Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Jacksonian Democracy for the 21st Century

I watched the Democratic Presidential debate on Monday night and wanted to offer a few thoughts on CNN’s innovative youtube format, as well as a Lincoln tie-in. Hang with me.

For those of you who didn’t see it, CNN offered Americans the chance to ask the Democratic candidates a question. Thousands of folks videotaped themselves asking a question, uploaded it to the popular video site, and a lucky dozen or so had their video played. CNN’s Anderson Cooper moderated the debate, but all of the questions were from the American public.

I thought the format was fantastic, but I was most impressed by how well the American public handled themselves. It was refreshing to hear questions that were unexpected. Here’s an example:

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Rob Porter, and I'm from Irvine, California. I have a question for Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, how would you define the word "liberal?" And would you use this word to describe yourself? Thank you.

I liked the question more than Ms. Clinton’s answer. She defined liberal as “a word that originally meant that you were for freedom…” But she rejected the term and claimed she would rather be known as a “progressive.” Fair enough.

Here’s another question I don’t think a traditional journalist would have asked:

QUESTION: Hello. This question is for all of the candidates. Partisanship played a major role in why nothing can be done in Washington today. All of you say you will be able to work with Republicans. Well, here's a test. If you had to pick any Republican member of Congress or Republican governor to be your running mate, who would it be?

Of course, the candidates scrambled to claim Chuck Hagel, but it was fun to watch them squirm.

Here’s one more that seemed to surprise them:

QUESTION: And we're from Pennsylvania, and my question is to all the candidates, and it's regarding the national minimum wage. Congress seems to never have a problem when it comes time to give themselves a raise. But when it came time to increase the minimum wage, they had a problem. My question to the candidates: If you're elected to serve, would you be willing to do this service for the next four years and be paid the national minimum wage?

Good stuff. But what does any of this have to do with Lincoln studies? Plenty!

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were one of the most famous debates in American history. They made headlines in newspapers throughout the country, but more impressively, they captured the attention of thousands across Illinois who turned out to listen. Keep in mind, these debates occurred in the middle of a hot, muggy, Illinois summer and early fall. The debates went on for three hours, but when they were finished, the crowds often stayed to listen to additional speakers.

Would we do that today? Do our political debates set ratings records? So what accounts for the difference between 1858 and 2007?

For one thing, the issues are quite different. America had a sense in 1858 that the slavery issue was tearing the country apart. Lincoln and Douglas represented at least two sides of a contentious argument. But we face momentous issues today, don’t we?

Though I can think of several possible differences between then and now, one sticks out: money. Money divides more than it unites, but nowhere is it more divisive than in political culture.

Politicians like Lincoln had an advantage over modern politicians. Lincoln did not need to raise tens of millions of dollars for his campaign chest. He needed to be well-versed in the issues of the day, willing and able to communicate his position, and people turned out to hear him. Can the same be said for today?

Yes and no. The public sphere is open to us all, but we are currently redefining what we mean by the public sphere. For example, though we have the right to, few of us stand in the public square and deliver stump speeches anymore. Why don’t we? For one thing, we have found more effective ways of communicating, but each requires money. Money buys access. In addition to everyday folks, lobbyists and special interest groups donate money to a politician, hoping to make an ally, while the politician spends that money to buy increasingly costly radio, print, and television ads, hoping to earn votes.

Mass communication has tremendous advantages. Today, I am willing to say we know more about each of our political candidates than at any point in American history. However, I fear the high costs of running campaigns tend to alienate us from our political candidates. Do our politicians reflect who we are as Americans today?

Here’s another way to put it. In 2003, 40% of United States Senators were millionaires, while just 10% reported their net worth below $100,000. How does that compare to the rest of American society? Believe me, I’m not beating up on the rich. I only bring it up to try to explain why the American public appears less interested in politics today than in 1858. Perhaps money explains some of it?

But here’s the good news: the debate on Monday night got me thinking about the internet and political campaigns. Certainly the folks who recorded and uploaded their questions felt more engaged in the political process. But more importantly, the internet has the ability to level the playing field for American politicians and the electorate. Without spending thousands on airtime or production, anyone with a political message now has the ability to get their platform out to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Perhaps that is Jacksonian Democracy for the 21st Century!

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