Last week I was at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), the annual gathering of technologists, political activists, entrepreneurs and many others focused on the ways that the Internet is playing a role in government and society. As it does every year, PDF had an interesting and thought provoking range of speakers and panels. The event was inspiring both in the activities of many of these individuals and the sheer creative ambition that drives them.
With more than 140 speakers in both plenary sessions and breakouts, it is not physically possible to hear everyone. But something was bothering me in many of these sessions I did attend.
It was brought home by Anthea Watson Strong’s reference to the Calculus of Voting written many years ago by the political scientists William Riker and Peter Ordeshook. This was a relatively rare moment in which someone explicitly or implicitly referred back to previous research and analysis of political behavior.
And in a breakout session, Ben Berkowitz, the founder/CEO of the very useful and successful SeeClickFix, rightly expressed concerns about the focus of many activists on just the next election. He asked for a new approach – a consistent effort, an organization, that helps people with the daily public issues and annoyances that bother them.
I told him that there used to be organizations that did just that – the old urban political machines. They were building long term supporters for a party, so their timeframe was more than just the next election campaign of one politician. While they helped people with their problems, of course, the old machines were also corrupt. A modern more ethical version may be what he’s looking for. Not a new idea, just a better one. (For a recent assessment of the political machines of the 19th and early 20th centuries, see Terry Golway’s book “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics”.)
This was one of several examples in which more historical context would have been helpful.
Perhaps it was entrepreneurial enthusiasm to push ahead and not look back. Perhaps it was a matter of being so convinced that what you’re doing is so new, no one before you could have something of value to contribute to your thought process. (I have to admit that this is something I’ve also been guilty of myself in some of my entrepreneurial enthusiasms.)
Newton famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In the world of political technology this means understanding previous political thought and analysis, history and modern research on political behavior.
Most people in the audience were excited by the possibilities for true democratic governance that the Internet and related tools make possible, including me. But to accelerate this movement there needs to be more context and deeper knowledge on the part of the creators and activists.
Otherwise, we end up becoming another example of the old story about reinventing the wheel. Not only is that wasted effort, but, without learning, each new reinvention of the wheel seems to start out as immature as the last one. In turn, that immaturity and lack of progress may dampen the potential engagement of the larger number of potential citizen activists which the PDF movement will need.
© 2014 Norman Jacknis