I’m of the decidedly conventional view that as government’s role in shaping market outcomes increases, more resources will be devoted to winning elections, whether channeled through tightly regulated campaign contributions (a dimishing slice of the money) or through a constellation of notionally non-profit groups and for-profit media.* And so I found Michael Shear’s story on a group called American Bridge 21st Century interesting, and somewhat dispiriting:
Aaron Fielding quietly stalks his prey — Republicans — with his video camera, patiently waiting for a political moment worthy of YouTube.
At 27, he is a full-time “tracker” for American Bridge 21st Century, a new Democratic organization that aims to record every handshake, every utterance by Republican candidates in 2011 and 2012, looking for gotcha moments that could derail political ambitions or provide fodder for television advertisements by liberal groups next year.
The organization has hired a dozen professional trackers like Mr. Fielding, outfitted them with the latest high-tech cameras and computers and positioned them in key states where Republican candidates are busy chattering away to voters. If all works as planned, incriminating moments captured by American Bridge will quickly become part of the political bloodstream.
Republican groups are catching up.
My immediate reaction to this is: what a tragic waste of human talent. Opening up peanut butter jars for elderly gentlemen and ladies would be a more productive endeavor.
My second reaction is that I look favorably on “countersurveillance” of police officers, as in the case of CopRecorder, as I think it helps keep public officials honest, so perhaps I’m contradicting myself in a telling way? That is, perhaps I identify more with candidates and public officials, and thus believe that this level of scrutiny is a bad thing only because of this shared sense of identification. I don’t believe that this is true, and of course the potential for abuse in the two cases is very different.
Basically, and this relates to the Marc Dunkelman thesis, I believe that politicians have to use different kinds of language to effectively communicate with different constituencies in a diverse democracy. Yet as a culture we prize authenticity and consistency. Constructive politics under conditions of normative diversity require heavy reliance on incompletely theorized agreements — we agree to agree, in part because we don’t closely examine why we’ve reached a shared conclusion. Tools that “keep us honest,” or rather than keep us consistent, make it harder for public figures to connect with constituencies beyond core constituencies, i.e., constituencies that are strategically central.
If I had to guess, I’d suggest that the American Bridge 21st Century thesis goes something like this: Republicans are dominant in regions of the country where the folk culture is defined by sensibilities and practices that are antithetical to politically engaged and relatively affluent citizens in other (geographic or psychographic) regions of the country. What a Republican candidate might interpret as an innocent if off-color joke along the lines of a “Take my wife, please!” will, if all goes well for American Bridge 21st Century, inflame some left-of-center constituency on grounds of injury to identity. Suffice it to say, we see a version of this kind of citizen journalism on the right, Shirley Sherrod, the NPR hidden camera footage, etc. When Barack Obama made his remark about “bitter clingers,” one could interpret it as a candidate who has actually spent time with cultural conservatives in rural Pennsylvania trying to “translate” their sensibilities to an audience of wealthy San Francisco liberals who were inclined to dismiss conservatives as nothing more than irrational or indeed subrational bigots. That doesn’t make the remarks any less condescending, but it does provide useful context.
So what is the downside of all of this? It further shrinks the pool of people who would ever imagine running for office to masochists, megalomaniacs, and the otherwise incurably self-regarding and insane. We’re fairly far along that road now, I realize, and social technologies of this kind of directional: yes, there might be a backlash here and there, but my guess is that there is no turning back.
* By notionally non-profit, I’m referring to the idea, lucidly expressed by Vance Fried, that non-profits often generate large “profits”:
How can a nonprofit have profits? Simply put, it happens when the revenue the nonprofit derives from providing a service exceeds the cost of providing that service. This might seem obvious, but it is often assumed that putatively “nonprofit” schools, by virtue of their designation, never make a profit from providing a particular service. In addition, such schools never report that they have realized profits, even when the profits happen to be large. Why? Because profits are reported as expenses.
Moreover, non-profits tend to provide employees with higher levels of psychic income. The young women and men working for American Bridge 21st Century believe that they are playing an essential role in a noble and important cause, an understanding that can serve as a substitute for more traditional forms of compensation but that — crucially — can’t be taxed.
Randall Parker has written some entertaining posts on this phenomenon. (I don’t endorse Parker’s conclusions, but his analysis is certainly provocative.)