Running Lame Most presidential candidates stumble online
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, August 4, 1999
The Internet has the potential to transform national politics. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen this year thanks to the way most presidential candidates are using it (with the possible exception of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley).
Rather than using the Internet to inspire, involve and organize masses of voters, most of the presidential candidates mistakenly see the ‘Net primarily as just one more venue to solicit campaign contributions.
Once upon a time, of course, political leadership was all about defining problems, building teams, articulating a vision and inspiring others, not just raising money. It will take a savvy candidate to recognize the Internet’s potential to bring these qualities back into the political arena.
Ironically, the Republican presidential candidates who often say they favor decentralization, returning power to individuals and relying on volunteerism, aren’t using the Internet to campaign that way.
Instead, pleas to send money to headquarters are the central feature on nearly every Republican presidential campaign website.
Take, for example, the page where former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander tells people surfing his site how they can build momentum for his campaign. They can, Alexander says, send him a check. Now there’s a stunner!
Some candidates do a slightly better job of camouflaging their panhandling than others through better use of technology. In almost every instance, however, their web magic is wasted on self-aggrandizing strutting that has no real message.
Texas Governor George W. Bush’s site, for example, features a streaming real video link that lets visitors watch the nearly one hour long announcement of his candidacy. Even if you watch the whole thing, though, you don’t get much of a sense about what he would do if elected.
To be sure, Bush does a better job online than his Dad’s running mate, former Vice President Dan Quayle. Apparently no one has yet told Quayle about streaming video. Quayle’s site features a far less robust Quicktime format that consumes about a half hour, at average download speeds, to convey three sentences from a recent speech. How self-absorbed does a candidate have to be to think people would wait half an hour to hear three sentences? Or that they wouldn’t be disappointed when they finally learn the sentences hardly say anything?
Although there are some other breathtakingly egomaniacal diversions on candidate websites (check out, for example, conservative activist Gary Bauer’s modest little homepage), in general tin cups are the guts of nearly every one of these sites.
It seems shortsighted to use the Internet to try to raise money to fund an old-fashioned, top-down political campaign without ever once stopping to consider how the Internet itself could make that kind of a campaign obsolete.
Companies like e-trade.com, e-bay.com and AOL pull in so many customers that their servers sometimes crash. A candidate who used the Internet to convey real ideas about stuff that matters could do the same thing. The Internet’s greatest power is its ability to bring communities of like-minded individuals together in common purpose. That is what one day will make the biggest difference to a political campaign.
I’m not talking about using the Internet to sign up campaign volunteers, something all the candidate websites already do. The problem with those ubiquitous online volunteer sign up sheets is they are rooted in a pre-Internet understanding of how groups are formed and led.
In that old style, campaign managers pass around clipboards, and people sign up. Then, if the campaign has enough money and administrative prowess, the volunteers are eventually contacted and maybe even given something to do. It’s all very hierarchical, representing a boss-subordinate, working-at-IBM-in-the-1950’s kind of world view.
The Internet, however, is about creating an entirely different world where groups come together and, all by themselves, create new realities.
How successful would Linux-namesake Linus Torvolds have been if, rather than create an opportunity for collaboration among equals, he had merely asked people to send him money so he could develop a new computer operating system?
Our technophilic vice president, Al Gore, wisely tips his hat to the open source community on his website. Gore deserves credit for making the source code for his site available and inviting programmers to contribute site-enhancing code modifications. The 100 or so programmers who’ve taken him up so far have already left the Veep with a sleeker, more technically up-to-date web presence. If you have the right Comet cursor software (www.cometsystems.com/get/get.html), for example, your cursor will morph into a cool little Gore 2000 icon while you cruise the site.
What Gore is missing, though, is that open source software, and the movement it represents, is about much more than software.
It’s about the human instinct to help one another.
Programmers are not the only people who have this instinct, although they have been among the first groups on the web to give it expression. There are undoubtedly lots of other Americans who are as likely, probably even more so, to roll-up their sleeves in the service of some higher ideal. That is if that higher purpose is expressed with some measure of clarity, conviction and credibility.
You get a glimpse of what is possible at the Bill Bradley for President website.
Bradley’s site offers visitors a chance to download a Community Involvement Kit (to find it, click the Get Involved icon on the homepage). Whoever put the kit together understands that people who use the Internet, in words immortalized in “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” don’t need “no stinking badges.”
Instead, Bradley’s Community Involvement Kit encourages volunteers to take his campaign into their own hands. No registering with headquarters to get permission first. No waiting for some high-priced campaign consultant to give you a call. Instead, people downloading the kit get instructions on how to create their own local Bradley for President headquarters.
The only thing the Bradley campaign asks is that, if they want to do so, people creating new local support organizations let the national Bradley campaign know what they are up to from time to time so the Bradley web site can provide information about their location and activities.
Some of the other candidates come close to Bradley’s superior use of the Internet. Gore’s site, for example, invites people to submit videos and multimedia presentations for review. Some of those that pass muster will eventually be uploaded to the site. Combined with his “Town Hall” — where Gore answers a few e-mailed questions — it’s a welcome, although sadly feeble, stab at making online communication more of a two-way street.
Likewise, Steve Forbes‘ over-produced website offers a multilevel marketing, pyramid incentive scheme (figures, right?) where volunteers win points and prizes based on how many people they recruit online. Recruit 5000 cyber-volunteers who register with headquarters, and you are an “e-member” of Forbes’ National Committee. A similar performance for Gore could earn you the title of “statewide online director.”
It’s a good try. But it is all so disembodied. Internet users aren’t e-people. They are people. They live in communities. And they have much more to offer a political campaign than just their checkbooks.
Sooner or later, some candidate is going to come along and do for politics what Torvalds did for software. While a lot of Americans aren’t online yet, it’s a safe bet that most of those who are, vote. They are ready, we are ready, for a presidential candidate willing to go over the heads of the conventional media and able to lead us in the proven, decentralized group processes the Internet now makes possible.
Bill Bradley’s website offers a ray of hope that online politics might be moving toward that more personal, human-centered, less money-grubbing direction. If he succeeds in bringing more people into the process, Bradley could even help elevate individuals, ideas and objectives over money.
But if we really do want to see the Internet create a politics where people matter as much as cash, we’ll undoubtedly have to take on that job ourselves.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.