In 2008, Barack Obama raised $750 million, half a billion of it online for his campaign for president. More importantly, President Obama built an army of 4 million donors in 2008 (3 million online), and twice that many volunteers. Make no mistake: what changed the nature of presidential politics in 2008 was not the Internet; it was people. But the Internet was and remains an invaluable tool in civic and political action as much as in commerce. It was this groundbreaking Internet campaign that raised up that army of small donors, that engaged 8 million campaign volunteers, aided an incredibly effective ground campaign to get people out to vote (including through Facebook and text messages) and gave ordinary Americans an avenue to storm the White House.
I got my introduction to what the Internet can do to politics about four years before President Obama’s campaign. Back in 2003-04, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s campaign was a pioneer in the use of the Internet to raise money and recruit volunteers. The first national campaign to have an effective blog, Dean signed up 600,000 people online (then unheard of), yours truly among them. We called it a campaign of mouse pads and shoe leathers.
Right after that campaign ended, I remained involved in the political process, but I also needed a way to put my thoughts down on the digital paper. So I started using Google’s Blogger as a platform, and would write down my thoughts when I felt warranted. But my writing passions really ignited in late 2009 in the midst of the health care reform debate —an issue I had long been passionate about. As an ardent supporter of health care reform, seeing too much misinformation about the reform proposal coming from both the Right and the Left, I founded ThePeoplesView.net (TPV), a pragmatic progressive site with a focus towards how public policies affect ordinary people, rather than how a given bill satisfies a given list of ideological checkmarks.
Fortunately for me, people across the country who were looking for facts and a focus on people in public policy appreciated my writing, and started spreading the word. Some by email, some by social networks, and some by purely word of mouth. Today, The People’s View is a site with multiple authors, a bustling community of participants and a pretty good following for an effort that is purely a labor of love. People don’t read us because we break news. We don’t. People read us because we help them make sense of the news on a few select topics.
Were it not for the Internet, I doubt anyone would get a chance to notice what I—and now we— at ThePeoplesView.net were doing. The Internet gave me a tool not just to express myself but to have that work noticed. Not simply to present my thoughts but to learn from other sharply intelligent people who came to participate on TPV.
This is the true beauty of the Internet in civic and political life (and in other aspects of life, too). It gives you the opportunity to express yourself, inform yourself, learn, teach, and do something. If you think you are too busy to wade through the details of a proposed law, chances are that others have already done the research for you. All you need to do is find a site with well researched information and read it. If you think your one vote is not enough to make a difference, you can take 10 of your friends on Facebook to the polls with you. Come on, you know you spend all that time on Facebook anyway. If you think there is an issue in your community (geographic, ethnic, or otherwise) that needs more attention than it is getting, and that you have something of substance to offer, you can easily start your own blog and educate and communicate with others. You can use the Internet to contact your local newspaper, your member of Congress, and even the President of the United States. The Internet will not change the world for you. But you can use it to affect the change that you think is needed.
I believe that the potential of the Internet as a tool to transform civic engagement is not at a peak but rather at a mere beginning. As I write this article, the California state legislature is tackling a bill to implement a fully secure online voter registration process. The White House recently launched a new online project to let citizens create our own petitions and gain support for it. You can now watch live political events on YouTube, and ask questions to the President (or to Republican presidential candidates in their debates) via Facebook and Twitter.
At the core of any effective democracy is an informed and active citizenry, and apathy is its worst enemy. The government you elect (or choose to let others elect by not exercising your democratic rights) decides what kind of road you drive on, what kind of schools your children go to, what protections you enjoy as a consumer, patient and citizen, and what kind of future we will all live in. Politics is too important to be left up to the politicians.
By many measures, the Indian American community is better situated than many to take advantage of the digital age to affect positive change in our civic lives. This is a community flush with technology professionals who are not only in a position to use technology proficiently in all parts of their lives but in a position to improve the ease of use and access for others to existing technologies. In addition, as technology brings the developed world closer and closer to the emerging economies, Indian Americans are well positioned not just to take advantage of the expanding marketplace of goods and services but the revolutionizing marketplace of ideas in an interconnected globe. We are not strangers to democracy or to activism, and the Internet has taken away all the excuses for apathy. It’s time to use the resources at your fingertips to get engaged in the civil life and shake off that apathy that keeps us from it.
Spandan Chakrabarti, a resident of Silicon Valley, is the Founder and Editor of The People’s View (ThePeoplesView.net), a site devoted to examining issues from a liberal perspective on factual bases where he blogs under the pseudonym “Deaniac83.” His passions include health care policy, economic policy and LGBT civil rights. In his day job, Spandan is a Fund Development professional for a nonprofit health education and services organization.