Tech Playing Larger Role in Politics

Politicians are happily claiming affiliation with technology as a way to say both that they're hip and they can fundraise.

Theres a funny thing going on in Democratic Party politics. Tech is getting important. The industry and its innovations are breaking out of their roles as campaign cash ATMs.

Donating money is, of course, good for business. But having people who share your view of the world is even better. So this new familiarity means good things for the industrys political initiatives.

Take a look at the insiders game thats being played in the race to become head of the Democratic Party. In the lead is Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate whose use of technology introduced regular not-so-wired Americans to, blogs and powerful online fundraising and organizing efforts such as

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the lessons of the Dean campaign.

The result? Broad outside-the-business interest in software such as that produced at CivicSpace labs. Theres also a general understanding that social networking—MeetUp is one in a growing category—can be a kind of viral marketing device that works in politics and business. Theres a sense that bloggers and other independent commentators working online can make a difference (and can be used as advertising vehicles). All of these realizations are spawning business efforts, but theyre also changing political discourse.

How? Well, lets go back to that DNC chairmans race. Online commentators—and I am one of them—are using technology to publish their opinions on whats going on. Candidates are using Google AdWords to promote themselves. What was once a closed process of interest to a relative handful of people is now open to pretty much anyone with an Internet connection.

Whats even more interesting is how candidates are happily claiming affiliation with the tech business. Theyre using it as a way to say both that theyre hip—they "get it"—and that they can fundraise. Anyone who winced at the phrase "dot.bomb" but now sees plenty of ads for online pet supplies knows what a sea change this is for techs reputation.

Former TechNet Democratic organizer Donnie Fowler wants to be DNC Chairman. So does Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network. And they both stress their ties to an industry that includes many generous party donors.

Fowler has venture capitalist Mark Gorenberg in his corner. Rosenberg has another venture capitalist, Andy Rappaport and his wife Deborah, who supported Deans presidential bid. This is the kind of subtle stuff that speaks loud and clear to party insiders. The Rappaports gave more than $100,000 to Democrats last year. And Gorenberg helped Democratic nominee John Kerry raise more than $30 million in California alone. So Fowler and Rosenberg are making the point that they know people who can raise—or give—lots of money.

Fowler and Dean in particular also spend a great deal of time talking about how they want to use technology to decentralize the party. This is perhaps one of the biggest changes that could be made in how political movements are structured. If either man does what he says he wants to do—push decision making out of the Democrats Washington, D.C., headquarters—then it will be a kind of acceptance of techs style of doing business.

Thats an acceptance thats going to echo through Congress very quickly and cross party lines. Politicians who see their business—politics—shifting its focus to smaller, state-level organizations (and the Internet-driven fundraising machines that can work alongside them) are going to have experience that lets them judge techs thinking about its business differently.

They may not learn the difference between Perl or C++, but theyre going to see the importance of networks, not centralization, the power of collaboration and cooperation.

Tech talk about the semantic Web, the network being the computer, the need for open-source sharing and the viability of file sharing will become tangible as elected officials and their staffers use digital products and innovations in ways that are not now familiar. Thats going to lead, indirectly, to a comfort with policies tech folks would like to see implemented. So the battle over immigration might start to incorporate a discussion about science and math training.

Policy debates about copyright might start to reflect a familiarity with speed and convenience of digital copying instead of theft. The stock option conversation might really become a discussion about how small, decentralized companies attract employees, not a giant corporate boogeyman for politicians to bash.

Now, none of this is going to happen overnight. But its going to happen. Techs not back from the public beating it took in the 2001 stock market crash, but its making steady progress toward rehabilitation. And this election year was very much a part of that shift.

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