Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Technological revolutions and the growth of the recall

Biographies and the “great man” theory helped draw me and countless others into history, but the focus on one or a few people can be overrated. In history and politics, the importance of basic technological changes frequently only gets its due after the fact. In the electoral realm, the perceived personality of the candidate/elected official is given great weight and credit for triumphs to the detriment of more prosaic, and more effective, tools.
Even when these tools are covered, reporters might focus on the hot new item (blogs in 2004, social networking in 2008) and give short-thrift to the changes that basic computing power, cell phones and everyday technological changes have on the electoral process. For instance, the power of the original killer app, the spreadsheet, in transforming campaigning is immense. It is also rarely mentioned.
I think the growth of the use of the recall is a direct outgrowth of tech. Why has the recall expanded in recent years? It’s not just because of the overblown heightened political divisiveness. What, people weren’t upset in the 1930s? The election of 1816 didn’t happen? It is certainly true that each individual instance of a recall is an example of voter anger. But taken together they point to something else. That something is widespread technological changes that have reshaped the electoral environment.
In this op-ed for Politico, I try to delve into this subject. 
Wisconsin shows the change. 20 or 30 years ago, almost no one would have cared about the goings on in the Wisconsin legislature. Few would have followed a California gubernatorial recall campaign. But the collapse of barriers in news coverage and political activity has changed that. We can follow all the twists and turns, and with one-click donations, try to impact the outcome. We’ve already seen that money now can flood a campaign without the official even asking, what I call the “Joe Wilson effect.”
Even the basic tech helps. If someone is mounting a recall, they now have spreadsheets and data that will allow them to properly target exactly which person is most likely to sign a petition, and vote in an election. This radically slices down the cost of a campaign. So to, cell phones let you keep in touch with the troops in the field. And yes, social networks allow an easy way to spread the word, without any filtering.
When people talk about voter anger and try to make a specific recall, or in the case of Wisconsin 16 of them, seem to be extraordinary, it pays to keep in mind what technology has done to make recalls more ordinary than ever.

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