Cynicism Is Killing Our Democracy. Only Political Participation Can Save It.
"Hope" and "change" works both ways, says a former Obama campaign leader. It's time to inspire people who believe their voice doesn't matter before it's too late.
Michael Slaby is a global leader in digital and social media strategy, technology and data analytics, and explores how together they can elevate mission-driven organizations. For Michael, it is not only about developing the necessary technological platform, but understanding what it is that brings people together to take action online, as well as offline. Currently, he is Managing Partner of Timshel—a new company working to help solve social, civic, and humanitarian problems via better technology, engagement capabilities development, and creative capital. Previously he was a Fellow at Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In 2012, when the Obama administration began gearing up for re-election, one of the first calls went to Michael Slaby, who was chief technology officer in 2008—when the historical campaign leveraged the internet and social media to raise funds and organize volunteers in ways that had never been seen before.
Michael helped lead Obama for America as Chief Integration and Innovation Officer in 2012, overseeing the CTO, CIO, and CAO, in order to ensure effective implementation and integration of technology across the entire campaign.
Michael Slaby: I think the 2016 election has been eye-opening for me personally, and there's been a lot of personal reflection around “what does it mean to be involved?” for a lot of people. I think—and I hope—that we take President Trump's victory as a warning of what disengagement can cost us.
And I think our leaders have failed to lead on a lot of different dimensions. I think government has lost a productive culture of public service that makes it hard to participate, it makes it hard to understand the value of engaging in politics. Our first associations with the word “politician” is like, corruption/dishonesty. Public service should be about our highest ideals, it should be about our collective success, it should be about what is best and most ambitious for a group of people working together around a shared sense of purpose.
So I think as people wake up to “Wait a second, how is this possible here?” I think there's a couple of things at work there.
One is: as the country becomes more urban, and urban centers are decidedly more liberal, we have a sense that the country is much more liberal than it actually is. Turns out it's a really big country. It turns out there's a lot of people who still don't live in cities.
It turns out there are a lot of sort of frustrated people who live in cities who believed in Obama because of the promises he made about changing the system that Trump was a much more natural successor to than Secretary Clinton was.
And so I think the concept of someone who is frustrated and anxious seeing President Obama fail to largely change the culture of politics, see Trump as the bull for the china shop and there's a pretty straight line, and this is a lot easier to see in retrospect. I thought Secretary Clinton was going to win, so this is all with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of thought, and a lot of talking to a lot of people in a lot of places that aren't Chicago and aren't downtown New York.
But what I think this has awakened in people is the reality that people have to participate. There's this saying that “history is decided by the people that show up,” there's like nine different versions of that aphorism that are largely true in a participatory democracy. And I think we've gotten a little lazy, and I think President Trump scares a lot of people... and in a way that has been amazing to watch new people engage in politics.
And I think the question, to get back to where the question started, which is: “Okay, where do people begin?” This is where the increased access that technology provides to low barriers to participation are really, really great.
So you can start participating in politics just by being more aware, being more educated, being more plugged in to what is actually happening with leaders, with leadership, with campaigns at a level of just access to that process is so much greater than it's ever been.
But there's a choice and a desire on our side that we have to go and seek out those answers to those questions. And then there are so many ways to start to engage in simple ways: calling congressmen, writing letters, like everything from 5 Calls to Resistbot, and these are all progressive-oriented things but all of the same tactics apply for conservatives, and a lot of what we see with progresses really embracing the power of being face-to-face with elected officials in town halls was something that the Tea Party used to incredible effect ten years ago in the 2010 midterms in terms of particular just post the Obama election.
And so these tools themselves are not particularly partisan, but they've reduced the barrier to participation sufficiently that it makes it easier for sort of first-time activists to get started. And what I would say is that there's a couple of sort of lies at the heart of progressive politics that are super problematic.
One of them is that all politics is local. I would say that when Tip O'Neill said that in the '80s, “local” was meant to be an analog for what matters most to you. The true statement is: all politics is personal, what matters to you is what matters to you and that might be local, or it might not be.
And the thing that I always say to people is to start. Don't wait for... there is no magic way to participate. We live in a republic. We have to win elections to gain power. We don't live in a direct democracy. So like large scale open-source policymaking is interesting as a listening exercise and for understanding communities and for surfacing ideas that we haven't thought of, but we don't live in a direct democracy where open-source policy actually creates policy directly, so we have to participate in all kinds of ways.
I think one of the places where we need more attention is converting this sort of generic resistance participation we see on the left right now into political power.
So in L.A., in the city elections back in March, fewer people voted than turned out for the Women's March on inauguration day. That's maybe just a function of the fact that it wasn't a contested mayoral election and it's sort of off-cycle and not competitive, but an 11-and-a-half percent voter participation turn-out rate should scare all of us.
That's a problem because we do live in a republic, we do need to believe in the value of participating in this process. And this is where leadership matters a lot. This is where reclaiming the sort of joy and optimism and public service about politics and government is something that has to be a coherent priority of the party, of our leaders, of people running for office on both sides, or we're going to be in a place where democracy is a system of faith; and cynicism is extremely dangerous and long-term corrosive.
There's been a lot of talk about the normalization of propaganda and lying since President Trump took office and I think those things are super problematic because the institutions of the system matter a lot more than the personalities. And when personalities start trumping institutions, no pun intended, or pun intended I guess, you start leaning toward autocracy pretty fast and that's nowhere we want to go.
The net neutrality argument usually gets wrapped around things like Netflix and cable television and sort of commercial content distribution, that kind of thing.
I think the place where net neutrality is particularly important is around activism and around governments.
If companies can change the way they route packets and prioritize content based on financial decisions they can also do it based on ideological decisions. And you start inching your way toward government-run media, it's not a long jump between that question and government-managed suppression of participation from insurgent or counter opinion ideas. That's not a long leap. I worry less about the commercial problems because I think, look, if Netflix has to pay more for faster pipes they'll figure it out—like they'll figure out how to make money, they'll figure out how to get more episodes of House of Cards. It will work out for them. They will make money.
Activists not being able to use services like Twilio effectively to call Congress because net neutrality has changed the way that people have access to information is potentially catastrophic for people understanding that their participation is valuable.
And one of the things that these tools, like I said when we were thinking about this question of new activism and giving more access to more participation, if people don't believe that that participation will work or it literally won't work, now we're starting to create barriers to participation, and in a participatory democracy no barriers to participation are good.
Whether they're voting, whether it's content, whether it's listening, whether it's being able to hold leaders to account, limits on any of those things are bad.
"History is decided by the people that show up," and about 60 million people — about 1/5th of the country — showed up to vote for a boorish reality TV star with no experience in politics. It shocked just about everyone, namely the news media and coastal liberals who thought that Hilary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency. Michael Slaby—who worked for Obama in the crucial 2012 elections—shows that Trump is part of a direct line from the "hope / change" motif of Barack Obama, albeit on a much darker and aggressive tone. So how do we get back to a level of normality? We engage the majority of America—the 65% of Americans that believe Trump is doing a terrible job—and try and get them to actively participate in politics and show that their voice matters.
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