Web Activism Hints at New Political Force

Opinion: Post-Katrina postings by Jeff Jarvis and Doc Searls suggest that there is a new movement forming outside the mainstream parties.

Measuring political success can often be an elusive and difficult task. One reason: Reaction is often as important, sometimes more so, than action.

We got a demonstration of this maxim this week in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of political orientation, pretty much everyone agrees that the U.S. reaction was not what it should have been. The stronger reaction that so many folks working online are having to the crisis and its aftermath could be offering us a rare glimpse at the true beginnings of a new and interesting political movement.

Writing on his Web site, Buzzmachine, New York publishing executive Jeff Jarvis has called for something hes calling Recovery 2.0. In a post subtitled "A Call to Convene" Jarvis is asking many of the most influential folks in his sector of the Internet—the media savvy Web log space—to create a way to assist in disasters like Katrina.

"The Web, too, was not fully prepared for the disaster of Katrina. If wed truly learned the lessons of the tsunami and even 9/11, there was more we could have done to be ready to help," Jarvis wrote in his initial posting on the topic which now has a wiki workspace where people can start to organize themselves.

For insiders—folks living and working on the Web—this is nothing new. An idea comes along, someone sets up a Web site, theres a little talk, maybe some media attention. It either takes hold—Craigslist, for instance—or it fades away. We move on.

Although its early, there is some evidence that Jarvis thinking is taking hold. Another established online figure, Doc Searls, co-author of the ClueTrain Manifesto, published a series of thoughts similar to Jarvis on his site.

"Thus will begin our War on Error.

"Whatever else it causes, this war will change national priorities. Also social and personal ones.

"With nobody but God and ourselves to blame, and with nobody but ourselves to help, we will put people first. And we will do our best to protect our civilization from acts of God for which people must be prepared."

Searls "War on Error"—his call to make government more responsive—is a good companion to Jarvis call to make the online world function better during a crisis like Hurricane Katrina. And both men, in their writing, embody a unique kind of thinking about politics and community affairs that may become more visible and increasingly more powerful in the coming years.

What Jarvis and Searls are saying runs contrary to the political philosophies espoused by the main political parties. Democrats, with their faith in the state, and Republicans, with their belief in the power of self-reliance, have different attitudes about how to handle emergencies.

Neither Jarvis or Searls are steeped in politics, and each has been critical of the candidates they support. And they dont support the same folks. While Searls is left-leaning, Jarvis tilts a bit to the right. Searls is a West Coast quasi-hippie; Jarvis is an East Coast business and editorial guy.

This isnt the idealistic speechifying that the Internet has tended to foster among its early users; nor is it the dismissive disregard for new, Web-based solutions of the political insider. And its mission—to make the functions of government, reacting to an emergency, for instance—work better through smarter use of technology, better organization of people and resources, better preparation is fully in keeping with a point of view that is typical of a group I call Progressive libertarians.

Progressive libertarians—named after the late 19th and early 20th Century political movement that shaped much of U.S. politics as we currently know it—are thick on the ground here in Northern California and in Silicon Valley. These are the folks who helped elect Arnold Schwarznegger governor of the state, believing him when he said that he would fix state government and make it more responsive.

These are the same people who supported John Kerrys presidential bid, worried not just about the war in Iraq but about the Bush administrations failure to support embryonic stem cell research.

/zimages/6/28571.gifFormer Green Beret stays online in Katrinas wake. Click here to read more.

These are folks who believe in outsourcing—opposed by Democrats like Kerry—and strongly object to the immigration system as it currently exists (and is supported by Republicans) because it keeps talented folks off their payrolls.

In essence, these are people who follow their own sense of what works and what doesnt when it comes to politics. They demand efficiency and technological sophistication as well as business sense. They are not party loyal. They are not dogmatic, and they are making "independent" and "none of the above" the fastest-growing political party in California right now.

Like their turn-of-the-last-century forefathers, Progressive libertarians are the closest thing U.S. politics has to a third party right now. But theyre not organized, theyre disconnected and, like Jarvis and Searls, are working individually and with little co-ordination. But Jarvis and Searls have taken a big step toward turning frustration, a bit of anger and no shortage of intellectual assets into an organized entity. Its an important notion and one well worth watching.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at mailbox@chrisnolan.com.