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                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

open source politics

We've come a long way from the heady moment that gave rise to this August 2003 interview between prominent internet theorist Lawrence Lessig and then Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi.

Just one week ago, over one thousand of us met up in Las Vegas at the first Yearlykos convention. It was an experience that replicated on a communal scale the thrill that Matthew Gross must have had when, as Joe Trippi recounts above, Matt drove from Utah to Vermont unannounced to work on the Howard Dean campaign. We at Yearlykos took online politics offline.  Names became faces. The netroots networked. Candidates courted bloggers. The blogosphere, quite literally met the press.

In contrast to Trippi and Lessig in 2003, however, we had new buzzwords at Yearlykos; the convention was awash in references to "People Powered Politics" "the millennial generation" and "social networking software."

With this essay, however, I'd like to make the case for a quiet phrase that we've let fall somewhat into disuse. I'd like to talk about open source politics.

Immediately following the 2004 election Micah Sifry wrote an article in the Nation entitled The Rise of Open Source Politics.  The article is worth reading in full, but I'd like to highlight a passage that speaks to what's on my mind:

Open-source politics is still a long way off. The term "open source" specifically refers to allowing any software developer to see the underlying source code of a program, so that anyone can analyze it and improve it; better code trumps bad code, and programmers who have proven their smarts have greater credibility and status. Applied to political organizing, open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.

Open source politics, then, is not simply about feedback...it's about how feedback makes us more effective.  In the language of programming from which the term "open source" derives: better code trumps bad code. In the world of politics that means better ideas trump bad ideas.  As Joe Trippi, referring to the Dean for America blog, exalted to Lessig in the 2003 interview cited above:

The response we are getting and the ideas that come off of it are just amazing. The comments section is just such an amazing thing. Little things you never would have thought of: Zephyr [Teachout] came up with the idea of having a poster that was downloadable and printable for each state, with a goal of getting a million of these posters put up -- for example, "New Hampshire for Dean" -- as a way to get visibility going. We put that up with the links of all fifty states and immediately afterwards, one of the first comments was, "I'm registered to vote, I'm working overseas in London, there's a lot of American expats here, and you know, you really, I'd love to have an Americans Abroad for Dean poster that I can put up and that my friends overseas can put." Two minutes later another post comment was, "I'm in Spain, and you guys shouldn't forget about us, you should do Americans abroad."

This is my 7th presidential campaign, but in every other campaign, the campaign never would have known that it had screwed up by not just creating the fifty-first sign. It's a small thing, but within ten minutes we had an "Americans Abroad" poster up with the rest, blogged about it, said, "hey, you're right, you caught that.

Open source, however, means more than just passing along criticism and ideas.  Open source is also a meritocratic means of discovering new leaders.  Those of us who witnessed the professionalism with which Gina Cooper and her team of "entrepreneurial volunteers" pulled off Yearlykos would concur.  Yearlykos was an example not only of how feedback and input made the convention better, but of how specific expertise was drawn from a pool of talent.  In this, Yearlykos was a great example of open source.  Fabooj, Nolan and Pontificator, to name just three examples, went from being "screen names" on dailyKos to demonstrating skilled leadership and organizational competence for all the world to see.  Do not underestimate the power of that example.  We in the netroots are about to see it applied again and again as offline skills and leadership become vital considerations in this political movement.  In effect, the "feedback" that thrilled Joe Trippi in 2003 has taken its logical next step: the emergence of new offline leaders.

Open source politics, in this sense, is just another name for what those in progressive politics have long called small "d" democracy.  In fact, I would argue that behind all the high tech and high falutin' names we give to this political movement that this value is its core impulse: we want more democracy.  We want a meritocracy of ideas and participation.  Whether it is the democratic openness of the Scoop platform, the ongoing campaign for net neutrality or the push to run candidates in every race in every state, this is our unifying theme: we have a bedrock commitment to the power and effectiveness of small "d" democracy. Open source is the foundation on which all our individual successes have been built and the cornerstone on which our underlying movement stands or falls.  We are small "d" democrats first and last; that is our core value.  Whatever the latest technology or buzz, we should never forget this.

I wrote a reflection on Yearlykos last week that asked some questions about the event from this perspective.  In particular, I asked about the process by which the term "netroots endorsed" is being applied to candidates and races.  I ask that question again today.

As I explained in my previous essay, at Ykos I had a chance to hear Chris Bowers explain to a candidate at the MyDD caucus the procedure by which a candidate can become "netroots endorsed."  That procedure is explained very clearly here by one the four bloggers who determines "netroots endorsement," DavidNYC of the Swing State Project.  The other three bloggers  who make selections are Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller of MyDD and Markos of Dailykos.  (If you want an active chance to participate in the nominating process, please click on this active link at MyDD.)  

While, in fact, we in the netroots can nominate candidates for "netroots endorsment" if we happen across the diaries where nominations are taken...there is:  a) little transparency in evaluating the process by which candidates eventually get selected b) little oversight in determining whether "good choices" or "bad choices" have been made, and c) little small "d" democratic rationale for why a self-selected committee of four bloggers should control the term "netroots endorsed" and the standards for selection.

Does this process live up to the "open source" standard that Micah Sifry enunciated above?  Does it allow us in the netroots, not simply to give feedback, but to effectively judge whether "good code" will trump "bad code"...whether "good ideas" will trump "bad ideas?"  Does it move us "away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing?"   With all due respect to the initiative, fairness and follow-through of those involved, I don't think so.  I think we can do better. (For one, a central website for nominations and candidate statements would be nice.) Further, like it or not, as we gain power and impact in the field of politics we will be increasingly judged by the standards we ourselves apply to the political world.   What is to prevent vociferous critics from claiming that a candidate has won "netroots endorsement" not on the merits but by an invisible backroom deal, no matter the integrity and accomplishment of the selectors?  Not much.   Further, how are we in the  netroots improving on our track record for donation and picks from the last election cycle?  It's not clear.

Now, as this political movement grows and matures it is inevitable that we will have more beaurocracy, more structural disputes, more need for organization and more scrutiny from the outside press. I would insist, however, that there is a golden rule of open source that we might use to guide our way:

Whenever we find ourselves resorting to something private, secret, or undemocratic it is because we have failed to innovate an open source solution.

We are open source innovators; that is how we are known.  Our job is not to be "perfect;" all politics, and the democratic process itself, involves the "rough game" of debate and taking sides.  All innovation requires individual initiative and the work of small teams. But when push comes to shove, our movement, if it is to succeed and stay true to itself, must not forget its pole star: we want more democracy, not less.

Much praise is to be given to the "early adopters" and, perhaps, "inventors" of the blogosphere.  Praise does not, however, equal a handing over of one's voice or one's vote.  One can respect the hard work and foresight of some of our peers and at the same time hold them accountable to our bedrock ideals.  Yes, it might be easier to hand over decision making to self-selected committees for the near term, or, as some have suggested, let the movement play out organically till after the 2008 election and then organize itself in a more thoroughgoing way.  I don't think either option lives up to open source or furthers our short and long term goals.

Open source politics is premised on one of the founding notions of the United States Constitution: finding a structural way to let the people decide and evaluate, however awkward and contentious that process might be, is both a way to stay true to our founding principles and the most effective form of governance yet invented.  Open source may not be pretty, but given a chance, our history has proven it works.  Our job, then, is to incorporate as much as we can an open source ethos into our politics.

Now, our political movement contains strains of a "libertarian" impulse and strains of the "progressive" political impulse.  Rather than have these two threads bicker and jockey for preeminence as they have in the past, I would point out that the open source ethos is a unifying theme that we all share.  We are all committed to breaking down the walls of privilege and power that have stifled democracy in the United States these last decades.  That is our common ground.  On a level playing field, either side can be content to let our ideas compete in the marketplace.   That level playing field and marketplace, in my view, should apply to the presidential hopefuls for 2008 as well as "netroots endorsed" candidates for 2006.

I choose the marketplace analogy on purpose.  It is clear that the innovation that fuels our movement has been deeply marked by the entrepreneurial spirit and initiative of remarkable individuals.  They deserve praise. There is, however, a natural tension between the entrepreneurial and the organizational, especially when calls for accountability and small "d" democracy ring out from the peanut gallery. Organization inevitably follows innovation.  (Professor Lessig eloquently examined this in his book Code: and other laws of Cyberspace.)

Rather than run from this tension, in my view, our response should be to understand and embrace it.  We need both dynamics to succeed.  We need to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of risk takers and pathbreakers and at the same time have the patience and tolerance to build an organizational culture that prevails. From where I stand, when it comes to the path ahead for the netroots, our immediate task is clear.

We are innovators.  Our job is to innovate.  Our job is to find win-win solutions.  At numerous points in this brief saga, we have faced challenges that we have met with forward thinking ideas that we implemented with savviness and aplomb.  Yearlykos was merely the most visible and successful of these.  From the "Dean bat" to the "recommended diary box" to Energize America the left blogosphere has been a laboratory of tactics and methods, some of which have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and some of which have failed.  Today is no different; innovation is the task at hand.  Open source has shown that constructive criticism and feedback, far from being disloyal, is the path to improvement and effectiveness.  My argument today is that we should keep it at the center of our movement.

You may agree or disagree with me regarding "netroots endorsements." That is fair enough. What I'd ask you to consider, however, is the underlying value that I'm arguing for.  Open source politics is our alpha and omega.  It's where we began and, at the same time, reflects the kind of society we hope to build.  Open source politics is no different in ideals and conception than what our Founding Fathers initiated over 200 years ago or the vision that Lincoln burned into our national memory with his Gettysburg address.

Given this moment in history and the task at hand, open source, small "d" democracy is also the one thing that we all can and have agreed on.  It is something that coursed through the halls during Yearlykos where an egalitarian spirit ruled the day.  On some small but significant level, that, my friends, is a golden opportunity that we should not neglect to seize.


  • This essay created interesting discussions on dailykos, MyDD.

    In a nutshell, looking at those discussions, I don't think I made my points well enough:

    a) My bottom line is this. Participatory democracy is "what brought our movement to the dance". we forget that at our peril. we are about "open source."

    b) Even if most commenters seem "okay" with four self-appointed bloggers choosing "netroots endorsments" by a set of standards those bloggers created...there's still huge problems with how that works in practice imo. As we saw at Ykos, the candidates are now structurally encouraged to come to those bloggers directly since that's who is making the ultimate decision in private. In fact, candidates have every reason to short circuit the process of making their pitch to the "netroots" and just pitch those four bloggers in private.

    We could build a more transparent model.

    c) The simplest thing to do, right now, would be to for those bloggers to create a clearinghouse website for the "netroots endorsements" that simply posted all the information in one place and let candidates and the "netroots" post and debate. That small step...adding a clearinghouse for information and access...would improve the process right off the bat.

    d) Regardless. I stand by my caution above. Organization inevitably follows innovation. If we care about how innovations we've participated in are organized....we need to participate in the process of that inevetiable organization. Those with "pull" and "power" should make that easier and more transparent. Accountability comes with the territory. At least it should.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:45 PM  

  • This should happen.

    By Anonymous makeitstop, at 10:01 PM  

  • This article and the added comments are some of your best writing. I think the concept of a clearinghouse is powerful for a lot of applications (my father used it in the universal health care plan he designed.)

    Thanks for adding the comments. And thanks for sticking with your blog, by the way. I love it here.

    By Blogger katiebird, at 1:53 PM  

  • Super stuff. It should be apparent to all in the netroots from the latest attacks on YearlyKos, Kos and the rest of the 'name' bloggers that our enemies on the right conceive of things being run 'top down', just like their failed paradigm is run, by adopting 'Open Sourse Politics' we can not only stay true to democracy but we can frustrate their attacks such as the one made by David 'AssClown' Brooks which is being discussed in OrangeLand today.

    Thus what you are proposing is not only good democracy, the most important thing about it, but great tactics too.

    I'll be discussing this at our new venue this week. Come on by if you have time.

    By Blogger A. Citizen, at 5:02 PM  

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