By Lou Aronson
Americans Elect did not fail. The group and its followers launched themselves headlong into the rapidly changing intersection of politics, democracy and technology. Although they fell short of the goal of fielding a candidate in 2012 AE demonstrated some of the potential of how technology can reshape little “d”emocracy.
I recently left the full time practice of law and started Votifi, a technology start-up focused on the political space. I have closely followed a number of new ventures seeking to disrupt the way politics as usual is done in the United States. I have been fortunate to meet and learn about companies like PopVox, ElectNext, Ruck.Us, TurboVote and PolicyMic to name a few. It’s been a fascinating journey.
We came across AE early in its evolution as it attempted to launch a political movement by using the Internet to develop a centrist platform and crowd source the identification of a viable candidate for president. While I am no strong advocate of third party politics, I believe AE is onto something.
Yet when AE announced it was abandoning its nomination process because it was unable to attract enough support for any single candidate, pundits wailed that AE’s failure is yet another sign of the broader, irreparable dysfunction of the American political system.
Their analysis misses the point. Sure, it might be too soon or too difficult to really make a viable third party thrive in the American political system. But I think AE’s real legacy is much more than just testing one theory.
Change does not happen overnight and politics are slow to adapt. For context, in 2004 Howard Dean’s innovated how campaigns can use the Internet to organize disconnected groups of supporters around the country. In 2008 the Obama campaign showed how social networks can add steroids to the manner in which campaigns can raise money and recruit and deploy volunteers. If the 2008 campaign was about change, then change is definitely something we have seen since then: the Tea Party movement emerged; the Occupy Wall Street also emerged, and in just a few years iPads, Kindles and other tablets are now in over 20% of American homes.
In this light, the AE campaign has been a watershed moment in the technological revolution happening in politics. AE demonstrated what is possible by using the Internet to gather signatures, donations, candidates (even if many were fringe) and ballot access against huge headwinds and a deeply entrenched, archaic and complex nominating process. Their accomplishments are impressive irrespective of the outcome. We are most likely going to see future efforts to further erode the inertia of that system because of what AE accomplished.
Startups seldom finish-up where they thought they would when they launched. AE is probably no different. They are tapping into the seismic shifts already impacting organizing, fundraising and campaign finance, and the ability to access huge amounts of data in order to make better decisions in public policy and government. New companies, like mine, are being formed with the aim of altering the landscape and interactions between politicians and constituents as well as among constituents.
Adoption and virality, except in a few rare cases, doesn’t happen overnight. But it eventually does happen (consider civil rights and same sex marriage). The Internet facilitated massive changes in revenue models for a number of businesses: goodbye Blockbuster, hello Netflix; hello Amazon and goodbye Borders. But even these disruptions took time. With the amount of money pouring into politics today, existing institutions and processes are bound for disruption. For example I doubt that voters will sit idly by while millions of dollars of corporate money funds SuperPACs that can change close races overnight with huge ad buys. One startup that might disrupt that process is Moat, which is adding transparency to ad networks. I am sure more will emerge.
In the same week that AE “failed” we saw Facebook with its 900 million members go public. What is amazing about Facebook isn’t just that in less than ten years it launched the largest tech IPO in history. What amazes me is that today almost half of all Facebook users access the site from their mobile phone, disrupting Facebook’s own revenue model. Facebook is now thinking about developing its own mobile phone device, which we may see as early as 2013.
Is there any reason to think that mobile phone penetration will not have the same transformative effect on politics and democracy as it has had on social networks in general?
Technology will continue to facilitate connectivity that will empower us to demand that politicians and the political process in this country live up to their promise and their promises. So I applaud AE as trailblazer in the technology revolution that could yield improvements in the political process by empowering Americans in a way that has never been seen before. It truly is an exciting time to be an American and to be working in the space of technology, democracy and politics.
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