As a boy, I remember riding on El Camino Real in Palo Alto and seeing the local headquarters for the Elks and Kiwanis. For two years, I played on a Little League team sponsored by the Lions.
As Theda Skocpol wrote in “Diminished Democracy,” changes in society — especially the protests and demonstrations during the 1960s — have disrupted how we organize ourselves. Those civic groups are a casualty as a result.
Women, African-Americans and Latinos – who traditionally did not belong to the civic groups — have gotten better access to good jobs and good schooling in recent decades.
With the decline of the civic groups came the rise of advocacy groups, many of them based in Washington, D.C. They have been led by what Skocpol described as the “professional class” — highly educated and rootless people.
I have first-hand knowledge of that phenomenon because I set out for Washington after graduating from college and got a job as editor of “People & Taxes,” a monthly newspaper published by Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen.
I would defend my work and that of other idealistic colleagues, but the rise of groups like Public Citizen (on the left and the right) are a key part of what Skocpol describes as the diminished democracy. “Today’s advoacy groups are top-down, even when they claim to speak for ordinary people,” she wrote in Chapter 6. “A big gap has opened between local voluntary efforts and professional advocates who seek national influence.”
Another part of that “diminished democracy” could be what Yochai Benkler described in “The Wealth of Networks” as a top-down media where elite broadcasters and newspapers decided what news citizens would get. Ordinary people had a voice, at best, in the letters to the editor column.
The Internet has disrupted the top-down system described by Skocpol and Benkler. In the new “flat world,” anyone can have a platform. Ordinary people can push back against the experts and the mdia elites.
In “The Wealth of Networks,” Benkler also described how left-leaning citizens used the web to organize an advertising boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting in 2004 to protest its decision to braodcast a slanted documentary against John Kerry. He also described how ordinary citizens discovered that Diebold could potentially skew election results with its paper-less voter machines and then publicized these concerns, despite Diebold’s best efforts to stop them. Before Web 2.0, Sinclair and Diebold would have almost certainly pushed forwarded with few impediments.
In the Digital Age, ordinary citizens can become pundits and gain a following.
In his talk yesterday at the Kennedy School, New York Times political writer Matt Bai described how a businessman in Utah — who thought government was becoming too intrusive — decided to organize a Tea Party movement in Utah using the tools of Social Media. This businessman was so successful that he is now running for governor of Utah, Bai said.
Bai applauded these new form of democracy. I applaud them, too.