Politicians have it hard these days.
We live in a representative democracy, where we essentially hire people to make decisions on our behalf on the local, state and national levels. They compete with a select group of our peers to make decisions on our behalf, and we agree to allow them to use their judgment and the noise we make as constituents, to sway them to see issues our way. more often than not, we are simply asking them to use their judgment to do what they think is best on our behalf. And our remedy, if we think they are making bad decisions, is to be vocal, both by contacting them with our opinion, or by simply not voting for them at the next election cycle.
But like any kid running for class president knows, your ability to win and election is based on many things, including overall popularity with your constituents, their perception of how well or poorly you’ve done the job in the past (or what they think of your competitor’s job in office), and how motivated they are to see you in (or out) of office. Your positions are simply things the voters can identify with and how they form opinions of you, and how voters can bench mark how consistent you are in your voting versus beliefs and campaign promises.
With the advent of the ‘net and social media, the public has WAY more information about politicians than they ever had before, ranging from personal biographies to voting records. While few people other than journalists take the time to deeply investigate a candidate and their consistency in representing their constituents and their beliefs, there’s nothing stopping the average citizen from being more informed about politics and policy than ever before. Likewise, this makes our representatives more accountable for their behavior, good and bad, than at any time in the past.
This shifts the game of representation considerably than ever before. A politician now has no reason not to know what his constituents think- there’s everything from email, to Twitter to Facebook, where he or she can get a much more accurate view of how their voters feel on issues, and could easily even poll interested parties through twitter polls, their website or other gadgets on the issues confronting the governing body, regardless of the size. Now while this will reflect largely the public adopting digital communication channels over those who don’t engage as much this way, (say, senior citizens, to pick a group who is less active this way than other demographics) it is not a bad “dipstick” test of the feelings of the engaged electorate. And after all, if they are willing to subscribe to your newsletter/podcast/twitter feed/blog, they are more likely to be folks who will also spread your message and advocate for you than the average voter.
The adoption of digital communication channels in politics not only gives politicians a way to broadcast their views to voters, but it finally allows voters to talk back, in real time, to their politicians and help government on every level become more responsive to citizen’s needs. Rather than waiting three election cycles to get legislation that’s causing havoc to be changed, the results can be tallied much more quickly and policy/help delivered where and when it’s needed.
The problem with this, of course, is that a vocal minority can begin to hijack a system for their own purposes if they are willing to organize and be heard. You could look at the Tea Party Movement or Occupy Wallstreet as these organizations, that have sprung up through social media to start to try and get their voices and opinions heard, in order to effect change. We can easily tar these people as being extremists, but the honest truth is that they are citizens, with opinions that have gathered together to be heard, one of the oldest traditions in our democracy, and a principal on which our country was founded. Whether you agree or disagree with either of these groups, I think you have to admire their willingness to engage in a political process and speak for change about a system they feel is broken and unresponsive to their needs.
I think we’re seeing a vast amount of people dissatisfied with a political system that seems to have become much more about the personalities and hiring/firing of media superstars than it is about being representative of the people and working towards what’s good for the majority of the population and the Country as a whole, rather than a small slice of vocal campaign donors. While we still have to wait to see what these folks will do at the ballot box, one thing is for sure- the time for politicians to assume they can substitute their own selfish interests and judgment for that of their constituents is coming to an end. Transparency and accountability will ensure that politicians on every side of the spectrum will need to be more rather than less responsive, or suffer the consequences.
This is, of course, how it should be. We should expect our public figures to be working on our behalf, as fiduciaries, every bit as much as stock holders expect a board of directors to act responsibly on their behalf. Any politician who is not actively seeking to engage with their direct constituent base is being short-sighted, and I suspect will be surprised when they find themselves out of a job. Social media and digital democracy are going to demand more direct representation and action, not less, and constituent services will be the hallmark of your success or failure.
And that’s just how it should always be in a democracy.