The Internet: More Than Just Cute Videos of Kittens on YouTube

This election season, Americans are utilizing new Internet technology to vastly expand their ability to participate in our democracy. From Internet fundraising to last week’s introduction of You2Gov.com, our government is starting to adopt a form of direct democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers that was previously impossible to carry out. People are using the ’net as their own printing press, giving them a voice and a reach they’ve never had before.

In the fullest expression of direct democracy, every citizen would vote on every piece of legislation; representative democracy was, until now, the best compromise. However, the dynamic has been transformed: the new challenge is how to give many millions of citizens a voice in government without overwhelming the system.

For example, many politicians, particularly members of Congress, tell me that the mass form-letter e-mails they get from unknown parties aren’t particularly useful. These politicians will typically ignore e-mails from outside their constituency. What they want are e-mails from voters — members of their community to whom representatives know they hold themselves accountable, and there’s a new website that may e-mail the writer’s area and validate his or her political opinion.

You2Gov.com doesn’t eliminate the simplicity of the e-mail form letter, but it confirms the constituent’s zip code. Congressional representatives and Hill staffers tell me that messages from verified people in their districts carry more weight than blind e-mails that could be mass-produced. Communications from constituents are read, but form e-mails may not be — confirming the e-mail writer’s location may bring us one step closer to direct democracy.

Furthermore, even incumbents with the best of intentions and resources find it necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising, not governing. Instead, Internet technology makes it possible to raise money with less effort and more community involvement. The Internet offers politicians time to do the job they’ve been hired for while they leave the majority of fundraising to someone else. This wave of technological ingenuity is already in full force.

Democrat Howard Dean pioneered the use of the Internet for organizing and fundraising in the 2004 election bid. He was ahead of his time, though; broadband technology had not yet reached critical mass, and the existing technology could not support the resulting spike in traffic.

Given the low cost of Web advertising of any sort, the 2008 election has started the transition from very expensive, top-down campaigns to less-expensive, network-driven ones. Following Dean’s example, candidates this year are using the ’net for fundraising and organizing with extraordinary effect. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has raised approximately $454 million so far in this election, 27 percent more than John Kerry raised in 2004 and almost 50 percent more than John McCain has raised in his bid for the presidency.

This fundraising success would be impossible without a deliberate strategy to focus on the Internet as an available tool. Barack Obama’s campaign is based largely on community networking with an eye towards boosting grassroots participation in government. John McCain’s campaign has not tapped into the Internet as systematically or as effectively, but many McCain supporters are using it among themselves.

Other Internet technology is anticipated to change the way the average American uses his or her government to make real changes on a local level. I am eager to see these advances revolutionize the relationship people have with their government.

New York and San Francisco (my current home) are experimenting with telephone customer-service systems like 311 that will quickly be complemented by Internet-based systems. Soon, people will be able to use the Internet to navigate through local government and get things done — the ultimate in pothole politics.

However it’s done, we’re on the verge of realizing the vision of democracy upon which America was formed, from the grass roots up. It’s time to recognize what’s happening and get serious about nurturing it.