Consider the Lawn Sign: elections as civic engagement


Cross-posted from the Center for Civic Media blog.

Last week I had the chance to watch one of the world’s great electoral-political spectacles – the New Hampshire primary – up close. It wasn’t by any means my first dalliance with American politics: I’ve had at least a loose involvement in the fascinating and frequently Freudian process by which Americans elect their leaders for several cycles now. But this time I saw the process through a slightly different lens.

My primary academic interest has for many years been – and remains – the impact that the digital revolution is having on our political discussion and decision-making. Much hype in this area surrounds the success of sophisticated, data-driven targeting of voters at a granular level, with special praise deservedly reserved for the Obama re-election operation in 2012. That the mechanics of this approach reside in the shadowy realm of algorithms only adds to the allure: the temptation to revere what we can’t fully see (and what most of us don’t fully understand) is strong. Yet from the perspective of organizers on the ground, “retail politics” remains alive and well in New Hampshire. Sure, the lists of exactly which phone number to dial and which door to knock on are generated out of sight and mind of people on the ground, and all the outcomes of these conversations are ultimately fed back into a centralized database. But the conversations count for more than the calculations which yield them.

The phrase “once every four years” has become almost shorthand for the antithesis of civic engagement – the most minimal obligation a country should expect from its people (or those able to vote, at least). But in New Hampshire at least it’s not difficult to see the seeds of a more fully realized democratic process in action. Young people get their first taste of activism. Small business owners get the chance to explain their priorities to putative presidents face to face. And many people find solace in the sense that by participating they are helping to reorient the country in a more favorable direction.

Yet to be sure, there are fundamental inequities at play too. New Hampshire is disproportionately privileged by its place in the primary election calendar, a historical accident compounded in its ethical implications by the fact that it is, in the words of one fictional candidate, “as diverse as a Mayflower reunion”.

Nonetheless, the thesis that election campaigns are a valid and/or valuable form of civic engagement seems like an interesting one to examine. To test this more robustly, let’s hold up as a yardstick ‘ten tenets of civic media’ as decided upon by my classmates and I in our first session. We decided on these collaboratively and (mostly) consensually using the InterTwinkles platform.

First, some of our criteria are clearly met in the primary election process. Primary elections are, almost by definition, “likely to incite or inspire change”, since they are geared towards electing a new candidate – at least when they are contested. It is also fairly straightforward to argue that primary elections “provide pathways to action”, assuming that actually turning out to vote constitutes action – no matter how ‘thin’ this might be. (And Ethan Zuckerman has convincingly argued why the ‘thinness’ of voting is itself a necessity.) I was also persuaded, at least in the case of New Hampshire, that the primary “fosters dialog” – mostly, for what it’s worth, of a civil sort – on the doorsteps of prospective voters; that primaries can “foster individual and community development”; and that the campaign “is not predicated on platforms alone”.

Yet the remaining seven tenets pose more serious problems for the idea of primary elections as a meaningful form of civic engagement. Some are up for debate: are modern elections “participatory, contributory and citizen-led”? The ironically-named Citizens United ruling has certainly enabled a very narrow segment of citizens – the super-wealthy – to take the lead, at the expense of less privileged voices. But consider this tweet recently sent by Clay Shirky:

“Online fundraising let outsiders raise funds, and it became a symbol of purity. Anyone *not* raising money at $25 a pop is now a plutocrat.”

Shirky’s contention that small amounts of money – typically donated online – are at least symbolically beneficial to recipient candidates emphasises the potentially participatory and contributory nature of modern elections, even (or perhaps especially) following Citizens. (And a recent the send-up of Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live suggests that Sanders’ oft-repeated “average donation” claim has become a popular catchphrase.) This debate also complicates the question as to whether primaries are “inclusive and give space to voices that are normally marginalized in society”, another of our ten tenets.

Yet the potential for the primary election system to “reproduce structural inequality” is harder to refute. Notwithstanding the unfair primary calendar already cited as a serious problem, on a more general level elections also privilege those with the time, resources and often education enabling them to get involved. It’s not hard to see how it would be these volunteers’ views and perspectives which are given priority by the candidates who receive their support. On the individual level, every new person getting involved in the political process is something to be celebrated as a counterweight to the influence of big money in politics. But in the aggregate, the precise makeup of this group of democratic ‘super-users’ is worth considering, in terms of the effect it has on the overall policy platform which results.

For similar reasons, the idea that the primary process “challenges power structures, normative culture and contextual assumptions” is tough to argue for, even in the case of insurgent campaigns. Finally, it’s not clear that election campaigns “are accountable to their users”, but, rather, are typically hierarchical in nature, even if local community (self-)organization is increasingly prioritized.

Overall, clearly primary election campaigns are not therefore the gold standard in civic engagement, at least judged by our predefined standards. Yet it was encouraging to see how, in certain ways, election campaigns nonetheless incorporate some of the principles and practices of civic media. The idea that campaigns serve as a relatively accessible breeding ground for young activists to get their first taste of community-building and change-making is particularly heartening. So while the current primary campaign might seem to be giving a platform to the very worst political postures and ideological impulses, it’s worth keeping in mind the thousands of ordinary people for whom this election represents the beginning of a lifelong journey of civic engagement.


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