Occupy the Government

NEW YORK – Too much of the talk nowadays about how social media has affected politics focuses on awareness: People adopt social media, discover they are not alone, start to protest, and eventually their “Facebook revolution” overwhelms those in power. But, even if such a revolution succeeds, that is only the beginning. What happens next?

As an angel investor in start-up companies and a sometime philanthropist, I have the luxury of traveling the world and talking with articulate people who give me an unofficial, clear-eyed view of how most countries actually work. It is a depressing picture. I have been to roughly 70 countries, and have discovered roughly 70 different ways to run things badly.

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Many of these countries have elections; but, as has been said of Russia, while the candidates may surprise, the outcome is predictable. Often a single individual or a small group has almost absolute power. Seemingly independent businesses are mostly beholden to government supporters, who typically take a cut of the proceeds.

Even in real democracies, where people vote freely, things are going badly, as in Greece. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, democratization incites further protests, or even violence.

Yes, things seem to be improving in Burma, and Zimbabwe appears quiet; but Hungary – and, more recently, South Africa – has enacted laws to suppress information that might prove damaging not to government in general, but to those in power. Riots and protests are erupting around the world.

In the United States and elsewhere, elected governments used to take care of the people, but now, like companies colluding against their customers to keep out disruptive newcomers, they have become a separate interest group. Political parties exchange benefits and ignore those who elected them.

The power to tax, for example, is often used more to employ civil servants or workers in favored companies than to provide services the people want. Lacking competition, inefficient bureaucracies focus more on maintaining jobs than on serving putative customers.

One part of the problem is how money stacks the deck, not just for dictatorships that wield de facto control over the economy, but also in democratic countries, where business is free to use its resources to “influence” government. Political parties claim to embody ideas and worldviews, but in many ways they are simply self-perpetuating money machines.

Recent rebellions worldwide show that some citizens recognize that they are being offered false choices, often no more meaningful than the choice between brands of toothpaste. Social networking has given them new tools of protest to topple governments, but what is also needed are new ways to make government operate effectively and accountably.

I don't know what should be done, but I am supporting one effort, called Americans Elect, to push for radical change in the US. Perhaps it can be a model elsewhere.

The group’s first task is simply to win the right to put a candidate on the ballot in all 50 US states to run against the conventional slate of one Democrat and one Republican. That has not been easy, and the fight continues state by state. Rules and regulations in most states protect the two parties that have held sway in US politics for more than a century. It turns out that most state bureaucracies, theoretically accountable to the public, in fact are accountable to the parties, and do everything they can to keep Americans Elect from claiming its right to a spot on the ballot next fall.

Many commentators claim that Americans Elect will simply take votes from the incumbents but have no lasting impact. But I am hoping that widespread frustration will leverage the group’s ability to to encourage a genuine shift towards a new approach.

Americans Elect will use a long series of competitions and online and offline convocations to select a candidate who will be beholden to millions of people at large, rather than to a smaller group of big donors whose interests the candidate must serve. Its plan is cunning: the original funders are being asked for loans, not donations; that way, they will have no further claim on Americans Elect after they are repaid. (Obviously, they will be a natural source of money for the next round, so the group has to become self-sustaining on the basis of small donations, or it will become beholden as well.)

That money is supposed to go toward reaching a broad public who will respond via the Internet, making small donations and joining in a national effort to suggest and choose a third candidate for president. This candidate will not try to divide and polarize the country, but rather will unite it around common-sense approaches to fiscal policy, education, health care, and other long-term issues. In the end, people do not want to be sold the same old toothpaste when what they really need is serious dental work.

Americans Elect is not the only organization with this vision, but it is the only one with the necessary scale. I recently saw a presentation by a company called 5ivePoints, which helps people running campaigns, often volunteers, reach out to their Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other friends. Of course, 5ivePoints will be going after the established parties as customers, but my hope is that groups like Americans Elect, and eventually protesters in other countries, will start to use it (or something similar). If the point is to replace our current governments with more accountable models, we need to use new online tools not only to throw out the old, but also to bring in the new.