Politics 2.0

The Internet has changed presidential politics forever – and mostly for the better

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As I write this column, the U.S. presidential race is still tighter than a pair of $2 shoes. But this time around, it might not be hanging chads or hockey moms that determine who wins. It might just be the Internet.

[Note: I wrote this in September. Obviously things changed a bit since then.]

Of course, we’ve felt the Net’s influence on politics for a while. In the 2004 race Howard Dean’s campaign proved you could raise vast amounts of cash virtually overnight using the Web. Now every political group does it. And blogs on both sides of the political spectrum weighed in heavily — pushing overlooked stories into the spotlight, fact checking candidates and the media, and sometimes churning out heaps of dubious information.

But 2008 is the year the Web changed presidential politics forever. The biggest reason is something that wasn’t around in 2004: YouTube.

Viral video claimed its first political scalp in 2006, when Virginia Senator George Allen tossed a racial epithet at one of his opponent’s campaign volunteers, who happened to be holding a video camera at the time. Whether Allen was truly racist or just dangerously ignorant of viral video no longer matters. Thanks in part to the “macaca” video on YouTube, long shot Jim Webb squeaked out a narrow victory – and altered the face of the U.S. Senate.

Now YouTube has become an essential part of nearly every campaign. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced their historic runs for president, they did it via online video. This year, voters were subjected to endless replays of video gaffes by both major candidates, as well as the antics of Obama Girl and McCain Girl.

But the real political revolution is about more than gotcha videos, it’s about ideas. Over the past year new services have emerged that are trying to raise the level of discourse on the Web without the poisonous partisan rhetoric.

For example, at Opposing Views, handpicked experts post pro and con arguments on hot-button topics like intelligent design or legalizing marijuana. Readers can weigh in, add their comments, and vote for the arguments they agree with – but only if they abide by the rules of “Civility 101” and avoid personal attacks on other participants.

Where I Stand works in a similar fashion, but it’s more like a social network built around opinions on a wide range of topics, including politics. Site members can propose opinions like “Computer literacy is an important qualification for the presidency.” Site editors then decide if the opinion is unbiased, relevant, and reasonable enough to be posted. Once an opinion is approved, voters can agree or disagree, post comments, and connect with other members of the site.

Govit does something similar with pending legislation. You can view the text of the proposed law, vote yes or no, then send your opinions to your elected representatives.

But Politics 2.0 is not just reader polls and opinions. There are non-partisan sites like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, which help voters separate the spin and the slime from the truth. There’s the newly revamped OpenSecrets.org, which lets citizens follow the money trail from donors to recipients at every level of government.

There’s even a site where you can pick 30-second political commercials to show on cable TV. At SaysMe.TV you can select a prefab ad or upload your own broadcast-quality spot, then buy air time in more than 20 cities nationwide. Prices range from $30 for a late-night slot on the Sci Fi Channel in Charlotte to $2000+ for prime time on CNN in New York.

As the Web makes more knowledge and more tools available, we’re witnessing the democratization of democracy — taking power away from political parties and the media and putting into the hands of voters. No matter who captures the White House this year, in the long run there will be one clear winner: We the people.

A slightly different version of this post originally appeared in the November issue of US Airways Magazine.

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