t help it.
MJ: Does open-source politics force candidates to be more responsive?
GR: It does. You can’t sit on a story, and you can’t really set the agenda very well. If people are talking about something, you have got to talk about it. But politicians have to be careful—it’s okay to be “responsive,” but the Internet winds shift suddenly, and if you shift with them too much you look weak or opportunistic. Reading blogs gives you an idea what a sector of the electorate thinks, but politicians would be wise to stick to their own beliefs and use the Internet to reach people who share them, or who might be persuaded to share them.
MJ: Will it change the way candidates speak to the public? Will they step away from their talking points?
GR: There’s this weird paradox, in that the more transparent you become, the less spontaneous you can be. For example, you had these stories of people like JFK and LBJ on a campaign airplane, shooting the bull off the record with reporters and saying all kinds of stuff that they would never say now. But there’s no such thing as off the record anymore. You can’t do that. And the result has been, so far, that candidates have gotten stiffer and more scripted. The question is whether at some point that turns around. At some point, the fact that everything is constantly covered means that no particular news is really that big, and people will be able to be more spontaneous again. I don’t think that will happen this election cycle, but I’d love to be wrong.
The Internet is death to phonies. But politicians have a tendency to be phony. It’s better to be honestly awkward than phonily slick.
MJ: Which features of this shift make it more democratic, and which features make it less democratic?
GR: What makes it more democratic is that more people can participate. But the thing that makes it less democratic is the thing that makes all of politics less democratic, which is that most people don’t care enough to participate. You always have a self-selecting minority involved. It’s a bigger self-selecting minority now, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the electorate.
MJ: How heavily do you think elite bloggers, on the left and the right, will be courted by campaigns during this cycle?
GR: Oh, a lot. The thing about so-called elite bloggers is that they provide a certain degree of brand trustworthiness. People say there’s a lot of hostility between blogs and the mainstream media, but it’s really more of a symbiosis. Media often look to elite bloggers to decide if something is worth paying attention to, and vice versa.
MJ: What about bloggers going to work for candidates?
GR: When campaigns hire a blogger, they get a lot of expertise. The blogger, once they work for a candidate, they become part of the candidate’s operation. But the glow wears off pretty fast. Everybody knows they’re not independent anymore. Once I get an email from a blogger I know is working for a campaign, I treat it as campaign spam, because that’s what it is.