No one doubts that social networking produces results in politics, from the Arab Spring to the 2012 election, where President Obama’s ground game made the difference. That ground game was an extension of the 2008 strategy for involving millions of small donors. Suddenly there was a grass-roots movement that made individuals feel as if their actions mattered. Optimists saw a wholesale shift in the democratic process, away from huge corporate donors and the corrupt influence of lobbyists. Small money could beat big money in a presidential election. What happens next?
Social networks and grass-roots democracy via the Internet could change everything, but the way forward is far from clear. Obama has stumped for his fiscal plan to keep us from going over the cliff, but that hasn’t moved any votes in Congress. I’ve entered into the campaign to make the will of the people felt on gun safety issues since the tragedy in Newtown. We’ve reached a point where the Tea Party, the filibuster rule in the Senate, and powerful right-wing money has stymied the will of the majority, a profoundly undemocratic turn of events.
What’s at stake is huge. For at least twenty years a mounting chorus of lament has risen over the selling of American democracy. Indefensible wars, mammoth defense budgets, and political gridlock worsened an already bad situation. With 51% of Congress being composed of millionaires, and with every legislator obsessed over raising money to get re-elected, the country has departed very far from its founding ideals.
Gun safety may be the turning point – some issue has to be. Occupy Wall Street tested Facebook politics and mass demonstrations, attracting huge media coverage but eventually fizzling out when it came to effecting new laws. Idealism remains undiminished, among the Occupy leaders and Internet forces like Move On.org. The younger generation in particular yearns for national unity to accomplish the things that every rational person wants, such as a solution to global warming.
At the moment, democracy is seriously outgunned. Thirty years of right-wing indoctrination can’t be overturned in a day; the corrupting power of lobbyists and big-money contributors has become entrenched and self-fulfilling. Politicians who buck the system are out in the cold. The good news is that we have the answer. Obama’s election and re-election prove that individuals matter, that one-on-one communication works to get out the vote. The techniques have been perfected.
What remains is to win on an issue that goes beyond casting a single vote one day of the year. I hope that gun safety is the one, but it may not be. Patience and persistence are called for. The will of the majority can go astray, as witness the angry frustration that swept the Tea Party into Congress. But it would be worse to have the will of the majority mean nothing, and we have come perilously close to reaching that point. Anti-democracy is the real cliff that we need to back away from.