Getting serious about networked, grassroots democracy

Getting serious about networked, grassroots democracy


There are folks trying to figure out what happens with the millions of people networked together, after the election. As a kind of online community organizer, I figure it's worth putting this in historical context and then proposing some serious short-term real stuff with implications for the future.

I figure 2008 is the new 1776. We're about to complement representative democracy with grassroots democracy, networking in millions, then tens of millions of citizens. In the process, we can move away from top-down, big money politics.

Like most people, I'd prefer not to be bothered by politics, but I feel this is hugely important, time for me to be a stand-up guy regarding this.

(note to self: find better phrase than "networked, grassroots democracy.)

I've articulated this in some detail in an article in Politico.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and the other forefathers of today’s bloggers embraced the notion that government should function with the consent of the governed. Key to the success of the idea was exploiting communications technology, including the printing press and the postal service.

Based on similar efforts in the ancient Roman republic and Britain, the Founders designed a government based on a small number of elected representatives, with a separate judiciary. Checks and balances were provided so that one group couldn’t seize power. A free press served as a further check against tyranny.

In recent years, the balances have seriously eroded, but at the same time, a new communication technology, the Internet, has flourished.

People use the Net as their own printing press, giving them a voice and a reach they’ve never had before, for better or for worse. They are networking at the grass-roots level more effectively than ever before.

Feedback appreciated!



Dave Witzel

You've got to be right about this Craig. The money is so big because we've concentrated so much decision-making (e.g., financial control) with too few people. If we distribute authority more widely the value of any one decision-making position will go down.
Re: terminology, I've pondered this a lot too. I think the word we are looking for is "democracy" but it has been usurped. Maybe we need to reclaim it.


Why don't you call this new political dynamic the:Super Networked Credit Enable Realocracy ?
I wish I could leave the Credit part out, but money is critical to this new dynamic.
I like having "Real" in the name because the broader inclusiveness should make politics more real to most citizens.
If it's not too Orwellian we can come up with contractions like SupNetRealocracy.

marguerite manteau-rao

Thanks Craig, for taking this on. Agree with you we cannot stand by the sidelines. The entire world's future is at stake.
The technology is there, and so is a critical mass of citizens, scared, pissed off, and concerned enough to want to act.
How to organize this grassroots democracy movement, using current Internet technology, is both a marketing and citizen psychology question. As you pointed out, the Obama movement is a step in the right direction. My vision is of a nonpartisan tool where each citizen's voice could be heard, and channeled productively into a citizen determined agenda of top issues, on which citizens could vote online. MoveOn's asking citizens to decide on which candidate to endorse during the Democratic primaries was a great example.
Craig, I would love to continue this conversation with you and others, also interested. Please consider me as a resource.

Mark Murphy

Agreed on the importance of all of this. Building tech in this area is my mission for 2009.
Regarding a name, FWIW, in my Rebooting America essay, I went with "cooperative democracy" as a term for citizen-led deliberation and opinion-gathering that feeds into our traditional representative democracy.

Karen Engelsen

Considering how I've started using Twitter since the RNC, and see its potential to mobilize and coordinate numbers of people…I'm convinced that the Obama campaign has the potential to solidify into a permanent form of orchestrating Citizen Power. Looking forward to what they will do.

Brian Dunbar

It's no secret (well, not if you read my blog) that I lean right.
It's more complicated than that, of course. I'm Libertarian-curious (heh) socially liberal but fiscally conservative – probably a typical small-town guy who deals with people from all over.
So … we get this networked grassroots thing up and running. Which I think is a pretty good idea
When (yes, or if) the majority prefers small government, low taxes, no gun control, cutting the welfare state and so on.
Assuming you're pretty much against these things .. are you guys cool with that?

John Callender

There are some interesting ways that widespread net access changes the process of political organizing and campaigning. During the current presidential election cycle, I've noticed how the Obama campaign has put a lot of its resources into grassroots-style organizing, registration, and get-out-the-vote activity; while the Clinton and McCain campaigns have focused more on big media buys. To the extent that the former turns out to be more effective than the latter, and to the extent that the former is made cheaper by the rise of Internet technologies, I could see that as being an approach that gains momentum going forward.
Some interesting thinking about this, if you haven't read it already, is in Clay Shirky's recent book, Here Comes Everybody. His basic premise (or one of them) is that the Internet has slashed the costs of ad hoc organizing. As a result, a lot of things that didn't use to be practical from a let's-spontaneously-organize-and-solve-this-problem standpoint now _are_ practical from that standpoint.
To go from the macro down to the very, very micro, I've been thinking lately about how these developments might affect the City Council campaigns in the small city I live in (population ~15,000). For a City Council election here, we do four things, basically: 1) Advertise in the local weekly paper, 2) print and mail flyers, 3) put out yard signs, and 4) canvass door-to-door. With the rise of the Internet making organizing cheaper and easier, and with the development of online organizing tools (like Advokit and others), I wonder if a local campaign that focused on an Internet-enabled version of #4, and less on the first three, could be both effective and less expensive. I kind of think it could be. Which in turn makes me wonder if a similar effect might be operating on a larger scale.
I'm just looking at the getting-elected part here. It sounds like you're talking more about the keeping-them-honest-once-they're-elected part. But the two pieces are connected: If the Internet makes it cheaper to run an effective campaign, then doing favors for big-money donors becomes a less-viable (and less necessary) approach to getting into and remaining in office. And if the Internet shines some sunlight on the corrupting effects of money once politicians are in office, then again, it seems like that could help disrupt the vicious cycle that sees big donors getting their backs scratched while ordinary citizens get ignored.

Vital Scherrer

First of all, it is about time to harness the potential of the Internet to improve the political structures and the democratic processes to find solutions, for decision-making and problem-solving.
IMO what is urgently needed is a web site which offers facilities to vote on issues, where all the major issues are listed, where solutions can be posted, their pros and cons, where the insights of the experts are published – after all, when it comes down to our own livelihood, if not even to our survival, then nobody should settle for the opinions of a few dabblers.
And if Obama should become the next president-elect, then he better pays attention and gives priority to such grassroots democratic inputs for his decisions on policies.
But also to improve the economy as well as to avoid social injustice and unrest, the discrepancy between the poor and the rich needs to be reduced rather than widened, as it was the case with the current politics.
Therefore the (relatively) poor – which includes the minimum wage laborers – should be considered first, as they are most in need of support. And they need to be recognized as a major economic factor through their significant numbers.
After all, just as in a chain, so too the strength of a society and its economy depend very much on the strength of its weakest links, as well as the sturdiness of its base.
And that's all part of a genuine "from the bottom up" grassroots democracy.


I agree that much progress is being made through the internet.
The proliferation of the internet is surely changing the power structure. The playing fields are flattening.
In the past, politicians could manage the media. Though they still try, there are now just too many pamphleteers to shmooze over to their positions. When someone from the new vast media is influenced in some way, the MOB sets them straight. You really can't get away with anything these days as a media personality or a politician.
I really think the root of all the change might really be the disappearing of top-down media. Even more than the move away from top-down, big money politics. The networked mob is forcing an end to the power of the printing press.

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