My Fair Election

October 28, 2008

Check it out

democracy mashup...

mashup democracy...

Quite an impressive tool that could enhance electoral transparency – although I suspect it might get wider use if the code could be embedded in social networking sites and other services that people are already using.

This kind of “political weather” usage of the google maps code is an interesting trend.

(h/t AF)


Lately, I’ve benefited from a lot of long thought-provoking conversations about the Obama campaign with Gene Koo, one of the many wonderful fellows at the Berkman Center.

Most recently Gene passed along this article by Zack Exley about the Obama campaign’s organizing structure that appeared in the Huffington Post a few days ago.

Like Obama’s campaign itself, Exley’s article frequently gave me the sensation that there really is something qualitatively different about this election and about this candidate’s ability to design and mobilize an massive volunteer-driven force.

Exley visits campaign offices throughout Ohio and finds something he had never seen before in years of participating in and writing about politics in this country: dedicated, everyday people delegating responsibility and cooperating to achieve their goals:

“After visiting my fourth or fifth team, it was painfully clear that an enormous amount of power is unlocked by this incredibly simple act of distributing different roles to people who actually feel comfortable taking them on. And I say “painfully” because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the union and electoral campaigns I’ve worked on where we did not do this.” (emphasis added)

With numerous examples, Exley depicts an organization led by people who have discovered the power of distributed collective action. Only four years after the Kerry campaign (indeed, less than 12 months since the Obama folks set up shop in Ohio) comparisons are painful indeed:

“The Ohio campaign is attempting to build teams in 1,231 campaign-defined ‘neighborhoods;’ each covering eight to ten precincts. They are targeting virtually every inhabited square mile of the state. The campaign claimed to have teams in 65% of neighborhoods when I visited in early September. That’s risen to 85% coverage at press time—and they are shooting for 100%. In contrast, the Kerry campaign effectively wrote off rural counties, and completely abandoned them in the final few weeks of the campaign in a last minute all-in shift to the cities.”

According to Exley, the “secret” to this exponential growth lies in the ability of the team’s leaders to build a cellular organization from the ground up, absorbing anyone with the time, talent, and ability to make a sustained contribution. In addition, the leaders have demonstrated an impressive level of dedication to their goals and values, passing them along to subordinates through long and personal training sessions as well as extended periods of collaboration. When the time is right, leaders pass on responsibilities to veteran team members and then move on to building the next team. The results are a steadily growing pool of experienced leaders who have internalized the organization’s ideals and developed the skills and relationships to achieve their goals.

Exley’s most comprehensive assessment of the significance of the Obama campaign’s transformative distributed structure comes in the second paragraph:

“Win or lose, ‘The New Organizers’ have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition. If he doesn’t, then the broader progressive movement needs to figure out how to pick this up, keep it going and spread it to all 50 states.”

The extent to which this analysis echoes the thinking of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga’s in his most recent book Taking on the System (2008) is unsurprising. In contrast, Zúniga credits the progressive blogosphere and other outsiders with spearheading the effort whereas Exley lays the credit with creative young organizers like Jeremy Bird (Obama’s Ohio General Election Director) and wise elder statesmen like Marshall Ganz (Harvard lecturer and political organizer par excellence). In thinking about this distinction as well as the substantive overlap between Exley’s and Zúniga’s work, I got to to wondering about the network topology of political campaigns.

Network topologies are everywhere – if you’ve ever looked at an organizational chart of any kind, you’ve seen one. With the growth of electronic and digital communications networks in the last 100 years or so, the impact of both poorly and well-designed networks has never been more apparent.

For example, the Internet represents the result of the most impressive large-scale network design in recent memory (at least since the telephone).The insight the facilitated the creation of the TCP/IP networking protocol that forms the basis of the Internet was the architectural advantage of a distributed point-to-point network. In contrast with “star” or “hub and spoke” networks, true point-to-point networks scale costlessly and are almost insusceptible to congestion or failure.

a point-to-point network (from cc-by-nc-sa

redundancy galore: a point-to-point network (from cc-by-nc-sa

Some Network Topologies (from Wikipedia, licensed under the GFDL)

examples of typical network topologies (from Wikipedia, licensed under the GFDL)

How does this relate back to politics? My (largely unsubstantiated) suspicion is that most political campaigns are designed as hub and spoke networks (or, at best, as trees). The implications of this design decision are relevant to the broader question of how the Internet has changed politics as well as the future of political organizing in a pervasively networked environment.

It is not an accident that most political organizations are hierarchical affairs, involving a relatively small number of well-connected and informed folks at the center who serve as common points of access for masses of less integrated nodes. Political elites derive a great deal of their power from their structural position (insofar as it grants them control over resources, jobs, and wealth) and the long life of hierarchical political institutions has made them appear almost natural.

The result, in structural terms, is a lot of inefficiency and vulnerability. In both tree and star networks, the failure of any hubs that connect the top or the center of the organization with its edges can be catastrophic for the survival of the network as a whole. This is part of the reason why, in organizational settings, the individuals or groups that occupy these strategic positions tend to accumulate power out of proportion to their rank (think of middle managers).

In the history of modern electoral democracy and political bureaucracy, the costs of these vulnerable and inefficient organizational structures have been deemed sufficiently low to justify the benefits of consolidated leadership and authority. If life on the Internet is any indication, that may be undergoing a subtle, but perceptible change.

All of this brings me back to Obama and to Exley. It’s important to underscore that the Obama campaign has not turned its back on hierarchical structures or centralized networks. The campaign is very much a national affair and the core organizers (such as state directors) continue to operate as potential choke-points capable of undermining the organization’s effective operation.

The key innovations observed by Exley and implemented by Obama’s personnel have to do with the means by which the branches of the tree are expanded, and not with the underlying structure of the tree itself.

At the same time, Exley describes an explicitly “viral” mode of assimilating volunteers, as well as the ability of the organization to scale its local staff exponentially throughout the summer. Both of these characteristics suggest that we’re looking at something other than a prototypical hierarchy-based organizing model.

The Obama campaign has effectively retained its hierarchy, but in the process it has ceded a tremendous amount of autonomy to its middle managers in an effort to build a more dynamic and scalable operation.

This strategy has been inspired by examples of distributed cooperation and political mobilization online, but it falls far short of embracing truly radical alternatives. What will be interesting to observe in coming years is whether the non-hierarchical approaches inspired by the point-to-point design of the Internet gain any traction in political organizations. In theory at least, nothing prevents a more decentralized organization from transmitting the ideas and tactics necessary to a political campaign. The problems arise in directing such distributed efforts towards a common goal in an effective way. For the time being, that is what the Obama campaign appears to have achieved to an unprecedented degree.

That didn’t take long.

Declan McCullagh at CNET takes a look at Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee-to-be Joe Biden’s track record on IT issues and finds a great deal lacking.

Historically speaking, Biden favors an extremist vision of intellectual property and anti-privacy enforcement.

McCullagh sums it up in the story’s lede:

By choosing Joe Biden as their vice presidential candidate, the Democrats have selected a politician with a mixed record on technology who has spent most of his Senate career allied with the FBI and copyright holders, who ranks toward the bottom of CNET’s Technology Voters’ Guide, and whose anti-privacy legislation was actually responsible for the creation of PGP.


In the rest of the article, McCullagh focuses on the areas of copyright, online privacy, peer-to-peer networks, and net neutrality, showing how Biden has built a reputation as one of the Democratic Senators most hostile to the the Open Internet and commons-based business models in the music, film, and IT industry. The summary version: Biden is as anti-Internet and anti-innovation as anyone on the left of the aisle.

What this means for an Obama campaign that has promised to implement a progressive information and technology policy agenda predicated on net neutrality and the growth of innovative industries is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, what I can’t figure out is why Biden does it.

To judge from McCullagh’s claims, Biden’s positions stem from his close ties to the Intelligence community and the FBI. The Delaware Senator has staked his career on being a credible Democratic hawk. He has backed a corresponding “tough on crime” approach across the board.

Funny thing is, his funding base doesn’t seem to reflect this historical favoritism towards the cultural content industry, anti-privacy interests, and other IP-enforcement extremist groups.

According to the campaign finance data maintained by OpenSecrets, Biden’s strongest bases of support have been lawyers, real estate developers, and investment firms based in Delaware, New York, and Philadelphia.

This makes perfect sense given his positions on the powerful Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees (he is currently chair of the latter), both of which oversee massive budget allocations and key legislative decisions on trade, investment, and legal regulation. It also corresponds to Delaware’s historic role as a tax haven for numerous corporations.

To give you a better idea, here’s a graph from OpenSecrets that breaks down Biden’s funding by industry:

Sen. Joseph Biden - Top Donations by Industry (from

Sen. Joseph Biden - Top Donations by Industry (

Note how the communications/electronics category is woefully low in comparison to the FIRE and Lawyer/Lobbyist categories. Biden may be a staunch DMCA supporter, but he’s no Howard Berman by any stretch of the imagination.

Instead, Biden’s pattern of knee-jerk support for anti-privacy and anti-Internet regulation suggests a deep-seated misunderstanding of digital technologies and the potential of information networks.

Consistent with McCullagh’s claims, Biden has historically taken advantage of broader fears about terrorism and deviance as justifications for gutting civil liberties as well as freedoms of speech, movement, and organization.

Maybe this is the kind of reputation the Obama campaign believes it needs to appear more hardened and mainstream in the face Barack’s obvious lack of support from foreign affairs and military interests. It also doesn’t hurt that Biden has historically enjoyed such strong backing from elite corporate lawyers, investors, and the FIRE sector – representing a wide swath of the country’s financial elite.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid the writing on the wall following the Biden announcement and Obama’s recent vote in favor of retroactive community for illegal spying and privacy violations by telecommunications firms. We may still be a long way from a U.S. president that is willing to take a progressive stance on the Open Net.

Condoleezza Rice’s editorial in today’s WSJ defends the administration’s use of diplomacy with North Korea.

She writes: “We have no permanent enemies.”

Nevermind that this may go down as the biggest Bush administration flip-flop since H.W.’s “no new taxes”…

Nevermind that Cheney is probably planning an invasion anyway…

Does Condi’s stance suggest a tacit endorsement of Obama?

Arguably the least ideologically-driven member of the administration elite, Condi has made no secret of her affinity for some of Obama’s policy positions.

In response to his Philadelphia speech on race, Condi praised Obama’s words and argued that his willingness to talk about America’s history of racial oppression “important.”

In the words of Latoya Peterson:

“Apparently, Condoleeza shocked the hell out of people by reminding them that she was black.”

Similarly, her carefully-worded defense of multilateralism in today’s editorial might remind people that despite being a hawk, she’s still a diplomat. I would wager that the whole piece is nothing short of a diplomatic wink at “The Obama Doctrine” insofar as it argues for a return to global cooperation.

Throughout the editorial, Condi goes out of her way to make it clear that diplomacy alone is not enough – she insists that accountability mechanisms have played an important role in pushing Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.

But, whether or not you agree with that claim, the point is that she unconditionally endorses the idea of the bargaining table. This echoes Obama’s views on how to best deal with “rogue states” that harbor so-called “terrorists” or otherwise flaunt the will of the international community.

Irrespective of whether or not that constitutes an Obama endorsement, it’s absolutely a jab at John McCain.

Over and over and over again, McCain has expressed his unwillingness to pursue negotiation with America’s enemies. He has also taken great pains to contrast this stance with that of Obama (whom he calls naive).

It’s one thing for Obama supporters and Democrats to criticize McCain’s views on these matters. But when the nation’s top (Republican) diplomat makes a point of undermining the GOP nominee’s position, that’s a whole other can of worms. It takes the wind out of all the rhetoric about Obama’s inexperience on such issues.

Given Condi’s position and her own career aspirations, she could never make an explicit endorsement of Obama. However, her willingness to contradict McCain in such a public and overt manner speaks volumes about the state of chaos among the Republican party leadership. It also suggests that Obama and other Democrats can expect to get a lot of mileage from pushing the issue among the foreign policy community as a whole.

From CNN’s Political Ticker. Here’s the full letter:

Dear Hillary –

I am stepping down from your finance committee so I can speak for myself and you can continue to speak for yourself about what is at stake in this campaign.

The Obama campaign is attacking me to hurt you.

I won’t let that happen.

Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do to make this a better world for my children and grandchildren.

You have my deep admiration and respect.


Notice something missing? How about an apology, Gerry?


Certainly an unfortunate choice of words

Guess she’ll be back at the Kennedy School soon.