Friday, March 30, 2007

The Online Art (and Power) of the Political Protest

Today's Washington Post ran a great article highlighting the new world of the politicial protest. The piece, "French Politics in 3D on Fantasy Website" told the story of a "slash and burn" protest at the headquarters of the extremist French presidential candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen. The slashing and burning, though, all took place in Second Life, the online virtual world where people from around the world live out their idealized lives.

For the uninitiated, Second Life has become increasingly like our plain, old regular life. Many "real world" major corporations have offices in this online environment -- and if you're a candidate for office? You can forget having any success if you don't have a Second Life avatar.

In the French political protest, the really angry fake people opposed to Le Pen took on Le Pen's really angry fake supporters using pig grenades -- yes, that's right, fake exploding pigs. Just wait until the fake Second Life ASPCA gets ahold of that one (seriously, why couldn't it be exploding baguettes?). The supporters fired back with with push guns and avatars where flying everywhere. In the end, though, the pig pushers won and Le Pen's headquarters were decimated.

Thousands of pixels died in this unprecedented attack.

Although this is an extreme example, the exploding pigs do make a point. A new front has opened in political campaigns, and candidates will ignore these virtual realities at their peril. I'm just waiting for the day when an Avatar-American in elected president.

The Power of Grassroots & Socnets!

The Washington Post ran a piece last week on how politicians are starting to change their tactics to engage with voters. The focus of the article is the Edwards presidential campaign where staffers have realized the importance of engaging with voters through social networking sites (socnets). Edwards is not the only contender for the White House that is using the internet as part of their grassroots strategy but it seems that his campaign really understands the importance of building a strong grassroots network. After this first fundraising deadline it appears that Edwards approach is working. Though he came in third in terms of overall dollars raised on the democratic side, he still managed to raise $14 million dollars in the first quarter. What is most impressive though is the fact that he had a total of 40,000 contributers and 80 percent of all contributions were $100 or less. His online community alone raised $3.3 million dollars! The Edwards campaign is proving the power of grassroots! Check out Edwards campaign site to see what they are doing to engage with voters!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Should Citizens Draft Legislation?

Proponents of "Direct Democracy" are of the opinion that, given the right tools, citizens can and should be much more active in drafting the laws that govern their lives. The Sunlight Foundation has launched an online experiment aimed at engaging citizens in the process of researching and crafting legislation, in this case around the policy ideas in which Sunlight is particularly interested, such as Lobbying Reporting and Personal Financial Disclosures for members.

First of all, kudos to Sunlight for walking the walk and talking the talk on their issues. They want transperancy and they're willing to open up their process to anyone with the passion and enthusiasm to undertake a lot of work.

But to me, that's where the rub comes in. Now, you'd think as the "Advocacy Guru," I'd be all about the citizen participation. The truth is, while I have no objections whatsoever to citizens developing and, heck, even voting on and passing legislation, I'm not sure how this process will work. Frankly, I think most people would get very bored very quickly with the mind-numbing intricacies of crafting a bill. Maybe that's just me -- I got bored with it after several years of working on Capitol Hill.

To me, it sounds a little like an initiative process that has gone awry. Anyone from California that has gone through the huge list of citizen initiatives on voting day might understand that one of the basic premises behind representational democracy is the idea that citizens shouldn't have to deal with all this crap. I mean really, who wants to vote on boundary adjustments and Post Office namings?

That said, please go to the site and check it out. It really does offer a great opportunity for average citizens to get a glimpse into the process. Maybe a glimpse is all you'll need!

Activism Gone Too Far

Earlier this week there was a disturbing example of activism gone way too far. In an effort to get the attention of government officials the owner of a daycare center in Manila held 32 students hostage yesterday on a bus outside of city hall. He said that he was trying to advocate for a better education system for his students. He claims that he just wants to make sure that the kids he took hostage have an opportunity to go to school.
He is well known in Manila as almost a folkloric type character taking on social issues and actively working to solve other people’s problems but this latest activism has gone way too far. No matter how passionate you are about an issue, this type of extreme activism does not help move your agenda forward. People will remember this story not for the issues that he was trying to raise but rather for the sense of terror they felt watching him threaten the lives of 32 students.
Though this is an extreme case it provides a good reminder to advocates. It's important to be passionate about your issues but the best way to move your agenda forward is to raise awareness in such a way that it starts a dialogue about possible solutions to the problem.

See the New York Times Story

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Hon. Blogger

Candidates with blogs? So 2004. Legislators with blogs? Very au courant. Elected officials are increasingly turning to blogs not only during elections but also in office. A small but growing group are using blogs to engage constituents, discuss issues, and promote their agenda. Interestingly, the legislator-blogger is more likely to be found in statehouses rather than Congress. A quick glance at the National Conference of State Legislature's excellent blog, The Thicket, shows at least 35 different state legislators with blogs. A number almost certain to grow.

Even more striking is the explosion of blogs dedicated to state-level politics and policies. The NCSL blog lists more than 100. The progressive blog, My DD, keeps a running list of links to liberal bloggers covering individual states or regions. The list totals more than 40. The state and national blogs are also developing a symbiotic relationship with stories, news, diaries, and readers being shared.

A few Members of Congress, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), George Miller (D-CA), and John Conyers (D-MI), are regularly contributors on some national blogs. And, certainly, Hill press secretaries understand the value of communicating with bloggers. It is probably only a matter of time before the trend of legislator blogging takes root on the Hill.

The rise of blogs run by elected officials focused on legislating instead of traditional campaigning opens up new opportunities for citizen advocates and grassroots programs. We'll be watching to see what's working. Let us hear your ideas.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Taking it to the Streets

Sunday's WaPo features a fascinating discussion of the influence of social activist Saul Alinsky on presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Alinsky isn't discussed much in mass media circles these days but his influence on today's grassroots organizing and activism. Among Alinsky's key insights was that conflict can be used as a catalyst for creating and mobilizing grassroots advocates. Alinsky was also a deep believer in the power of participatory politics as an agent of policy change. However, Alinsky wasn't just focused on the grand gesture or street theater. He certainly appreciated aggressive, PR-friendly tactics but his grassroots strategy based on coalition building as vital to achieving results.

Those are three pretty good lessons for today's advocates (regardless of your view of Alinsky's socially progressive brand of politics): embrace and harnass conflict as a way to organize advocates; successful grassroots movements should be driven by the vision of advocates; and, coalitions of diverse partners linked by mutual self-interest are powerful.

I haven't peeked at Alinsky's books since graduate school but I think those of us working in grassroots might be well served by picking up a copy of : "Reveille for Radicals" and "Rules for Radicals".

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Presidential Campaign and YouTube

Do you remember last campaign cycle when animated shorts sent by e-mail were all the rage? Jib Jab's "This Land Is Your Land", which was considered cutting edge in 2004, is now listed as a "classic" on their website.

Clearly, the advocacy marketing idea of pulling people into websites, as opposed to pushing communications through e-mail has hit political campaigns. Rather than sending out the latest presidential campaign related video (OK, some say it's an attack ad), the person who created it posted in on YouTube, where it's been viewed almost 2 million times. Yes, I'm talking about the now somewhat infamous "Vote Different" video, a piece suggesting that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for a big brother-esque, 1984-style society.

Of course, it was posted by someone whose firm is working for the Obama campaign. So maybe they're a little biased.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fixing Congress' E-mail Woes

Jeffrey Birnbaum's "In the Loop" article in today's Post had an interesting note about a new website called The founders' noble goal is to ensure that citizen voices are heard when sending messages to Congress. Seems that Congressional staff are sceptical as to whether form messages are actually from real people. They believe that some associations are sending bogus messages inappropriately in the names of their members. So, this company has developed a system to take all these electronic messages and tabulate them on paper. Paper, they argue, is mightier than e-mail.

You'd think I'd like this, being the advocacy guru and all, but I actually don't. Sites like this perpetuate the myth that e-mail isn't effective. E-mail is fabulous -- what's ineffective is FORM LETTERS. Form communications have been ignored for eons, whether it be petitions, postcards or multiple stone tablets (with the exception of the Ten Commandments). We don't solve the attention deficit problem on Capitol Hill by sending form communication via paper instead of e-mail. We solve the deficit attention problem on Capitol Hill be PERSONALIZING OUR COMMUNICATIONS!!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cool new Congress Site

If you're looking for information on legislation being introduced, interest group activity on legislation, votes on legislation, what's being said in blogs about legislation or just, you know, everything there is to know in the world about legislation, check out a new site from the Sunlight Foundation and PPF (the Participatory Politics Foundation) called Open Congress. The organization is also asking members of Congress to make their daily schedules available on the site, which should be an eye-opener for those who think that Congress doesn't do anything...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

C-span and video

Policy wonks everywhere should breathe a sigh of relief. C-Span has come to its senses and adopted a liberalized copyright policy for its videos of government in action (or inaction, as the case may be)... You can read the press release here.

Noncommercial entities can now copy, share and post video from C-Span's archives, as well as any future video. This policy is limited to its coverage of Congressional and federal agency actions, such as House and Senate floor action and federal agency talkfests. In addition, C-SPan has announced that it will be expanding its site in order to bring even more boring hearings about government oversight to the general public. Yippee!

The approach being adopted by C-Span has long been championed by entities like Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization which allows creators to mark their products with the type of copyright restrictions they want to apply. So, if you have a video for which you want to reserve some rights, while at the same time allowing other uses, like posting on blogs and YouTube, you can create a customized copyright policy.

No word yet on whether C-span will allow mash-ups of its video materials -- and, really, who wants to see that?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

My Barack Obama

Many women would give their eye teeth to utter that phrase, and now they can by going to Obama's campaign was one of the first to start really effectively using the MySpace / Facebook sites for capturing advocates through those networks. Now, they're taking it a step further and building their own.

The good news is that new services are out there for anyone that doesn't want to get locked in to the whole "Myspace" approach (or who thinks that the people on MySpace just might not be the right demographic). For example, at, you can set up your OWN social network designed to cater to the interests of your niche group of people. Just imagine if you were doing an advocacy campaign and wanted to keep your grassroots involved and engaged. For free! These types of services offer a new tool -- so check them out!