Thursday, June 14, 2007

Joe Trippi on 'Politics 2.0'

Britain and America's summary of the event yesterday with Joe Trippi, author of Howard Dean's incredible Internet grassroots campaign, is a good one. My impression, though, is that we are a long way from seeing the sort of bottom up politics that the speakers were talking about rising to prominence in the UK.

Trippi's explanation for why the UK was lagging was that the relatively short election campaigns that are the result of flexible election timing, by comparison with the near permanent US campaign, prevent the proper use of the Internet and social networks by politicians and groups who want to influence an election. These networks take time to build and are not given that time by organisations that expect a result within the busy few weeks before an election.

I'd suggest a different explanation. The blogs are obsessed with the parties. Even high-minded blogs will devote at least a quarter of their output to what members of parliament are saying. I think this means that the dialogue can't really stand on its own. It isn't only the blogs that display this way of thinking. Think-tanks are far too prone to judge themselves by the extent that they can influence political parties rather than the extent to which they directly affect the broader public debate. You can see it in the rationale for the UKIP, the logic that if a party doesn't represent your views they are unrepresented. We see parties as almost the be all and end all of politics rather than a particular mechanism for building a majority to govern.

This obsession with parties Daniel Finkelstein, at the event as a sort of discussant, saw emerging out of a need to effectively ration the scarce resource of the media's attention, "shelf space" as he termed it. It seems equally plausible that party loyalty emerged out of a relatively uniform set of political divisions in the post-war period, a particular ideological struggle with the rise of the social democrats clashing with the conservative-liberal tradition. Either way, that the original rationale for party obsession is fading does not necessarily mean that we will automatically turn back to a less party-focussed politics.

If we wish to build a genuine bottom-up politics we will need to see a deeper change than the technological ability to self-publish. There will need to be a change in the British understanding of how politics is conducted.

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