Here Comes Democracy!

(Before you finish reading this, you’ll want to sign up for this policy forum.)

Ben Goddard’s most recent column in The Hill is called “Obama Marketing Lesson,” and he reviews how the Internet and savvy use of media energized President-Elect Obama’s campaign effort. “[S]ocial networks have returned as one of the most powerful forces in politics,” he says.

President-elect Obama has a database of some 10 million names and e-mail addresses, and those who built it have made clear they’ll activate that army to support the new president. MoveOn.org is already preparing its supporters to advocate for progressive policies. Groups like Divided We Fail, Healthcare for America Now! and the American Medical Association are already running television and online campaigns to advocate for healthcare reform.

(Goddard will be lending some of his insights about communications strategies to secure the country against fear and overreaction at our January conference on counterterrorism strategy, by the way.)

The substance of the campaigns he talks about might be far from encouraging for libertarians. None of these are limited government advocates. Politicized online social networks could be the agar in which a new mobocracy grows - something our republican form of government was designed to prevent.

But what’s the solution? To oppose democracy and an active citizenry? Other than restoring constitutional limits on government, I don’t think so. As with speech, the cure for bad democracy is more of it, but good.

It’s not a given that online politics will amount to crowds of avatars with digital pitchforks and torches. The Internet is a fertile medium for careful debate about our public policies. Social networks can be smart and informed - if they get the data.

That process is starting. USASpending.gov delivers data about where federal contracting dollars and grant awards go. This was a project of President-Elect Barack Obama who, with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), made transparency a signature issue in the Senate. The non-profit effort that broke ground for this is OMBWatch’s FedSpending.org, which logged its 10 millionth search in June.

My humble effort, WashingtonWatch.com, attaches cost estimates to the bills in Congress and recently welcomed its millionth visitor for the year. The Sunlight Foundation has a list of insanely useful Web sites, each exposing some dimension of government action to greater public scrutiny. The organization is dedicated to developing a stable of private, non-profit, and volunteer efforts that promise revolutionary change once they can access standardized, structured, and open government data.

And that’s the bottleneck: access to good data. Government information now comes to us mediated by government Web sites and government-defined database queries. Getting the raw data would allow all kinds of actors to generate all kinds of new information about government. All citizens would have better information to work with, not only about taxes and spending, but about the results of government programs.

Libertarians bet that this would reduce demand for government. Liberals and progressives believe that this would deliver on the promise of government. If either side wins, we’re better off than we are here in the dark disappointment of government today.

On December 10th, the Cato Institute is having a policy forum on this topic. The title is “Just Give us the Data!