CafeSentido.com :: The election of 2008 is historic for a variety of reasons: it saw the election of the first African American president, a second consecutive “wave election” —not seen since 1930 and ‘32—, saw two women come very close to the most powerful job in the world, mobilized millions of voters and saw record amounts of fundraising from “small donors”. It was, however, also a watershed moment in the fundamental decentralization of the American political process.
New media have turned out to be a revolution in the manner in which political campaigns and political reporting are organized and conducted. The main features of this revolution are not the specific technological improvements of digital advances, but the extent to which digital technologies have advanced the decentralization of information, influence and information gathering.
Readers can now aggregate their own personalized mosaic of news features; they can write for multiple blogs, comment on major newspaper websites, and stream video to their own screen at their selection, choosing from a cross-section of major news outlets and independent venues. The ‘role of the reader’ is no longer an abstract conceptual analysis of literary theory, but has genuinely come to revolutionize and reform the nature, pace and scope, of news and public discourse.
YouTube, which didn’t even exist during the 2004 elections, co-hosted debates for the 2008 elections, during the primaries and the general election. The now Google-owned upstart video-based social network created a specific ‘Meet the Candidates’ section, which followed the politicians, the political winds, the landscape of public opinion, and performed sometimes blunted sometimes incisive media analysis, all with the user-based being the root production method, the governing resource for content-creation.
‘We the People’, so to speak, have found a voice through online media, and that application of individual thought and analysis to a broader, less centrally-controlled public debate about issues and character, has allowed a wholesale reformation of the role of campaigner, whether staffer or candidate. The candidate must reach out to the individual voting mind through new media that are helping to distill, organize and express individual points of view. The campaign must be forthright, open, and interested in hearing what the listeners have to say.
Barack Obama has been given credit, and rightly so, for his campaign’s apparent mastery of the online environment. But the old standard-bearers of Washington party-politics still misunderstand the phenomenon, attributing Obama’s success to some sort of brilliant master plan of central control they believe rests in socialist urges and ideological definition.
In fact, Obama’s mastery of the online medium is most readily attributable to 1) his feeling for community involvement in effective government, and 2) his willingness to test his ideas against the actual needs and situations of his audience, by letting them speak. This is not the same as a poll-driven centralized ‘political machine’. Obama gave ‘ownership’ of his campaign to the millions of supporters who believed in his message, and as a result, his message and their message were able to converge and to function as one hopeful chorus of voices, powerfully expounding on the needs and the urgency of the political moment.
This is, to some analysts, mere charisma, or feeling the zeitgeist, but we would all be better served by examining how it is that Barack Obama’s uniquely poised and informed personal judgment allowed him to recognize what constitutes the new paradigm in national American politics: the realization, insofar as is possible, of an actual ‘voice of the people’ in constant dialogue with the political establishment and the mainstream media.
By farming out the community blog section of his campaign site to supporters, Obama allowed them to find their own voice, to gather together around ideas they cared about, and to induce the best ideas to ‘bubble up’ to the surface, where the campaign could best understand what was driving people to back Obama’s message, which was not itself driven by shifts in polling responses or by his online community’s commentary.
Instead, Obama’s message remained largely the same, but was able to combine his unique quality of poetry and vision with the language of longing and principle he found his supporters using to talk about and to organize for his campaign. It was this convergence of communication and vision, this new democracy of input and public debate, this permanent town-hall environment, that allowed Obama’s surging oratory and impassioned crowds to swell and reach ever greater heights.
By the date of 4 November 2008, Obama had gone from being an outsider people thought was too inexperienced and too idealistic to be elected to national office to the candidate who seemed all but inevitable in an historic triumph over a tested and revered statesman of many decades of experience in government. De-centralization is what built the ground under Obama and raised him to that perch of historic relevance.
Viral video, the political blogosphere, small-donor campaigns, and brush-fire fundraising —immediate response to planned coordinated attacks and/or emerging controversies— are reshaping the American political spectrum, because ideas can now be tested in the courts of public opinion and against the genuine energies of individual thought. Individuals from all walks of life can commune in debate on social networking sites or news aggregators to test the coherence, viability, or long-term societal value of any given idea.
The superficiality of the era of hyper-reality —where the virtual and the imitative meet the concrete and the experiential— is actually providing new media that allow for deeper evaluation of what might actually be the best ideas, despite apparent complexity or clumsiness in presentation or timing. Pres. Obama took office with a database of 13 million impassioned supporters, a larger online following than either of the two ‘major parties’, one of which is now being entirely restructured around his organizational success.
2010 and 2012 will be viral elections, and the secret to success in the viral public square is: speak the truth, care enough, offer serious solutions. It is entirely feasible that by the 2012 elections, a third party will have emerged as the main alternative choice in this new historical period of the viral public square. And we’ll all be watching… around the clock… wherever we browse.