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Lincoln and Whitman's Unfinished Business

Doc Searls

Issue #175, November 2008

We've had democracy for a long time. Now we finally can make it work.

During the '04 campaign, Phil Windley—then CIO for the state of Utah—said something profound about democracy, “Most people just want the roads fixed”.

He went on to explain that there are two sides of democracy, and they aren't defined by parties. One side is elections. The other side is governance. Elections hog the spotlight, because they make good stories. Governance is how the work gets done. To Phil, governance is the real frontier, the side of democracy that has not met its promise.

Phil isn't alone. In the closing sentence of his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said the battle's fallen soldiers had fought so “...that this nation...shall have a new birth of freedom”, with “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Lincoln called this “unfinished work”.

More than 145 years later, it's still unfinished, and will remain so until most ordinary citizens feel free to engage their governments directly and personally. Until we do that, we'll be stuck with too much government of the people, and not enough by or for the people.

Means for citizen involvement have always been there, but the threshold of engagement has always seemed too high. If you wanted action, you had to be outraged, obsessed or connected by money and other currencies of favor.

But then the Net came along. It didn't change everything overnight, but it provided a whole new environment where the rules of engagement were far different, and where privileges of the few could spread to the many.

Nobody knows or explains this better than Steve Urquhart, who represents the citizens of St. George in the Utah state legislature. The first time I talked to Steve, he told me money in politics was a red herring. What really matters, he said, are connections. Relationships. Money is often involved, but far from always. The real challenge for democracy, he said, is to get more citizens involved directly at every level. This is why Steve blogs. It's a means of engagement.

On July 22, 2008, Steve ran a post titled “Transparency and Performance”. It serves as an exceptionally detailed frame among many moving pictures of changes in democracy enabled by the Net. Here it is:

When I entered the Legislature eight years ago, information was hidden from voters....

Fortunately, we quickly changed our tune, and offered the public access to lots of information. Everything I have available—in terms of access to bills, voting records, floor and committee speeches—the public also has....

Giving people direct access to information has three consequences. One, officials pay closer attention to their actions. Two, people can more readily hold officials accountable for their actions. And, three, officials can be bolder in their actions. The first two points are obvious. I'll discuss the third point.

Transparency allows officials to be bolder, because they have a closer, more-informed relationship with constituents; and, in any event, there is no place to hide. Where good information is lacking, drivel flows back and forth between constituents and their elected officials; officials can hide behind aphorisms, and the public has a difficult time digging them out with a rehash of the week's editorials. Available information, however, allows people to dig in more on their elected officials; likewise, it allows officials to cite specifics in the record, to explain actions that contradict the wishes of the editorialists.

I believe we'll see a shift in voters' concerns, at least to some degree, away from the litmus of liberal or conservative toward a litmus of “conversative” or “non-conversative”, with the conversative candidates having the advantage....And, I believe that this openness signifies great things for representative democracy.

Twelve comments follow. One is by somebody named Do What Is Right. It reads: “Hey Steven, if you really wanted transparency, why do the great GOP go behind closed doors in the capitol during the legislative sessions? You guys are such hypocrites. Explain that one Steven.”

Steve replies:

Case in point on transparency. You are repeating the media's mantra. Tell me how many times the House Republican caucus went behind closed doors last session. Answer: zero. Yet the media keeps on printing it, so it must be true.

And, that's why it's still early in the story of How Democracy Works in the networked age. We not only need to be weaned from media, but from the need for mediation. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote this brief against mediation:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand... nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books. You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.

Whitman also called himself a “poet of democracy” and wrote much about the subject. Here's one sample, from Specimen Days & Collect:

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs....I submit, therefore, that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future.

That future is here. The time has come to complete Lincoln and Whitman's unfinished business.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and a fellow with both Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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