August 7, 2007

Guest Commentary: The power to change the game

Politics is the only game for grown-ups, Robert Heinlein wrote in his novel “Double Star.” That was 50 years ago, and he was looking hundreds of years ahead, envisioning a world in which politicians are under public scrutiny, cameras everywhere, most of the time — even when zipping around the solar system. That was prescient enough in television’s infancy, and perhaps he didn’t foresee an Internet, but an important principle unfolds: Grown-ups require that their games be played on level fields. And this, Heinlein certainly foresaw.Last month’s CNN/YouTube debate, which gathered the Democratic presidential candidates before an array of questioners drawn from the cyberspace masses, was nothing short of a watershed in U.S. political history. Never mind that neither the questions nor the answers were particularly fresh; never mind that the format was mind-numbingly ordinary, compared with what might have been. The fact of the event itself — that technology can bring candidate and electorate together in a new, more immediate way than any we’ve seen since politicians stumped from the backs of trains — is giving us a new playing field. A much more level playing field than many of us have ever seen before.And — surprise! — the Republicans don’t much like it. The CNN/YouTube challenge of bringing voters that far in, where they can ask anything they please, dismantles decades of painstaking effort in leveraging the layers of media as insulation against exactly the anything-goes dynamic that YouTube enables. A level playing field can be murder on the shins.Layers of media insulation amount to surplus power, in the hands of politicians willing to work it: power to equivocate; power to dissemble; power to control dialogues; power, ultimately, to step around accountability, to avoid the will of the people, to create plausible deniability.In this particular instance, of course, the equivocation centers on Iraq, which Democrats want to talk about, and Republicans don’t, and acquiescence to the CNN/YouTube challenge represents more than a bit of discomfort from harsh media lights: It represents a tilt of the field, one that forces a change of position. The problem being, of course, that Democrats aren’t the only ones wanting this dialogue; most of the electorate is clamoring for it at this point.If you are John McCain or Ron Paul, of course, this isn’t trouble, because you are out in the open on Iraq already. YouTube poses no threat. If you are Rudy Giuliani, though, you are dodging a lot more than just Iraq — the questions you don’t want but might be faced with in a YouTube event are all over the map. If you are Mitt Romney, you’re just not clever enough to stare the beast in the eye and know it’s about to eat you.But if you’re part of the Republican pack, you have to submit to what your Democratic peers have already endured: a sea change in the U.S. electorate, a new dynamic, a return to the back-of-the-train. The message of the YouTube debates is simple: We can now come to you. We don’t need to wait for you to come to us. If you want to run in the United States, from now on, you will speak to our issues.And if anybody thinks the YouTube debate format is a fad, or that its impact is going to do anything but exponentially propagate, consider this. We already have Second Life and other virtual communities, in concert with what has already been done in last month’s debate, to demonstrate the next step: the Virtual Town Hall, bringing together candidates spread all over the map with voters of all race, color and creed by the hundreds. Once it starts, we will never let it stop, and the candidate who refuses to participate will blink like red neon. The technology is already in place.The questions will get better. The candidates will get better. The innovations in format will be there. But the genie is out of the bottle. Whatever happens next, this election or next, happens on a new playing field, in the context of redistributed power.We changed the field, even if only a little bit; but in so doing, we’ve changed the game.We can change the game.Now that’s power. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com