The Digerati’s White-Collar Populism

December 11, 2008

I’ve been visiting Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) since the spring. The site covers the intersection of politics and IT technology, so the ’08 presidential campaign provided it with daily doses of gee-whizzery: Twitter plus GOTV! Obama plus FaceBook! YouTube plus McCain! Transparency plus the transition! If you’re interested in this kind of thing, the site is a great resource.

But the more I read it, the more clear it is that the professors, bloggers, campaign consultants, journalists and good-government activists behind the site are motivated by an anemic, professionalized kind of populism. This digerati hope that the web, blogs, instant messaging, and other interactive technologies will deepen democracy by increasing the quality and quantity of citizen participation, but their notion of that participation is narrow.

The nub of the problem is apparent in PDF’s manifesto: “Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader…The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero…Citizens are insisting on more openness and transparency from government…All the old institutions and players-big money, top-down parties, big-foot journalism, cloistered organizations-must adapt or face losing status and power…Personal Democracy, where everyone is a full participant, is coming.”

These techno-populist cliches are agreeable to me and many others. Who admits to being a fan of the powerful? Who loves the big foots, and doesn’t love the underdog? But there is something missing here. It’s great if anyone can become a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, a leader…but what about the news reader, the organized, the ad target, the money donor, the follower?

If we piled on thirty amateur reporters, organizers, and money-raisers for every professional, political outcomes might shift, but the numbers still wouldn’t add up for citizen participation. A large majority of citizens would still do their citizenship by maybe following the news, maybe discussing it friends, then voting. In the oncoming transformative gale, how will their situation change?

This question could not interest the digerati less, for many reasons. The first is simply that the digerati like what they do, and think everyone should be doing it. Especially at PDF, they hang huge hopes on abolishing the distinction between professional and amateur. Since what they do (often searching, analyzing and presenting information) is the essence of citizenship, they think that the more people do it, the more vibrant democracy will be.

Given their investment in the idea of citizen-producers, it’s no surprise that the digerati don’t take an interest in voting and people who just vote. Because that’s a bit passive and declasse, no? It’s like Homer on the couch, watching the tube and grinding down barbecue chips…not something you can put in your resume or Harvard application.

I realized that that digerati systematically took the perspective of the manager rather than voter, user, or consumer while clicking through a web volume in which a group of PDF digerati were asked to generate big-think ideas about political reform. To my surprise, under this dream-big rubric, nary a word was written about direct democracy.

I expected at least preliminary or offhand critiques. If a non-digerati person were to sit in a coffeeshop across from a group of digerati engaged in animated conversation, throwing out buzzwords like “web”, “participation,” “bottom up”, “politics”, “transformation,” it would be entirely understandable if this person guessed that the topic was “Internet voting,” maybe on initiatives.

But that guess would be wrong. Not only wrong but completely, wildly out of nowhere, since direct democracy does not enter the discussion. The digerati don’t even have to be against it.

This omission is partly explained by our egalitarian political rhetoric. Lots of people are against mass participation in decision-making. But it’s often difficult to say so tactfully. Only hard-core conservatives, defenders of hierarchy in the marketplace, family, and politics, regularly find the words: “Republic not a democracy…the decider decides…less politics is better politics.”

In fact, the digerati are especially tongue-tied because they tend be liberals, and while liberals are committed by ideology to social equality and political process, the reality is complicated. After a few titanic breakthroughs in the middle of 20th century, liberals have been either losing or barely hanging on for a long, long time. As a liberal who has known lots of liberals, I can say with frank confidence that they mistrust voters.

The election of Barack Obama might start to reverse this long-reinforced mistrust. Meanwhile, when the digerati herald the virtues of participation, listen closely. Do they expect citizens to be magically transformed by participation per se? The digerati have good reason to stress civic education over voter power.

Another reason the digerati ignore vulgar modes of political participation is that they are overwhelmingly white-collar folks, experts and professionals with advanced degrees and Blackberries. They respect expertise and deft management, but untutored public opinion? Not so much.

This is not the whole story, either, because the digerati belong to a particular subset of white-collars. In short, they’re in management but not of it, not quite the man. They cluster in jobs (teacher, social worker, organizer) that either operate in the public or non-profit sector, or offer strong professional identities (journalist, lawyer). They see themselves as a counter-elite balancing out corporations, and their middleman position leads them to place great faith in process, rules and transparency, fixate on corruption, and attribute regenerative powers to post-political or a-political “civics.”

This might sound like white liberals at the left wing of the Democratic party since the seventies. In fact, the political style of the professionals predates the seventies and has been remarkable consistent for over a hundred years, even as it slides along the left-right axis. Since the Progressive era, good-government types have been against the big guys, though not necessarily for the little guys.

Sites like PDF and its sister site the Sunlight Foundation can be understood as watering holes for reborn Progressives. PDF is almost entirely consumed by questions of political technique: How does a good campaign manager maximize the impact of social media? If they take care of the civic engagement side of the Progressive equation, the Sunlight Foundation take care of its regulatory, rules-of-order side, churning out site after site linking lobbyists and politicians and diligently making the case for full-scale government disclosure rules.

Let me also be absolutely clear about what I am not doing when I drop a pinch of sociology and history on the heads of the digerati. I’m not teasing them: “La la la la la la…you’re NOT the people!” I think America has a healthy variety of peoples and elites, and all of its many populisms are bogus with partiality. So it’s perfectly natural and no biggie if the digerati’s populism is slanted towards themselves.

I’m not even criticizing the content of their populism per se. Right now, it’s damned interesting to be a white-collar in the swirling vortex of an information revolution. Who’s the expert now? Who’s in charge? Politics is being rethought in the casual, tinkering fashion that one might construct a mailing list or a wiki. There’s an almost a Constitutional feel in the air, and given their history and preoccupations, some white-collars are in an excellent position to breathe it. So I’m glad that the digerati are willing to open up their professions to plucky amateurs, and that–like American businessmen–they are ready to feed their big-footed fellows to the fishes. And who could be against lobbyists being exposed?

It’s just disappointing. If you share–as I do–the digerati’s vision of a opened-up politic sphere, their idea of participation falls short. Everybody a wonk or a politico? An idealization of participation accompanied by a fear of participation? A technocratic focus on technique, procedure and transparency? Is this it?

In the current post-election, pre-inaugural hangover, a similar sense of disappointment seemed to emanate from PDF contributors. There’s a series of hand-wringing posts about the transition and the fate of the Obama campaign apparatus, culminating in this post by the editor-in-chief. The central worry has been that bottom-up campaigning would be displaced by top-down governing: Would the transition be transparent? Would the transition site allow comments? What would happen to the newly trained and victorious organizers? Would they be absorbed into the party, form a non-profit, or remain in the service of Obama, Hugo-Chavez-style?

Good questions. But this fretting about preserving bottom-up-ism seems weirdly insistent. The whole notion of top-down/bottom-up can be pretty abstract. For any given technique, dynamic or institution, there are going to be elements that can be called top-down and elements that can be called bottom-up, and they will mix freely.

And to get a sense of this mutability, there’s probably not a better place in the world to go than the PDF site itself. So why the quasi-theological fretting? My sense is that the digerati are primed for disappointment. Of course nothing can quite compare to pure bottom-up-ism, whatever that might be. But this disappointment won’t ultimately matter a whit. The flip side of their idealism is a complacency as prominent as the enunciations on NPR. They want their participation just so, not too hot, not too cold. If they don’t get it just right, there’s always another consultant gig or conference. Like a bunch of scholars divvying up sixteenth-century Spain, they are settling in. This is their thing, for now.


7 Responses to “The Digerati’s White-Collar Populism”

  1. Paul Evans Says:

    I think you have them bang-to-rights here Matt. Watching the PDF you get the sense that there is an inconvenient parallel universe of politics that will hopefully just go away in due course.

    It circles politics rather than looking at why the relationship between politicians and voters is the way it is, and how that could be tweaked by emerging forms of interactivity. I’d add one observation to yours here: This is a social caste – one that competes with another social caste – the elected bureaucracy. They compete with it – and their successes (such as they are) are successes at the expense of the rest of us – those for whom representative government is the least-worst option and the way of guaranteeing the highest available level of equality in representation.

    In their defence, a good deal of their efforts could be at the expense of the other rivals that elected representatives have – the pressure groups, the media interests, the lawyers, the permanent bureaucracy and so on.

    It’s not an Epic Fail by any means – but it has to be understood to be less of an unreproachable public good than it is currently.

  2. Matt Garland Says:

    @Paul: I’ll admit this post is a bit crabby about PDFers. You’re right, they’re just one group of among many competing for political power, and a fairly benevolent one at that.

    I’m only singling them out because I share their goal–a more interactive, participatory politics. I just don’t think that their means towards this end (strengthening the hand of public-interest watchdogs and making political organizing easier) will be that effective.

    The big game is, as you say, “the relationship between politicians and voters is the way it is, and how that could be tweaked by emerging forms of interactivity.” This is a wide-open and hugely consequential field…and a lot more interesting than Twitter plus GOTV, or what API the Senate should use to stream video.

  3. commonsguy Says:

    You appear to want greater real power afforded to a public empowered to provide their opinions. So do I.

    For that to have utility, though, the public needs to have ways to inform themselves about the issues of the day in ways that scale to their level of interest, topic by topic — some topics deeply, many topics shallowly if at all. Making that possible actually requires real honest-to-God work on things you denigrate (“what API the Senate should use to stream video”, “site after site linking lobbyists and politicians”, etc.) often times working with or against people in the “inconvenient parallel universe of politics”.

    You also may think that launching will cause everyone to beat a path to your door. That may work with a segment of the population already used to “voting” with their clicks. For a large swath of the population, though, getting them to use such services will come from calls to action by traditional political processes — the very “how does a good campaign manager maximize the impact of social media?” stuff you bash.

    And some of the discussion around “civics” actually is trying to figure out the proper ways to build sites like — ways that prevent any single entity, public or private, from claiming to represent the will of the people without adequate proof. That’s my particular cup of tea, anyway.

    In fact, most of what you complain that PDF folk are working on is stuff that you might build upon, someday, once you get up and rolling. I too am working on tech, and I thank the digerati for all they are doing to gather the experience and lay the groundwork for each new generation of personal democracy engines, formal and informal.

    PDF-cum-digerati are no more a “social caste” than are season ticket holders for the Giants (SF or NY, your choice). Anybody can play, given expertise in tech, politics, or both. Once you get to exist — and I wish you luck in that endeavor — you’ll be among them.

  4. Matt Garland Says:

    @commonsguy: Okay, again, I’ve been crabby. I’m definitely NOT against using social media for campaigns, or putting up Sunlight-type exposes, or using any kind of political suasion to get people to adopt tech in a way that ultimately empowers them, or sussing out the details of disclosure or video APIs. Of course, this work on all fronts could fertilize something.

    I’m totally curious to see what you’re working on. Email me if you like, I can keep a secret. However, if it engages ordinary, non-specialist and and non-activist people, when it sees the light of day and gets some traction, I’ll bet your relations with PDF-style digerati will be less amicable than you suggest.

    There’s a fight coming up. So far the digerati have been unperturbed in their possession of digital populism. But at some point (the 20th season of American Idol?) it will become intolerably clear that there is only one way to engage and energize ordinary citizens: to allow them to participate at the point of decision. APIs and wikis are just not as interesting as decisions.

    Then the fight will be on between those who want to use APIs and wikis and social networking in order to reinforce traditional indirect modes of participation (organizing, reporting, money-raising) and those who want to use the same tool set to help create new forums, interfaces and institutions that allow people direct access to power.

    That’s a fight I look forward to having. In the other posts in this blog you’ll see some propositions for non-traditional, usability-enhanced forms of direct democracy, which might or might not be completely nutty. You might already be brewing better modes of participation.

    Either way, if people participate more directly in power, it would IMHO have the advantage of ALSO increasing indirect modes of political participation. If people could vote on the budget, wouldn’t they be more likely to go to your “true opinion” site, or cruise around that barely usable Sunlight site, or add politics to their social networking?

    So I don’t think that it will ultimately be either/or…but don’t underestimate the resistance among the avante-garde. A lot of people say they are for deepening democracy, but they have a very, very particular idea how that democracy should look.

  5. commonsguy Says:

    “Then the fight will be on between those who want to use APIs and wikis and social networking in order to reinforce traditional indirect modes of participation (organizing, reporting, money-raising) and those who want to use the same tool set to help create new forums, interfaces and institutions that allow people direct access to power.”

    Will there be a conflict? Sure.

    You paint a picture, though, that all the “PDF-style digerati” be on one side of the conflict, opposing what you seek. I highly doubt that. I’m not even sure a majority will be opposed to the notion. For example, you repeatedly denigrate the Sunlight Foundation folk, but what proof, if any, do you have that they would be opposed to a greater public voice in decision-making?

    There are certainly those who come at the problem in an incrementalist fashion, starting with “politics as usual” as the foundation. They will probably be the least likely to jump headlong into a movement that attacks that foundation. Not all the “PDF-style digerati” are of that mindset.

    “If people could vote on the budget, wouldn’t they be more likely to go to your “true opinion” site, or cruise around that barely usable Sunlight site, or add politics to their social networking?”

    Sure. However, you have a cart-horse inversion here. You are complaining that people are building things you say you want built, but you want your thing built first. Your thing doesn’t exist yet. Bitching at people for scratching their own itches rather than scratching yours doesn’t really sit well.

    “A lot of people say they are for deepening democracy, but they have a very, very particular idea how that democracy should look.”

    Of course. Opinions abound, and strong opinions abound strongly.

    For example, there are people who think Ruby on Rails is the cat’s meow. There are people who think Ruby on Rails is for sux0rs. There’s the occasional weirdo like me who loves Ruby but thinks Rails is “meh”. Last I checked, the world is still spinning on its axis, despite these differences in opinion.

    However, if you think the “PDF-style digerati” won’t like your ideas, just wait. There are many more people who will like your ideas even less. Some of them have guns, and a subset of them will consider using them.

    Had your original piece been “gee, what these ‘PDF-style digerati’ are doing is cute and all, but isn’t it garnish awaiting a main course?”, then I wouldn’t have quibbled one iota. For whatever reason, you decided to bash the people, not the results. And since I’m arguably one of those people, I take some exception to being bashed.

    If you want to fight the “PDF-style digerati”, then I recommend you follow a standard open source credo: let your code do the talking.

  6. Matt Garland Says:

    You’re right, the site’s the thing. That will be the best argument as well as the best argument-starter.

    I wouldn’t back away from the main contention of the post (that PDFers have an idea of participation that is narrow and class-bound) but I admit it would sound less crabby if the alternative had a url. Working on it.

  7. […] campaign infrastructure as it moves from campaign season into the White House has consumed the Digitalati, that subset of the professional political and journalistic class that focuses on the intersection […]

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