Hacking Democracy

Two US presidential campaigns made a big stir by using the Internet as a two-way medium. The innovators got clobbered by Big Television this time, but the software is open source and ready for the next round.
A Long Strange Trip

My own involvement in this story, however, began more than a year earlier, on June 26, 2002, at the New York launch of eThePeople.org, a “public forum for a new democracy conversation”. I was the featured speaker, recruited for having coined the phrase “markets are conversations,” which was the opening thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto and an inspiration for eThePeople's statement of purpose. Here's how that goes:

Democracy is a conversation. It's a dialogue that includes politicians, interest groups, parties, journalists, lobbyists, pollsters, letter-writers, campaign contributors, protesters and voters. It's an ongoing negotiation about how our priorities and our values should translate into public policy.

eThePeople built their site on Linux. So did Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp, which was launched just 12 days earlier. Scott was there for the party and to let me know about MeetUp's Linux foundations. MeetUp went on to become the most important commercial accessory to democracy since the tavern. More than 165,000 people joined MeetUps for Howard Dean alone.

Britt called me so often from Dean Campaign headquarters in Vermont that I felt like I personally knew everybody there. Some of them knew me first, however, because the campaign consciously borrowed what The Cluetrain Manifesto said about networked markets and applied it to voters. Cluetrain said, “Markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” The Dean campaign said, “Networked citizens get smarter faster than most campaigns.”

More than 600,000 people joined the campaign, and an untold percentage of them were out in the world, stumping hard for the candidate, producing materials, holding meetings and rallies—with less direct guidance from the top than perhaps any campaign in the country's history. More than one volunteer told me the campaign was less a bandwagon than a runaway train.

I got a surprise ride on that train last summer when I wrote a piece called “Saving the Net” for the Linux Journal Web site. It went up on Monday, July 21. Two days later, on BlogForAmerica, the Dean Campaign Weblog, Matt Gross wrote a post titled “Saving the Net, and Politics, According to Doc Searls, or Bringing out the Bat”. The post was a challenge to raise more money than Vice President Dick Cheney was scheduled to raise at a $2,000/plate dinner the next Monday in South Carolina. The punch paragraph:

We're thinking about bringing out the bat on Monday the 28th. We're thinking that you could demonstrate to Dick Cheney that there is another way to raise $250,000 in one day—through the people who own this democracy, rather than the special interests that buy it. What do you think? Should we bring out the bat? What should we call the event?

Comments, as always, ran in the hundreds. By Saturday morning they had $82,260.28, and one hour before Monday, they passed $250,000. The final tally (although I'm told it continued to go higher): $508,540.31 contributed by 9,601 people. That's an average of $52.97 apiece.

As Britt and others explained later, the people turning up the steam during this whole run-up weren't the campaign workers posting progress reports on the blog. It was the people down in the blog's comments section. Opening up comments on the campaign blog was like sinking an artesian well into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of supporters.

My visit to the campaign came right before the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004. The energy at headquarters was at maximum, and everything seemed to be on track for a series of wins in the primaries. The day after I returned to New York (for LinuxWorld Expo), Dean lost the Iowa Caucuses, coming in third. That night he uttered his famous “scream”, which ABC News admits playing a total of “700 times in a few days”. The rest is history.

Or maybe not. Oddly, DeanForAmerica.com comments kept rolling on. There were expressions of sympathy for the bombings in Madrid, suggestions for Kerry cabinet members and practical ideas to continue applying the energy that persisted in the campaign, even while few outside the campaign seemed aware of it. Some of the posts were by Howard Dean himself—something that rarely happened while the candidate's presidential hopes still were alive.

Adaptation Nation

One of my regrets, while working on this story, was not getting to Arkansas to see what Cameron Barrett, Tony Steidler-Dennison and other hackers were doing for the Wesley Clark campaign. Cam is one of the original bloggers, and Tony is a friend of ours at Linux Journal and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Cam and Tony put the whole Clark campaign on an open-source footing, crafting a bunch of tools that now have returned to the ecosystem, along with their authors. After the Clark campaign folded, Cam went to work for the Kerry campaign. Tony went back to playing the role of interested observer. When I asked Tony what happened to the tools his team developed for the Clark campaign, he replied:

The tools themselves provided a means for the Clark campaign, in particular, to get up to speed in a very short time. We wouldn't have been able to provide the interconnected set of supporter tools (Clark Community Network→eBlocks→on-line contributions→Clark Recruiters→Lawyers for Clark→various and sundry mailing lists, and so on) as quickly with proprietary tools. Or as cost-effectively.

These were the first campaigns to use the Internet in a truly two-way fashion. Cam's Clark Community Network was, I believe, the most effective tool for supporter community-building of any of the campaigns. The 2000 campaign used the Internet to convey a message from the candidate to both actual and potential supporters. It was a one-way communication. The Dean and Clark campaigns were the first and most effective at providing a connected voice for supporters to talk back to the candidates and to talk with one another. In other words, the campaign communities made the campaigns more than merely vehicles for fund raising. I can tell you firsthand that the Clark campaign paid attention to the collective voice of the community. So, open-source tools allowed us to create a community that actually had a voice in the campaign.

The most likely legacy of the Clark campaign is Clark TechCorps. The tools we created to organize the supporter communities are available under open-source licensing for anyone to use and improve upon. There's still a fair amount of activity on the TechCorps site as interested developers continue to work on those tools. We'll have to see where they go.

Britt Blaser provides a nice summary of the first well-hacked party presidential playoff season:

Many spent 2003 hacking code because they thought it might transform politics, and they were more right than wrong. They are the open-source entrepreneurs of the governance tools space. Like all entrepreneurs, they are artists who create because they're incapable of not creating.

Joe Trippi called MeetUp the Dean Campaign's “killer app”. “We built a hammer”, says Scott Heiferman, “and they built a house with it”.

Zephyr Teachout, whose visibility as a Dean campaign worker was exceeded only by Joe Trippi, says MeetUp made such a good tool because what it built wasn't on-line. MeetUps happen in meat space—in physical, geographical reality. Off-Net. Scott Heiferman tells me MeetUp's most important corporate relationships are with the local restaurants and coffee shops where MeetUps meet.

So MeetUp succeeded in part because it violated at least one Web development maxim: it didn't over-provision its feature set or let its ambitions fall out of alignment with its core services. And it kept those services simple, in the tradition of great practical open-source applications.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal